Monday, March 8, 2010


Dear President Obama,

I know that you are worried about education: Different tests? More charter schools? Curriculum change? Uniforms? What will work?

After teaching for 37 years, in public, private, and parochial schools across the country, I can tell you. Really. Here it is. One sentence: Turn kids into avid readers.

Too simple? Put avid readers next to students who work hard but only read what they have to, if that. You’ll find the avid readers read better, write better, follow lectures more easily, concentrate more deeply, have larger frames of reference that make learning history and science easier, and are even more likely to excel in math.

A habit of avid reading develops intelligence. Avid readers understand what they read in more complex, nuanced ways. They actually listen more astutely than mediocre or poor readers, because of the way they’ve learned to process language. They become more interested in various fields of study. They just know more.

Avid reading changes everything.

How can schools develop avid readers? I’ve done it for years, using rules I developed after reading I Robot by Isaac Asimov. I used his concept of priority. The first rule is absolute. The second rule is absolute unless it interferes with the first rule; the first rule always has priority. The third rule is absolute unless it interferes with the first or second rule, and so on.

Rule I: Children must learn to love reading.

Find whatever books, whatever comics, whatever magazines will lure them into a literate world. A boy loves dogs: scour libraries and bookstores for dog books. A teenage girl is falling apart because of family troubles: find books about girls in similar circumstances, books that illuminate her world. A teenage boy is rebellious and hates school: he might like the Robert Parker Spenser books. Sports lovers? Hard to beat Sports Illustrated.

What breaks this rule is forcing a child or teenager to read a book he doesn’t like.

Rule 2: Children must form a habit of reading.

But remember, in helping children form this habit, you don’t want to make reading an unpleasant chore. It’s very easy for schools to have children be enthusiastic about quiet reading time. The teacher just needs to have plenty of high interest reading material available, and then say vaguely, “Oh, let’s see. We could do those math worksheets, or maybe read for a bit.” After awhile, the students will be begging for quiet reading time.

Rule 3: Children should develop analytic reading skills.

But again, only if this doesn’t interfere with Rule 1 and Rule 2. But once children are enjoying reading, and developing a habit of reading, a teacher can begin to ask them questions that will stretch their minds a bit. Which is the best fantasy series? The most evil villain? And what is evil, anyway? When children are all reading different books, the discussions can be wide-ranging and fascinating.

Rule 4: Children should learn to appreciate some of the great literature of the world.

If you have students who love reading, have a habit of reading, and can intelligently discuss their reading, then, and only then, you can introduce them to some of the wonderful classics in our language. But be prepared to back off if you see they are not yet able to love these books. What’s the point of teaching teenagers to hate Charles Dickens?

None of these rules is followed now; in fact, because of testing mandates and entrenched curriculum and fearful teachers and clueless administrators, these rules are twisted and jumped and spat upon on a daily basis. Make the whole class read the same, boring book! Hand out those prepared, tedious questions! What? You mean some of the students won’t, or can’t, read Ethan Frome? Bad students!

And then, sometime on a Friday night, go visit a mall filled with teenagers. Do you see them hanging around the bookstore, trying to sneak in a little reading time for free?

No, of course you don’t. The whole of our education problem can be seen in those bookstore aisles empty of young people.

We are raising a nation of kids who don’t like to read, and don’t read very much. Until that changes, no other educational reform will matter very much.


Mary Leonhardt

Photo Caption: President Obama, we've read that your mother showered you with books.

American Idol. (He was mine for sure.)

Willie Mays. The name alone still moves me.

Once in the college years, someone from school, a guy I hardly hung with, ran into someone in another city who knew me. After my name came up, to certify I was indeed the guy in question, the classmate said, “You mean the guy who wears black Converse and likes Willie Mays?” Oh, did I like Willie Mays. Countless nights were spent in boarding school and college, with me, the lone Mays guy, arguing with the smug, deluded, true believers in Mickey Mantle, whom I didn’t mind, but come on! The contrarian in me certainly understands the impulse to say Mantle, or Roberto Clemente, were better. But they weren’t. In my lifetime, only Michael Jordan was in his league. I’ve often told the oldest of my three daughters: If I’d known I wasn’t going to have a son, I’d have named you Willie.

Photo Caption: I’d know that smile, that ear, that thumb, anywhere.
Nose In It:

Looking at the stack of four books, you think of two things quickly. One, how much cooler they look than the Kindle version could possibly look. Two, what a motley mix it is. The books have nothing in common. They could be gifts waiting to be wrapped for three different graduates, and a parent. Two are new. Food Rules by Michael Pollan. Get it. If you change one thing in your diet, it’s worth the eleven bucks. It’s a nice little book to hold, too. Then there’s Roger Rosenblatt’s Making Toast. I’d buy it for you. And you’d be thankful, even if it’s about the sudden death of his 38-year-old daughter. It’s the most human book. Go to it.

Two oldies. Joseph Mitchell’s legendary Up in the Old Hotel. I read a few selections again. Maybe I’ve read them too often, like I’ve looked at Cartier-Bresson’s photos too many times. They didn’t do it for me this time. Unlike Don DeLillo’s Underworld which I’m reading for the second time. Better than whatever movie won the Oscar.

A must-read. 20 times a year.