Tuesday, December 8, 2009

After all the books and articles I've read about city schools and failure and what are we going to do about them...


Books you need jump off shelves to you. That’s how I wound up with four books by Mary Leonhardt. Why I needed them I didn’t know at the time the first one jumped. My kids were beyond the age where they needed my help in reading, if they ever did. They were in college or had already graduated. I was no longer a teacher. But something had me hanging around the education books in a store somewhere, and there was Parents Who Love Reading, Kids Who Don’t. It had a boring, all-type cover and I hadn’t heard of it or Mary. But I bought it, magically, like those things happen … devoured it, like those books make you … and it became a fast friend to me, a companion like Walt Whitman’s books had once become a friend to me. In her writing I found the truth. That’s what we all look for when we cross a bookstore threshold.

When I was planning this blog, this newsletter, I took a bus to Massachusetts to meet her. She lives in Concord, retired from teaching. The first thing she said to me after hello was that she had to read to me the opening sentences of a paperback book she was reading. She was just who I hoped she would be.

A week ago she e-mailed me answers to questions I had sent her.

It appears that all cities have trouble teaching so many of their kids to read well, even though the 12 years they have them seem way more than enough time. Do you have any insight into why it's such a difficult thing to do? Or is it not so difficult and is there just something the public schools are missing?

This is what most educators don’t understand:

In reading, as in life, practice is everything. Excellent readers are kids who, somewhere along the line, fell in love with books and so spend a great deal of time reading. Schools don’t make falling in love with books a priority. Or even a goal!

Schools think kids become excellent readers by answering comprehension questions and memorizing vocabulary. Not only are they wrong about this (just ask an excellent, avid reader if he spends a lot of time filling out worksheets or memorizing vocabulary), but this belief necessitates that everyone read the same book—so the teachers can make up questions on it.

The result is that kids hate reading because they are forced to read stories and books they don’t like and then answer questions they think are stupid.

Poor kids usually don't have books at home, maybe weren't read to enough. Can school make up for that? Again, 12 years seems plenty of time to do that. Why doesn't it get done?

Sure. All educators have to do is flood every school with interesting reading material (books, comics, magazines, newspapers) and then let the kids spend at least an hour or two a day just reading. No worksheets. No memorizing vocabulary. No required reading—just free choice. And everyone needs to be reading during this time—the principal, teachers, secretaries, the nurse, coaches—everyone!

If this were done in elementary and junior high, high school kids could then be assigned more challenging titles and have fun discussing them. But our high schools are now filled with students who read poorly and see reading as only a boring chore to avoid at all costs.

If you were chosen the Schools Chancellor, what would you do the first hour in office to change things?

Oh, what a tempting question! How about this: an edict mandating that school districts spend as much on librarians and reading material for the kids as they spend on administrators and their staff.

I see great-looking young adult books in the bookstores. They look edgy. Do school libraries get those? Do they get them while they're fresh?

I have really liked almost every school librarian I’ve ever met. They are often the only adult in the school who really values reading.

That said, school libraries are very underfunded, and the money they do get is being directed to computers and other technology. New young adult fiction is usually at the bottom of the funding list.

The other point is that often the books that really turn kids into readers are series, like Goosebumps or Vampire Academy; or category fiction, like mysteries or science fiction. These are really low status books, and librarians are often afraid to order them.

The title of one of your books is ‘How to Teach a Love of Reading Without Getting Fired’. What's the deal? How could there be resistance to teaching a love of reading? How did you have to be careful when you weren't being careful?

Would you believe schools are still teaching Ethan Frome? And Great Expectations? From about sixth grade through high school, teachers are presented with a curriculum that requires them to teach books that most kids will hate.

I coach teachers on ways to avoid a poisonous, required curriculum, to get their students reading books they can love, and not get fired in the process. The critical element is that students need to be given the ability to choose most or all of their reading.

TVs, computers, cell phones, all that. Good or bad for reading?

TV: bad. Computers are better; at least they are reading a bit, and often writing, too. All of the texting that goes on with cell phones is probably good IF they are also avidly reading, since then they will acquire good grammatical structures they can use when they want to.

What reluctance did even English teachers evidence when you'd talk to them about your way of doing things?

English teachers tend to teach the way they were taught, with a required curriculum that mandates the teaching of certain books. The difficulty they have getting their whole class to read these books pales before the difficulty they envision managing a class where students can choose most of their reading.

And anyway, they have already read the books they are assigning. They have folders full of discussion questions, and tests, and vocabulary exercises on these books. Why on earth would they want to open their curriculum to books that kids choose—that maybe the teacher hasn’t read. How can she give them a test on it?

The fact that most students read little of these required books, or any other books with a required book hanging over their heads, simply doesn’t impact them. I think the reason is because most teachers don’t understand how important avid reading is for developing reading skills. So it doesn’t matter too much if students are not reading.

Are schools arranged correctly for reading?

No. Most schools are pretty sterile places. I would love to see schools with magazines in the cafeteria, comics in the nurse’s office, overflowing bookshelves lining the halls. I want to see piles of Soccer World and Sports Illustrated for Kids in the gym. I want the school buses to be awash with interesting reading material.

Why aren't kids breezing through books and reading assignments after 12 years?

This is really the heart of the issue. Kids don’t breeze through reading assignments because they don’t read well enough to do so. But since reading is a hidden skill—unlike, say, playing soccer—few people realize how poorly many children read. And they read poorly because they read so little.

Follow a child of any age throughout a school day, and see how much time this child spends in sustained, concentrated reading. Everything else in a school day is considered more important than just having a child sit and read for a block of time. Kids listen to lectures, discuss issues, answer questions, fill out worksheets, write essays . . . but just sit and read? No time for that. It’s so sad

We Learned More from a Three-Minute Record…

Bruce and Stephen King, the same week in the Times?

Well, Bruce wasn’t writing in the Times like Stephen King was, but he sure got writerly attention from David Brooks on the Op-Ed page. Brooks went on about his own ‘second’ education, the emotional education he got from listening to Bruce’s music. OK, so maybe the fervor of this recent reaction was prompted by his young daughter’s Springsteen fervor; you get like that when you’re a parent. But his message was one the readers of the city’s other dailies already knew: There’s more to school than studying.

Which brings me to the Book Review, where usually A students write about books written by other A students. Or professors write about books by other professors. But on November 29, there was Stephen King writing the cover review of a biography of Raymond Carver. Two guys who probably cut a class or two.

You can’t write a book review better than Stephen King wrote this. The A students could consult Fowler or Roget or re-read all their Edmund Wilson and not get close to it. They’ve had plenty of shots in that very Book Review and have not done what Stephen King did.
If you missed it, ‘you could look it up’, as another non-A student once said.

Photo caption: RAYMOND CARVER. For many, the face of the American short story.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Nose In It:

A new enthusiasm bites you and you race out and buy some books about it. Nothing like a new interest for over-loading on new purchases. They say that’s why golf is the perfect hobby. There’s no end to the books and magazines about it. To an avid reader, an impractical book buyer, a new pursuit gives you a determined reason to go to a new shelf in the store.

Lately, and at first sheepishly, I find myself looking at books about soccer. (Why do I, right now, want to say, I know, like Craig Ferguson says it?), I say sheepishly (rolling my eyes and grinning, again like Ferguson) because my friends don’t (worse, won’t) do soccer. So, I’m alone among my pals when it comes to subjects like the World Cup and MLS and the Tottenham Spurs. They don’t even want to hear me wonder aloud why the British press says Chelsea were beaten, or Liverpool have lost three straight. It’s like cricket to them. It can’t be, but that’s how they act about it. (They’ll watch UConn and Tennessee girls’ basketball. But not Premier League soccer. Huh?)

So they didn’t run out and buy The Beckham Experiment like I did. I read it before I’d even seen him play. Then last month I watched him two weeks in a row. He was way better than I’d been led to believe, and easily the most interesting player on the field (best too maybe, even at his age).

Then there’s Soccernomics, a Freakonomics about British soccer. A fun way to learn inside stuff about the game. A better way, and a better-written way though, is How Soccer Explains the World. If Thomas Friedman were young and interesting, this is what he might write.

I read these two books over Thanksgiving, north of Boston. The friend I stayed with had no TV, so I walked two blocks to an Irish bar to watch the Notre Dame game and a couple of other football games. Among the college football-filled screens was, surprisingly, one with a British soccer game.

Wallace Shawn, warm inside
Three Lives & Company.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

And They Call This Book Country?

New York City has a rich, alluring literary tradition, but way too many of its kids don’t know how to read.

Before you move here, you have this image of New York City as a bookish place. The photograph of the famous writers gathered at the Gotham Book Mart. The New Yorker. Random House. Esquire. The Strand. Susan Sontag. The Reading Room at the big library. Simon & Schuster. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Columbia. NYU. Tom Wolfe. The New School. Woody Allen. The New York Times Book Review. Vintage paperbacks. John Cheever. The New York Review of Books. J.D. Salinger. The Paris Review. The Algonquin. The Partisan Review. Delmore Schwartz. You even see it call itself Book Country in ads for some kind of book fest. It would be your kind of place, you believe.

Then, about the time you’re moving here a dozen years ago, you see a photo on the front page of the Times as you’re skimming the headlines before you sit down to read the the whole paper, and you think, oh, that must be a picture from some place like Harlan County, Kentucky about some hardscrabble issue, one of those features the Times does now and then about some place remote from New York and its refinement (see above). But when you’re in your seat on the couch and you look closer you’re shocked to see that it’s not Kentucky at all but a picture of one of the ball fields in New York City where the public high school teams play their games. There are other pictures inside of other sorry-looking fields. You’re not so naïve to think the public school fields would be like a suburban school’s fields, but you can’t believe that they’re that bad and you feel like a fool for being so unaware and you get angry at New York for not being a good person if that’s how it’s let its playing fields for its kids go. You hope your friends don’t see the article.

You move to Manhattan as planned and the condition of playing fields doesn’t come up much. Anyone you knew from college who lived here has moved to the suburbs, for reasons like playing fields for their kids. You do read, maybe prompted by that article, that some mogul(s) is fixing up some of the fields. That makes you feel better. You wanted more outrage from the citizenry maybe, but at least some progress is being made. What you really wish is that the Mayor would declare eminent domain and seize all sorts of parking lots and raze under-used buildings and put in rich, green, playing fields throughout the city. He could even take too-exclusive and over-blown Gramercy Park up the street from where you live and turn it into a hockey rink. You very much wish for spaces for kids here. You’re surprised no one else brings it up ever.

But that’s not really about the New York bookishness that drew you here. That’s only a first instance of how you are disabused of some of your New York illusions. Those nasty playing fields would be as nothing compared to what really starts bugging you, and what bugs you still about the city. But maybe those playing fields will come in handy as a metaphor. You’ve come to see too many of the public schools in this bookish city as just as hardscrabble and under-watered and un-tended-to as those awful-looking fields. You aren’t talking about the physical plants of the schools, though they usually look pretty uninviting. No, you are talking about the reading life of the kids in so many of those big schools.

In the neighborhood you live in now, you can stand, on a holiday, when traffic is light, in the center of the intersection in front of your apartment building, and you can see five bodegas of varying quality, two of them selling flowers. Three dry cleaners, one with washers and dryers. A newsstand with a busy lottery machine, an internet café. There’s an off-brand grocery store, a couple nail salons, two liquor stores, a CVS, a Starbucks, a Dunkin’ Donuts, two good bagel places, one pizza place (you refuse to count the one that sells a-shot-and-a-slice). Maybe a dozen restaurants, and almost that many popular bars. It’s a great neighborhood, with, hey, that exclusive park-with-a key just a short block away. It has all you wanted when you moved here. Except it doesn’t have a bookstore. The newsstand will sell you fashion magazines from Milan, muscle magazines, college hoops mags. But there’s no bookstore in sight. You can walk to Union Square to the vibrant, four-floored Barnes & Noble and you do that. And Strand is not far beyond that. But you wanted your neighborhood to have its own bookstore, a small one like where one of the bodegas is. Didn’t they say this town was Book Country?

You know you have no real reason to complain about what your immediate neighborhood lacks when you compare it to the parts of the city where those ball fields are. There aren’t really any bookstores out there. You think of that promo that said New York is Book Country. Just parts of it, they must have meant.

There’s another metaphor you use when you’re having a pint with friends and you steer the conversation your way and you start going on about kids and reading and the poor results poor kids get in reading tests. You say that in a small island culture where everyone lives near the shore, swimming is the most important skill that to needs be taught to kids so they survive, so they don’t drown. They don’t teach soccer or traditional dance steps until every child knows how to swim. When you see that your friends accept that as obvious, you bring up New York City’s schools. You say that in order to survive in this culture you have to know how to read, more than you need to know how to sing or shoot hoops or play volleyball or know who dug the Erie Canal. You have to know how to read before anything else. In order to survive really. In order not to drown.

Mayor Bloomberg, in his treasure chest campaign, so touted the success he claims he’s achieved in the schools since he took them over, you thought he was maybe going to buy an aircraft carrier and fly onto it and claim the learning war was over. You get mad thinking that he would have been cheered.

Don’t they see, kids are drowning still. A third of them can’t read well enough to pass their swimming test. And you know that many of the kids who pass are really only dog-paddling. Why does the Mayor who fastidiously saw to it that 100% of the bars complied with his no-smoking edict, why does he not demand that 100% of the city’s kids know how to read? In Cleveland, where you came from 12 years ago, there’s a plaque on the front of the big library that says: Kids Who Read Succeed. Hell, maybe Cleveland is Book Country.

You wonder if anyone really cares. It isn’t talked about much. The Times and other publications talk about numbers and unions and rubber rooms. You can’t even name the Times’ education editor. Do they have one? You wonder why mothers of kids in the schools don’t take to the street with pots and pans and march down to Chambers Street to demand that their kids be taught to read. They know what it means for their kids not to know how to read, if only from seeing the neighborhoods filled with the bodies of kids who’ve drowned.

If the Mayor can up-end centuries of tradition and outlaw tobacco from public houses, why can’t he buck Albany and the Board of Regents and turn the city’s schools into reading academies where kids will immerse themselves in books and magazines, and the state syllabus be damned. It isn’t longer hours at school the kids need, it is focused hours. It is reading time. Time to make up for what they lacked in their earliest years. The city has them for 12 years. You think about that sometimes when you remember that that’s how long ago you came here. That’s a long time.

So you decide to start ‘a cityReader’. You’re not sure what you’ll do with it. But you’re tired of talking about it. Tired of your own metaphors. You want to go around and see what the deal is…why in 12 years the schools aren’t teaching the kids to read well enough to succeed.

‘a cityReader’ will be a blog and a sheet to be passed around. Maybe every couple of weeks.

Bill Gunlocke

What’s next, knocking down McSorley’s for a Pinkberry?

The end of the classic newsstand is cause for lament (is it too late for outrage?)

You probably weren’t around for the razing of the old Penn Station (I was; I just wasn’t around here), but you’ve probably read about it. You’ve seen the pictures of the place, the way the light came in. You’ve wondered what they were thinking, to get rid of that great building and to replace it with what we have now.

What’s going on now with the newsstands is—to me—just as confusing, just as ludicrous. The great chocked-with-addictive-stuff, lumpy newsstands with their newspapers and cigarettes and candy bars and lotta-skin mags are being replaced with what looks like some things made by the people who made new phone booths when people made new phone booths. Silver steel and glass. Cold-looking. Texture-less. Airport-like.

This either matters to you, or it doesn’t. But to those who love street things and and love the old-pool-hall textures of those newsstands with their jumble of rectangles, all orderly in their way, it’s a loss equal to old Penn Station.

Photo caption: OLDSTANDS Not fastidious enough for the Mayor?
Nose In It:
Insomnia has me up in the middle of the night reading Frank O’Connor, Collected Stories. I’ve thought this before, so it’s not just a current enthusiasm: If I could take only one book, I’d take this one. Each story is its own little world, inside the already-little world of Ireland. His stories sent me to his memoir, My Father’s Son. An even littler world.

This re-reading of O’Connor may have been prompted by Ulysses and Us, a fresh new look at Joyce and 1904 Dublin. It was exciting to read, way more than I would have thought.

Orhan Pamuk’s novel is supposed to be next on my list. I don’t know though. Might be more romance than I can take. Loved Snow and Istanbul.

While not sleeping, I also read for the fifth or sixth time, The Catcher in the Rye. I first bought it off the small-town cigar store paperback rack when I was in grade school, thinking it was about baseball. (The popular cover then was an illustration of Holden with his red hunting cap on backwards.) Salinger created this wonderful voice, and you can see why young readers adopt Holden as a companion. He had a line that made me think about the recent election here: ‘In New York, boy, money really talks—I’m not kidding.’

Thursday, November 19, 2009