Monday, October 11, 2010

Waiting for Superwoman?

Stop waiting. She’s already here. For years, teacher, author, ‘a cityReader’ contributor, Mary Leonhardt, has been making the case for the ultimate importance of reading. Here she is again.

Three years ago the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) published a follow-up study, titled To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence, to their 2004 study titled Reading at Risk. According to NEA Chairman, Dana Gioia: “new NEA study is the first to bring together reliable, nationally representative data, including everything the federal government knows about reading. This study shows the startling declines, in how much and how well Americans read, that are adversely affecting this country's culture, economy, and civic life as well as our children's educational achievement."

Among their more depressing findings: Reading scores for 12 graders “fell significantly” from 1992 to 2005. Out of 31 industrial nations, our 15 year olds rank only fifteenth, behind such countries as Poland and Korea.

How can this be? Between 2004 and 2007 money was poured into education. States were busy perfecting their assessment tests. The charter school movement flourished. Parents were made an important part of most school achievement plans. And yet . . . and yet . . .

Reading scores, according to the NEA's research, continued to plummet.

I don't think there is any mystery here. From my vantage point, in high school English classrooms across the country, from 1971 until 2008, I watched it happen.

What did I see? I saw a larger and larger number of student who, simply, rarely read. In the 1970s we worried about television pulling kids away from books. But few houses had more than one television then, and no one had cable, or DVD players, or iPods, or video games, or cell phones, or netbooks, or iPads. A paperback was still the easiest portable entertainment to carry around.

I remember, growing up in the 1950's, trading comic books and Nancy Drew books. That was our entertainment. Television was very new, and the one or two channels we could get rarely had anything on we were interested in. But a new Nancy Drew book? I would have sold my little sisters for one.

Fast forward to today. According to ‘USA Today’, in an article in their September 21, 2006 issue, the average American home now has more television sets than people. When you add in all of the other digital entertainment available to kids, is it any surprise that reading scores are plummeting?

This isn't a little matter. The NEA study documents how low reading scores have a global effect in our country―not just on reading scores, but on total educational achievement as well as participation in civic and professional life.

Is there any way to turn this around? Should we just throw up our hands? I don't think we need to, but I believe there needs to be a sea change in how we think about reading.

First of all, reading isn't just another skill kids need to be taught, along with science and math and history and health―a skill that kids learn by being taught phonics and then carefully, and tediously, pulled through reading material that the school has approved.

That's how it's been done for over a hundred years, but it didn't use to matter much, because so many children use to have rich, independent reading lives of their own. But today, that is becoming rarer and rarer. Another finding of the NEA report was that, on average, young people ages 15 to 24 spend almost two hours a day watching television, but only seven minutes doing reading for pleasure

The education establishment needs to understand that until kids are turned into enthusiastic, avid readers, any educational gains will be minimal. Kids used to come to school as avid readers; now they don't. Schools need to pick up the slack, and take responsibility for turning kids into avid readers.

How can schools do this? This is the elementary school I would love to see.

The school entrance way wouldn't just have posters and announcements and signs pointing the way to the office. There would be bookcases loaded with reading material children can easily love: picture books, series books, comics, magazines―whatever children in that school love to read. Some comfortable chairs scattered around would be a nice touch as well.

Once in the main office, a visitor would see more kid-friendly reading material―on the tables, on the counters, wherever a child can reach. The school secretary would have a paperback or magazine on her desk, for reading when she has a spare minute. The principal should have plenty of reading material in his office, both for him and for any visitors to pick up.

There would be reading material scattered through the hallways―on tables, in little bookcases. Wherever there is room.

The classrooms would, of course, be loaded with reading material, as would the nurse's office, the cafeteria, the guidance office, and especially the school buses.

This is all too expensive, you say? And you couldn't possibly keep track of all these books and magazines. Wouldn't kids just walk off with them?

More expensive books could be in the school library―hardcover books, research material, expensive new fiction. The reading material scattered around the school could be bought on eBay or coaxed from parents, or funded with donations. Or perhaps the school could do with fewer computers or televisions. Imagine all of the Harry Potter books you could buy for the price of one computer.

Once the school has a rich collection of reading material everywhere, teachers should be told that at least three hours out of every school day need to be given to the children for silent reading of books of their own choice. And teachers, and the rest of the school staff, also need to be told that students must see them reading―nor for the whole three hours, perhaps, but for a good part of the school day.

I'm guessing that the response of most teachers would be twofold: one, that children would never sit still that long to just read and, two, that they have much too much other material they have to cover.

I have found with children that, if everyone else is reading, they will usually at least look quietly at reading material, if the material is interesting enough. Teachers should be told to use whatever material works. Comic books, joke books, ‘Sports Illustrated for Kids’, ‘Captain Underpants’ books . . . whatever it takes. And the reading time could initially be broken into half hour segments. As the kids become more interested in reading, and start finding books they enjoy, teachers will be surprised to find them begging for more quiet reading time.

Between quiet reading times, teachers can teach other subjects. But the exciting part of this is that a teacher will find, if she has lots of historical fiction around, and children's books about science and nature, that kids will pick these up during their free reading time, and eventually have a much more in-depth understanding of many disciplines. There is no better teacher than a book.

For this to work, however, educators have to give up a number of cherished beliefs. One is that kids shouldn't read “trashy” books. For my money, that is equivalent to saying that someone should die of thirst if they have to drink tap water rather than Poland Springs. Get kids reading first; you can introduce them to more complex literature later.

The other deeply ingrained belief in our culture is that just sitting around reading is somehow a waste of time. Kids should go to school to study and work hard. How can spending three hours a day reading ‘Goosebump’ books be a worthwhile use of time?

And maybe that points up the worst problem of all. We give lip service to the value of being a good reader, but are uneasy about having children who want to spend an entire afternoon curled up in their room with their collection of ‘Road and Track’ magazines. We're happier if they are playing soccer, or answering comprehension questions on boring, assigned school reading. Teachers think they need to be up in the front of the room all the time, teaching. What will their principal think if they are spending hours a day just presiding over students reading? Shouldn't they have the kids . . . memorizing vocabulary . . .or outlining chapters . . . anything other than just hunkered down over a Harry Potter book?

No. No more than good soccer coaches should have their players spend most of their time watching soccer videos or listening to lectures about how to play soccer. Good players need to play. Good readers need to read. Practice isn't everything, but it's close. And practicing an activity you love almost guarantees you will become pretty good at it.

You want reading scores to go up? Make sure our young people are spending two or three hours a day reading material they love. Then you can start talking about charter schools, and uniforms, and new math programs, and merit pay for teachers, and all of the other reform-of-the-day proposals.

First we have to get serious about reading.

‘a cityreader’ Turns One

Our desire to get the schools here to teach kids to read well is stronger than when we started

This ‘acityReader’ you’re looking at is #12.
That makes it a year since we started. Each issue and the accompanying blog ( been solely devoted to discussing the city’s school kids and reading. It’s the newsletter’s belief that there is no excuse for the school system here to oversee its children for 12 years, and at the end of those 12 years, not to have all the graduates reading at a high level. Many kids, unable to read, just drop out before the 12 years are finished. It’s a sorry situation, that, like pigeons, and gum on the sidewalk, is accepted as a normal urban tradition. ‘acityReader’ can’t accept that. We’ll keep highlighting the failure.

Her Kindle Looked Unforgiving From Where I Sat

Above the clouds she had nothing nice to hold on to

Ten days ago I’m on a plane from Salt Lake City. I’m on the aisle. The flight is smooth enough that I can read without tensing every time we shimmy through clouds, or worse, shimmy when we’re in clear blue sky. What’s that about? Anyway, I’m reading the biography of John Cheever in a beautiful Vintage paperback. I look at the cover from time to time. I look at the top of the book with my finger marking my place to see how far I am. Across the aisle and back one, a woman is reading a Kindle. She’s reading one of those Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books. I looked down at it when I was coming back from the lavatory. I’m thinking, then and now, what’s the beauty in that? No wonderful cover like I’ve got. No texture. No tactile way to measure progress. No bending of the book to show you’ve been there. It was like wearing plastic Levis.

I didn’t buy Exley because of its cover. But when I got it home and looked at it, I was wowed. Here’s a novel that has at its center a favorite book of the main character’s father. A real book. A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley. You may have read it. You should. The main character goes in search of the author. Look how the cover designer, Jamie Keenan, gives personality to the book. A wonderful book, by the way.