Saturday, June 5, 2010

Teaching & Learning: Sapphire's Novel Push and Movie Precious

Earlier this year, I read Sapphire's novel Push and saw the movie Precious based on the novel. In this post, I will first describe Sapphire's main character, Precious, and her background, and then explore what the novel says about teaching and learning. I will draw mostly from the novel, but I mention the movie because many people recognize Precious but not Push.


Claireece Precious Jones is Sapphire's main character in Push. Precious' background is bleak.

ABUSE. Precious lives in poverty with her physically and emotionally abusive mother, Mary Lee Johnson, in a Harlem tenement. Mary's boyfriend, Carl Kenwood Jones, is Precious' father and also the father of Precious' two children. In other words, Precious' own father has been abusing Precious sexually since Precious was three years old. At age twelve, Precious gave birth to a daughter with Down's Syndrome, whom she calls Little Mongo and who is being raised by Precious' maternal grandmother. At age sixteen, Precious is again pregnant and eventually gives birth to a son, whom she names Abdul Jamal Louis Jones and whom she is committed to raising herself.

Mary is deeply jealous of Carl's attraction to Precious. In a conversation with Precious' social worker, Mary reveals the depth of the twisted relationships in the family when she describes the first time Carl had sex with Precious. All three were in bed together, Carl on one side of Mary engaging in sex, and three-year-old Precious on the other side drinking from her baby bottle. Suddenly Carl rolled over to Precious, removed her diaper, and tried to insert his penis into little Precious' vagina. Here is what Mary has to say about that: "You know what trip me out is it almost can go in Precious! I think she some kinda freak baby then" (pages 135-136).

Carl is raping his and Mary's three-year-old daughter, and Mary thinks Precious is a freak???

OBESITY AND ISOLATION. In addition to (and probably because of) the depth of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, Precious is obese. This isolates her from her peers, who make fun of her.

FAILURE AT SCHOOL. At age sixteen, Precious is only in the ninth grade in public school. She has managed to reach ninth grade with no ability to read and write.

The novel opens with Precious' suspension from public school at age sixteen because she is pregnant. The school counselor suggests that Precious may want to attend an alternative school called Higher Education Alternative / Each One Teach One. Something about this appeals to Precious, and she decides to give Each One Teach One a try.


Each One Teach One has two levels of classes: GED preparation and basic literacy. Precious is tested and placed in basic literacy, where she encounters an extraordinary teacher, Ms. Blue Rain.

FAILURE-BASED VS. SUCCESS-BASED TEACHING. Precious' whole public school experience has been based on failure. She sits through classes that she fails to understand. She is given textbooks that she fails to make sense of. She is given tests that she fails to pass. Public school is all about what Precious can't do. Here is what Precious says about tests: "There has always been something wrong wif the tesses. The tesses paint a picture of me wif no brain. The tesses paint a picture of me an' my muver - my whole family, we more than dumb, we invisible" (page 30).

In Blue Rain's class, Precious has her very first experience of success in school. Right away. Blue has the class start at the very beginning - with a review of the alphabet and the sounds of the letters. Precious actually knows this, but she has never been able to translate this knowledge into making sense of printed words. Now, however, Blue is asking the class to write - to keep a journal. Blue instructs the students to write whatever is on their minds, using what they know of the sounds of the letters to spell out what they want to say. Blue will then go from desk to desk, read what each student has written, and help with spelling. Precious writes this:

li Mg o mi m

Blue asks Precious to read what she's written. Precious reads: "Little Mongo on my mind." Blue writes the correct spelling underneath Precious' writing. Blue then writes:

Who is Little Mongo?

Blue reads this question to Precious and asks Precious to write her response. Precious writes:

Litte mony is mi cie

Blue then reads what Precious has written: "Little Mongo is my child?" Precious notices the question in Blue's voice, and enthusiastically responds, "Yes." Here is how Precious expresses her excitement: "Miz Rain know Little Mongo is my child 'cause I wrote it in my journal. I am happy to be writing. I am happy to be in school. Miz Rain say we gonna write everyday, that mean home too. 'N she gonna write back everyday. Thas great" (page 62).

Blue has given Precious the experience of communicating her thoughts in writing - and it's very exciting! Precious has actually said something to Blue by writing words on paper, and Blue has received Precious' message. Precious wants to do more of this - to write words that will express her thoughts to others.

The public school reads "Litte mony is mi cie" and sees complete illiteracy and failure. Blue Rain reads "Litte mony is mi cie" and sees emerging literacy that will grow and blossom. What constitutes failure for the public school constitutes success in Blue's classroom - and Precious responds to the experience of success with excitement and motivation to keep writing.

Let's look at what Precious' first two sentences ("lil Mg o mi m" and "Litte mony is mi cie") reveal about her knowledge of the printed word.

  • All the letters Precious writes actually do occur in the words she wants to use. The one exception is the "y" in "mony," meaning "Mongo."
  • While not consistent in this, Precious knows that names and sentences begin with capital letters. In her first sentence she capitalizes "Mg" for "Mongo," and in the second she capitalizes the first word, "Litte."
  • Seeing Blue's correct spelling for "lil Mg o mi m," Precious moves closer to the correct spelling of "Little" and "Mongo" in her second sentence.
  • I find the word "cie" for "child" to be extraordinary. First, Precious senses that the word "child" has some length to it. Her "cie" for "child" goes much further than her "m" for "mind" in her first sentence. Second, Precious somehow knows that the first letter of "child" is "c" even though "child" does not start with a typical "c" sound. Somehow Precious has picked up either that "child" starts with "c" or that the "ch" sound involves a "c." Third, Precious includes "ie" in her spelling of "child." She appears to know that "ie" is a frequent vowel combination in words and possibly even that what we call the long sound of a vowel, such as the "i" as pronounced in "child," often involves two vowels - even though she wouldn't be able to express her knowledge like that.
From being exposed to printed text all her life, though unable to read it, Precious has been absorbing knowledge about writing. She knows more than she realizes she knows - and Blue's success-based teaching brings forth this unconscious knowledge. When Precious hears Blue's instructions to keep a journal, she is incredulous, wondering how on earth she's supposed to keep a journal when she doesn't know how to write. Blue shows Precious - by creating an experience of successful writing for her - that she knows enough to start communicating with writing immediately. Together, they will call forth Precious' unconscious knowledge and build on it, moving from success to success.

LEARNING RATE. Push illustrates something very important about learning rate. Learning does not grow arithmetically but geometrically. This is especially true of learning a skill. One's skill level does not increase increment by increment. At first, it seems to. But then, after practicing a skill at a particular level for some time, one finds that one experiences a sudden leap in what one can do.

After two years with Blue Rain in Each One Teach One, Precious has reached a level of 2.8 in reading ability. This means that she is reading on a second grade level, close to third grade. She will need to reach an eighth grade level in reading before she can exit the basic literacy class and move into the GED class. To Precious' social worker, this seems futile. Taking two years to reach second grade level indicates to the social worker that Precious will need six more years to reach the level of eighth grade - and only then can Precious even begin her GED preparation. The social worker feels that she cannot justify keeping Precious in Each One Teach One but that Precious should enroll in a program to be trained for a menial job.

But a surprise awaits. The next time Precious is tested at Each One Teach One, her reading level has shot up from 2.8 to 7.8. Precious is nearly at eighth grade reading level, having advanced five grade levels in perhaps six months.

This seems incredible, but it really is the way we learn. We work and work and work to reach a basic level of competence - and suddenly we find that we can soar.

I found this to be true with learning the foot pedals on the organ. I remember practicing my first piece with foot pedals very, very slowly. Over and over and over for several weeks, I practiced - at a very slow tempo. Then, one day, I went in for my practice and sensed that I "had" it - I had absorbed the topography of the foot pedals, as it were. I sat down at the organ and decided to try the piece at its (considerably faster) normal tempo. I played straight through at the normal tempo with ease. I did not have to go through stages of increasing the tempo bit by bit. The slow practice had caused me to internalize what I needed to learn. (Obviously, I was not, at this point, capable of advanced quick and fancy foot-work with organ foot pedals, but I had learned a simple piece using foot pedals that was difficult for me at first - and I had learned it in a leap, not by increments.)

Just so, Precious worked and worked and worked at the first grade and then the second grade level with her reading - until she had absorbed enough about how the written word works so that she could read material of much greater complexity. And the leap happened nearly overnight.

INTELLECTUAL BLOSSOMING. Blue Rain is able to see the potential in her basic literacy students, who have reached adolescence or adulthood without having learned to read or write, and to open the world of literacy to them - a world where fascinating stories and information are waiting to be read and to which they themselves can contribute with their own writing. Precious' intellectual life unfolds and blossoms with Blue's teaching. Precious discovers a deep love of reading and writing, and at the end of the novel, we sense that Precious will go on for her GED and then into higher education.

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