HAVING READ this month's selection of the Wellwood International Elementary School Book Club, I expected 9- and 10-year-olds to be lost in the book's allegory and symbolism, to be turned off by its adult themes.
I was wrong. When I visited the Pikesville public school last week, this eager bunch of fourth- and fifth-graders taught me more about Holes, the novel by Louis Sacher, than I would have dreamed of teaching them. They took me by the hand and led me through the darkly humorous and redemptive tale of Stanley Yelnats (note the palindrome), unjustly sentenced to boot camp, where he's forced daily to dig a hole exactly five feet wide and five feet deep.
We also talked about other books the club has discussed this year, always on the third Thursday evening of the month. They liked them all, they said: The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket, Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo, Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos. But that hasn't stopped them from disagreeing vociferously during the monthly club discussions.
"As the club matures, it's easier for kids to disagree and ask questions of each other," said Fran Glick, the Wellwood librarian who launched the book club two years ago and who selects the books to be read.
Book clubs, of course, are maybe a dollar a dozen among adults. Glick belongs to one with women friends. My wife attends a monthly club with her college alumnae. And many schools have "book clubs" that are really part of their language arts curriculum.
But Wellwood's club is unusual. It's a parent-child club. Parents read the books with their kids and participate in the monthly club meetings. "Families are looking for things that are good to do together," said Glick. "What better family activity than reading?"
The kids I talked to last week said their book club routines vary. In some families, parents and children read the club selection separately. In others, they read to each other, perhaps alternating chapters. Kate Ziegelstein, 10, reads the club selection "every spare minute I have, and when I'm done I give it to my parents."
David Schectman, a mile-a-minute talker at age 9, said the club books are superior to "the stuff we're forced to read in the fourth grade," some of which he said is "mindless drivel."
And sharing their views with parents at club meetings has been an eye-opener, said Michelle Silverman, 10. "I always walk out with more questions than I come in with."
Roy Ziegelstein, Kate's dad, expressed a parent's view.
"I love hearing how the characters take on lives of their own in the children's minds, so that each young reader has his or her own image of each character and each scene," he said. "Movies, television, the Internet and computer games are primitive by comparison."
Glick's selection for next month is Love That Dog, a novel by Newbery Medal winner Sharon Creech about a boy who discovers the power and pleasure of poetry. It's written in free verse.
"They'll love it," said Glick.
'Ready!' for higher scores
In 1998, City Springs Elementary School in East Baltimore was indistinguishable from most other high-poverty schools in the city. Two years of a program called Direct Instruction hadn't done a thing for City Springs' test scores, and critics of the program were only too happy to point that out.
But Siegfried Engelmann, who founded Direct Instruction 3 1/2 decades ago, would have none of it. The program needs more than two years, he said. He even guaranteed success, declaring, "If you can't do it at City Springs, you can't do it."
"Let's call him on it," I wrote.
Last week, nearly four years later, Lynne Cheney, wife of Vice President Dick Cheney, paid City Springs a visit to celebrate its academic ascension. The school is one of two in Baltimore (the other is Pimlico Elementary) removed from the state's list of failing schools, in part because of years of impressive test data. (Eighty-five city schools remain on the failing list.)
For example, on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, a standardized test used throughout the country, City Springs' children scored last year at or above the national average in reading and math in four of the five grades. In reading, scores rose sharply from 1998 through last year - by more than 100 percent in three of the five grades.
Direct Instruction is a highly scripted program that involves group response to teacher commands. (The sound most often heard in City Springs' hallways the day of Cheney's visit was, "Ready!") A lot of people don't like it, and that includes some people in high places at city school headquarters.
But there's the proof over four or six years, depending on how you look at it.
I called Engelmann's hand. He turned over aces.
Learning despite danger
Statistics to ponder during Black History Month:
About 140 years ago, teaching black children to read was a felony in six states, punishable by up to a year in prison, 29 lashes for the teacher and a fine. Yet, according to the Voyager Universal Literacy System - a program that in 2002 guarantees 100 percent literacy "for all reading-capable students" - up to 35 percent of 19th-century African-American children somehow learned to read.