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.