Monday, October 10, 2011

What If You Couldn’t Read Well?

11 ways to see to it that our city’s school kids can.

'Like any other part of yoga, only practice will increase your aptitude.’ I read that sentence in a magazine last week. It didn’t surprise me. You either. Of course that would be the case. In every thing we try, even spiritual, graceful yoga, we don’t get good at it without practice.

When you watch a TV football game and the holder on a field goal takes the long-snapped ball and turns the laces away from the kicker’s on-rushing foot while straightening the ball and angling it just so, you wonder how he can do that in such pressure-filled, tight time and space. If he got injured, could just any guy off the bench come out and do it? No, he could not. The any-guy wouldn’t have practiced it enough. Wouldn’t have taken enough reps to do it well, if at all.

Reps are what I believe many of our city school kids don’t get enough of when it comes to reading. Without reps they have no shot of reading well. Here are some things I’d do about that:

1.) I’d look at the syllabus and see if enough time was available for kids to get the reading reps they needed. If there wasn’t enough time, I’d alter the syllabus. Or ignore it. School is the only quiet time most of the poor readers have to get up to snuff. Everything has to take second place to their getting to read well. Everything. All chancellors, principals, teachers must believe that. Because school is where it has to happen. Only place.

2.) The kids’ home environment could no longer be used as an excuse for the kids not learning to read well. Factor in the kids’ upbringing, and go from there. Maybe even more reps are needed for some kids. If so, then those reps must be gotten. There’s no option. For a kid not to learn to read well is not acceptable. It’s hard for me to accept that the old excuse of the kids’ home environment is still being trotted out. It’s a messy world we all live in. It always has been. When it comes to poor kids and their environment and their reading abilities, we luckily have a place to make a difference for them. It’s a classroom where the child has to come every school day. It should make a difference. If a fat guy had to go to Canyon Ranch every day for 10 years, that’d be a gift to him that would make a difference. School is that gift for kids who need to have a sturdy environment to come to every day to learn to read well. It must be made as pleasant and purposeful as the Canyon Ranch is made for the big guy.

3.) For homework, I’d have the kids read 10 pages from the book they’re reading. A book they chose. One they like. Or it could be Sports Illustrated or People magazine. Anything that lets them know that heat rises off a page. That’s the key to liking to read. Feeling that heat. They might think it only comes off a screen or through headphones. Throw a reader a good mag while they’re watching TV, they’ll go to the mag every time.

4.) Kids must see teachers reading. While the kids are reading, the teachers can not be grading papers. They should have a book and be reading it. If the kids aren’t seeing reading at home, how great it is that they can come to a place every day with a desk of their own and something to read they like, and a teacher who likes to read, too. Teachers shouldn’t try to ingratiate themselves by talking about TV very much, if at all. Teachers who don’t read shouldn’t be teachers.

5.) The school should have a good library. If I were a teacher I’d demand it. If I were a parent I would demand it. The librarian would have to be a real reader who would enthuse, not too much though, about the things she has. Kids should want to go to the library. If I were a teacher, I’d suggest to the parents that they take their kids at least once a week to the neighborhood library. (Of course, in all of this, I’m talking about poor kids and poor parents. They’re the ones who the system everywhere is failing.)

6.) If I were a teacher, I’d demand that the school be kept orderly and quiet. If reading was the emphasis of the school day, keeping the halls quiet would be done for that good reason, an understandable one, rather than be quiet because I said so. Big noise can not be tolerated. It ruins everything. (It drives me nuts when people talk in movies or libraries. I got punched in my neighborhood library here for telling a hyper-talkative drug addict to please be quiet. It mostly bent my glasses.)

7.) There should be magazines in the room for the kids to read when they’ve finished other work. There’s heat in the right magazine.

8.) I’d try to find a philanthropy that would underwrite a subscription for each kid to get a magazine of their choice. Sent to their home. It’s nice to get a magazine in the mail. New York publishes so many magazines, someone ought to be able to get them involved in this.

9.) I’d think of the schools as reading academies. What’s a ‘school’ anyway? All of us at one time or another during our school years thought why couldn’t we just go to the big library downtown every day and let our interests take us where they will. That might have been logistically unrealistic, but each school could be an academy of reading. Filled with good books and the time to read them. No more underlining adverbs. Or weekly vocabulary tests. I was good at all that stuff. Because I was a reader. That’s the only way. The rest is time-filler, time-killer.

10.) I’d do this all until each kid who wasn’t disabled in some way could read well. It might take a year for some. It might take 10 for some others. But they wouldn’t leave my system until they could read well. Not haltingly. Well.

11.) At their high school graduation you should be able to toss any book on the New York Times Best Seller list to any kid up on the stage and say read page 201. They should be able to read it as well as you or I. That would make it a commencement. In New York City.

A Great Writer’s Great Eye

Eudora Welty’s camera told some stories

I could look at photo books for hours. And I do. I’m a guy who’ll sit on the floor or on a windowsill in a bookstore till my butt hurts staring at pages of photographs. That’s how I came upon Eudora Welty’s book a few years ago. I didn’t even know she took pictures.

Her shots are of common Southern themes. Poor farmers. Black people. But there’s something special about them. You can tell she was trying to find out something. Not just show something. She gets you to linger with her while she tries to figure out how people are. She likely stared at the faces and scenes she captured later on when they’d become pictures. They’re worth staring at.

de Kooning Early And Often

If you join MoMA you can get in ahead of the crowd

I joined MoMA recently for 75 bucks. For a whole year. That’s less than 10 pints of Guinness when you figure in tips. You not only get to go anytime you want, you get to enter an hour earlier than non-members to see de Kooning. I’ve often wondered if there aren’t some people who go every day to MoMA. I’ll bet there are. Or who go to some particular museum every day like some people go to the gym every day, or out to their same spot for a Guinness every night .

The biography of de Kooning is 100% rewarding. You learn everything about modern art. All the characters. Great New York stuff too. The physical book, by Knopf, is a masterpiece of design itself. With your membership you can get it at a discount. You should join.

Six times a year it comes out. With very good writers and a good look.