To the Editor:

Articles and letters about our schools confuse me. To mention a few, in the Sunday Valley News Jan. 5, Tris Wykes wrote of a young woman working 12-hour days running a Lebanon charter school, helping to rebuild the lives of “troubled” teens. In the same issue, local columnist Steve Nelson described charter schools as a cruel hoax. In an article Dec. 31, a Lebanon High School English teacher says her students can read, but don’t like to because they lack prior knowledge of the material, which can be gained only by reading. In a letter Dec. 28, a perceptive reader wonders how Claremont schools were able to function before recently filling three staff positions described in the Valley News as “critical to student needs.”

I found a clue to these puzzles in a recent Prairie Home Companion radio show. There, Garrison Keillor, who is passionate about “mean teachers,” tells of a boy who flees his school and the teachers who terrorize any child with spirit and imagination. Keillor’s feelings resonate well in the Upper Valley. Because “mean teachers” need a formal, structured classroom for their dirty work, we’ve eliminated formal, structured classrooms, especially in elementary schools. But without structure, you can’t have intellectual rigor, purposeful goals and self-discipline. Why do we think these things require “meanness”? They function very well in an atmosphere of loving kindness. But they’re gone — and learning suffers. That’s one reason parents end up teaching their children, and others turn in desperation to charter schools. But the special ed industry and publishers of busy-work workbooks are thriving, and pharmaceutical companies want a piece of the action. The Lebanon High School teacher says her students can read. However, some read by memorizing words and guessing at meaning the way they learned in a casual elementary school setting. You can’t read high school material that way. You have to know the English language, and without a structured classroom and rigorous teaching, kids can’t learn it. How did people who believe rigorous teaching is truly mean gain control of our schools?

Thomas W. Graves