Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Teenage Wasteland
 If the kids aren’t learning how to read well in the city’s schools, it’s an empty experience for them.

Toni Morrison says it’s required reading.  She‘s saying it about Ta-Nehisi  Coates’s little 150-page book, Between the World and Me. It’s been out for some months now. It’s a letter to Coates’s 14-year-old son. You’ve heard about it. You may have read it. I’d say you should. But who I’m most interested in are the 14-year-olds in the city, school kids his son’s age. Could they read this book? Not as some over-analyzed, drawn-out homework project, a few baby pages a day. Could they just sit down with it or lie down with it, and read it, maybe in one or two sittings in their bedroom, like the letter it is? Coates wrote it for a 14-year-old.  What if the schools here asked themselves if their 8th graders could easily read that book? Wouldn’t that be a good measure? There has to be some kind of measure. I’d say go with this one.  And if they found that most of the kids couldn’t easily read it, which is what they’d find, then shouldn’t the schools change the way they spend their students’ time?

Some of the high school kids and college kids who walk past my sign every day smile at it and me and say hi.  A few Muslim girls go by with veils over their faces. They smile big with their eyes and wave quietly.

I remember being 14. I was obsessed with the guy my 18-year-old sister was dating.  His name was William Kelly Young and he was from Boston. His parents were dead and he lived with an old sea captain. He drove a little silver-gray sports car and wore a camel-hair coat and his hair looked like a Kennedy’s. It was 1961 and that was a big thing. It was winter when he first came to visit. I was out shooting hoops in the half-shoveled driveway with a friend and he got out of his little car with his long camel-hair coat on and his good hair and clapped for the ball.  I tossed it to him. I can still see it. He swished the shot, even with his big coat on, with a real shooter’s style, from 20-some feet.  That summer when he came to stay a few days with us, he was sitting on the porch one night. I was looking at him. He was reading a paperback book. It was The Catcher in the Rye, which I’d only vaguely heard of. Oh, did that look cool to me.  A guy who could shoot hoops was reading a book in a crew-neck sweater on our porch. He was the coolest guy to me sitting there slouched in a chair reading that book that he’d brought from Boston to our little town with him. Their big love affair broke up, of course, like those good things sadly do. I think of him though. I remain a Celtics fan. And I’m a J.D. Salinger fan.

In my good city all the libraries would be open till 10:00 every night. I wonder why they aren’t open that late here.  It’d be a great thing. Just think of it, a clean well-lighted place, open every night to read books and magazines in. Kids could do homework. To people who live places where their libraries are open late, it surely surprises them that big-deal New York City’s libraries close around dinner time.

There was an article in the Times last week about two Upper West Side public schools whose boundaries may be re-arranged. That’s a concern to the parents of kids in the white, more successful school who don’t want things to change. They don’t want their kids to have to go to the school where mostly black and Hispanic kids go. Nothing about that surprised me. You know by now that’s how the world is. What did surprise me though, in this day and age, was that the school where the poor kids go doesn’t have a library.

I heard on an NPR talk show that there are more scripted TV shows on now than ever in history.  Like 400 of them. People don’t know how to see all the good ones. They binge-watch to keep up.  That seems crazy to me once you’re out of the dorm.

The rates of illiteracy in prison are as high as you’d think they’d be if you thought about it. How can that not be a pipeline? By law the kids of the city have to go to school until they’re 16. That’s 10 years. To have not learned to read in those 10 years is a big reason they’re in jail. Aren’t schools supposed to teach kids to read? If you boil it down, are schools there for any other reason?

You’ve heard how some young tennis players and young golfers go off to special schools in Florida and out West to get intense training.  Some kids from Europe and Asia come all that distance to go to these schools.  What they get is instruction from people who know how to teach, and they get plenty of time to work on their game. They get lots of reps. Lots and lots of reps. Reps are important. In everything. Peyton Manning after the Broncos good game against the Packers talked about the time they’d had in their off-week to go over things. Like at the sports academies where the kids get the instruction and all those reps, Peyton‘s coaches had the team go through their paces until they had it figured out what they needed to do to get better, to get ready for their big game.  The schools here should be like that. They should have good reading instructors, and plenty of time for their students to get all the reading reps they need to become good readers who when they’re fourteen can read books like  Between the World and Me. It would change their world.  It would make it better. It would make it safer.

Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around - nobody big, I mean - except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff - I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be.

A Rare Bird
Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch 
was, still is, a special book

For two years I’ve been reassured on Sunday mornings to see The Goldfinch on the Times bestseller list. First in hardcover, then in paper. As of three weeks ago, it’s gone from the list. It was there a long time.

The book was a great reading experience for me. For many people. In a recent review of a new book a few weeks ago in the Times, the reviewer referred to The Goldfinch as ‘dazzling’. It dazzled me. I haven’t found a book that comes close to it since. It might be seven or eight more years till Tartt gives us another book. Will I be around? You start to wonder about such things.

Jersey Boys
The pols and the public schools 
of Newark compose a sad song

I’m halfway through this book. I’m not sure I’ll finish it. I liked the beginning, all about the city of Newark’s dynamic  history, and now its decline. Schools along with it. There’s a gritty stimulation in reading about cities like Newark, their streets of striving immigrants.

But the book, like life, loses its appeal when the politicians and the consultants show up. They think a lot of themselves. They think they’re all about the people. They convince people of it. They convinced well-meaning Mark Zuckerberg to give them $100 million dollars for their plan for the Newark schools. That’s what the book’s about. Of course it doesn’t work out. Of course it doesn’t.

This rich-yellow-framed magazine could trigger a kid’s interest, yours too. It’s been triggering for a long time. About the state of the physical world, it’s not new to the field.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

A Reading Life

We owe it to every school kid to give them that life.

Here’s how Jonathan Franzen’s new novel Purity starts off:


‘Oh pussycat, I’m so glad to hear your voice,’ the girl’s mother said on the telephone. ‘My body is betraying me again. Sometimes I think my life is nothing but one long process of bodily betrayal.’
‘Isn’t that everybody’s life?’ the girl, Pip, said. She’d taken to calling her mother midway through her lunch break at Renewable Solutions. It brought her some relief from the feeling that she wasn’t suited for her job, that she had a job that nobody could be suited for, or that she was a person unsuited for any kind of job; and then, after twenty minutes, she could honestly say that she needed to get back to work.

In two quick paragraphs you are with people who you hear as real. You even see them as real.  You want to be with them more. You want to read more conversations like that. You want the kind of candor that Pip has given you already about her job.

Immediately you are not alone. You are not the only one with problems in your life.

That’s why readers read.

It is a great sin to not see to it that the school children of this city acquire competent reading skills. There is no other reason as important as that to go to school.  How will they know they are not alone, if they can’t read well enough to read books? When will they sit in the quiet and be involved like you can be with a book? What kind of life will they have?

When you learned to read, it changed your life.  The nuns told us when we made our First Communion it would change our life. If it did, I didn’t notice. It was reading that changed our lives. We could read comic books and baseball cards and sports pages or library books we liked. A new world opened up.  It was great to read stuff and talk to your friends about it, or just think about it by yourself. It was even better than listening to the Everly Brothers or watching Superman.

Don’t the mayor and the school heads read?  Don’t they realize they wouldn’t have a good job of any kind if they hadn’t learned to read well? Why do they not put their foot down and say this is crazy--or sinful, as I would say--that so many kids aren’t really readers when we’ve finished with them. Doesn’t it seem crazy to them--again sinful --that kids come to them when they’re shiny and six years old, and in the 10 years minimum that they are in the city schools, they haven’t learned to read well enough in many cases to even pass the test to get in the Army? Why haven’t the teachers raised their hands and said this is crazy that what we’re doing is not producing the results it should; isn’t there a better way?

Surprisingly for someone not inclined to business imagery, spreadsheets often come to mind when I think about the schools and poor kids and their reading problems. I remember 30 years ago looking at my accountant’s computer that had a spreadsheet program.  I was trying to get money to start a weekly newspaper. We were inputting various projected ad sales numbers to see what would add up to a profit or at least a break-even number that might get an investor to throw in with us. It was fascinating to me to watch how each new number we tried would shift all the other numbers on the screen. One change changed everything.

Here’s why I think about that.  What if this was added to the education mix? What if we put into it the sentence that is on the sign I hold in front of the Dept. of Education every weekday? WHY NOT TEACH EVERY SCHOOL KID TO READ WELL. What if you put that into some imagined spreadsheet and all the other variables shifted in a way that would say to everyone: More time has to be spent on reading. If your team is missing free throws that are costing you games, then you’d make them practice shooting free throws more every day at practice. Why wouldn’t you then spend more time on reading, in all sorts of ways, including private time every day for each kid to read what he or she wanted to read, like I read baseball cards and sports pages? Why wouldn’t you have all the newest books that Barnes and Noble has in your school library? And all the magazine that kids might like? You put an article about Odell Beckham Jr. in front of them and they’ll try to read it. Eventually they’ll learn to read it.

By law the schools have them for ten years, till they’re 16. Why not make sure that in those 10 years, the kids, no matter where or who they come from, are taught to read well. What else is competing for the school’s time? And don’t say ‘tests’. Please. What else is competing? History? Math? Science? A young teacher stopped by my sign one morning and said, ‘Exactly!’ She said she taught high school biology and the kids couldn’t read the textbooks. What kind of game strategy is that? Shouldn’t they have been practicing their free throws some more?

If you want to put poverty into the spreadsheet, go ahead. If you want to put single mothers in, go
ahead. If you want to put gunshots in, that too can go in. The bottom line on the spreadsheet may give you a number you don’t want to look at. But it has to be looked at. And then action has to be taken.
If the schools decided to tackle the problem once and for all, the direction would be set. They’d know what to demand of the city and the state to get the job done. They’d know who to hire to make it happen. The great German philosopher Goethe says that if you really commit to doing something, things will come out of the woodwork, that you didn’t foresee, to assist you.

When I started this newsletter almost five years ago, I looked for a quote to put at the top of the page above everything else. I Googled, I looked through books I had on my shelves, I went to the library. Then I found this. I’d pick it again.

 'We go to college to be given one more chance to learn to read in case we haven't learned in high school. Once we have learned to read, the rest can be trusted to add itself unto us.'

-Robert Frost

That’s How They Roll

Skateboarders go their own way, smoothly.

This kid in the photo was across from me on the 6 train the other morning. Kids with skateboards look cool to me. Independent. In touch with some glide.

Some go by me when I’m holding my sign. Heading to high school or college. The streets are clogged with impatient cars. No matter to them. If my sign is angled in a way they can see it, they acknowledge it with a peace sign or a hook-‘em-horns hand gesture. They grin at it. They think the sign’s cool. If I had t-shirts with the sign on it, they’d wear one.  Black kids on skateboards are the coolest thing there is.

Head Turners
The graphics of Young Adult titles are the best.

My camera had to take a picture of this book. It was on a display rack at the big Barnes and Noble on Union Square. It was right as you come in the door, to the left. I’d seen it before.

Sometimes when I’m roaming around the store, which I do often, I’ll be stopped by a great-looking book. I’ll think it is a new book meant for me, but usually it’s a Young Adult novel. They have great covers. Better-looking than movie posters. Better than TV ads I see.

I hope they’re irresistible to the kids they’re aimed at. I hope the school libraries keep up with the new titles. I hope the kids have time to read them in school.

‘Ernest Hemingway: Between Two Wars’ from Sept. 25-Jan. 31 at the Morgan Library and Museum at 36th and Madison.

Monday, August 10, 2015

That Was Then, This Is Now

The first cityReader could have been written today

(I wrote this more than four years ago. I rerun it once a year.)

Before you move here from Ohio, 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. James Baldwin. 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 almost 15 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 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. 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 lets its playing fields for its kids go. You hope your friends don’t see the article.

But 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.

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 would be the most important skill that would be needed to be taught to kids so they’d survive, so they wouldn’t drown. They wouldn’t teach soccer or traditional dance steps until every child knew 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. So many 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 15 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. That’s a long time. Enough time to teach every kid to read well.

Life Goes to the Movies

A slice of David Foster Wallace’s life makes for quite a film

I’m not one for biopics. I didn’t even see the Johnny Cash one with Joaquin Phoenix, even though I’ve sometimes told people I did, so they wouldn’t scratch their heads or try to convince me what I missed. I didn’t see the James Brown one, or Brian Wilson. You couldn’t strap me down and make me watch Kevin Spacey be Bobby Darin.  

But I overcame things and went to see The End of the Tour on the morning of its second day at the Angelika. The trailer I’d seen at the Woody Allen movie sold me on Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace. I didn’t need to be sold on Jesse Eisenberg.  Don’t miss their performances. I pulled Infinite Jest off the shelf when I got home. I never quite finished it. Even though I thought it was fantastic. 

A Writer’s Letter to His Son

It’s also addressed to us

‘My reclamation would be accomplished, like Malcolm’s, through books, through my own study and exploration. Perhaps I might write something of consequence someday. I had been reading and writing beyond the purview of the schools all my life. Already I was scribbling down bad rap lyrics and bad poetry. The air of that time was charged with the call for a return, to old things, to something essential, some part of us that had been left behind in the mad dash out of the past and into America.’

New Rizzoli bookstore on Broadway and 26th Street.  I popped in when they were just opening. It’ll be a good space.

Monday, July 27, 2015

If I didn’t think its message would change the world, I wouldn’t put my sign under my arm and get a subway down to Chambers Street every weekday morning.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

From the first, cityReader has lead with a quote.

 It's still the guiding star.

'We go to college to be given one more chance to learn to read in case we haven't learned in high school. Once we have learned to read, the rest can be trusted to add itself unto us.'

-Robert Frost

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Drop in younger children visiting libraries is worrying, says Chris Riddell

Children’s laureate gives hand-drawn response to figures revealing 26% decline in five- to 10-year-olds who had used library in the past seven days
Chris Riddell, children's laureate
 Author and illustrator Chris Riddell added that he would be supporting the Reading Agency’s summer reading challenge. Photograph: Lauren Hurley/PA
The children’s laureate, Chris Riddell, has said a drop in the number of younger children visiting libraries is of great concern, expressing his views in a hand-drawn statement responding to new government figures.
The findings, part of a Department for Culture, Media and Sport report into children’s activities, reveal a 26% decline in the number of five to 10-year-olds who had used a library in the past seven days.
In 2010, 18.7% children aged five to 10 had done so, compared to 13.8% in 2014.
Within that age group, the number who had made a trip to their library at some point over the past 12 months had decreased from 76.4% in 2010 to 67.7% in 2014.
Chris Riddell’s illustrated message in response to the government’s report
 Chris Riddell’s illustrated message in response to the government’s report. Photograph: Chris Riddell/PA
Riddell, an author and illustrator, said: “A drop in younger children visiting libraries is of great concern. As children’s laureate, I am passionate about the role of libraries, both in schools and in the wider community. They are unique places where children can begin their journey as readers, as well as being creative hubs.
“Some of my favourite events have taken place in libraries, and over the next two years I intend to visit as many libraries as I can.”
He added that he supported the Reading Agency’s summer reading challenge, which encourages children aged four to 11 to read six books over the course of the school holidays.
There was a smaller drop in the number of five- to 15-year-olds who had used a library in the past week, down 6%, and a 7% decrease in those who had done so at least once in the year.
But the number of 11- to 15-year-olds who had visited a library in the past week had gone up 15%. This is despite a 1% fall in the numbers who had visited in the past year.
The apparent decline in interest in libraries comes despite an overall increase in the number of libraries, including those transformed from public libraries by community and volunteer groups. There are 3,450 libraries in England, according to the most recent figures from the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, up 2% from 2010.
But Diana Gerald, chief executive of reading charity Book Trust, said the figures were “amazing”.
She said: “Over recent years children’s use of libraries has been consistently high, and even with all the other modern attractions libraries are still visited by 70% of under-15s - that’s quite amazing.
“In these austere times, libraries have never been more important as a way for every child to access books and reading.
“Book Trust research shows that reading helps close the poverty gap and is actually more important for a child’s educational success than their family’s socio-economic status. Well-resourced libraries remain a gateway to equality of educational achievement and an affordable source of great pleasure. All children should have easy access to a library.”
Cressida Cowell, author of the bestselling How To Train Your Dragon series, which has been adapted for film, said reading was “the most important thing you can do for improving literacy and communication skills”.
She added: “Libraries are particularly good for children experimenting and trying books that they might not have expected to like.
“A great librarian can truly make a difference in thousands of children’s lives.”

Friday, July 24, 2015

That’s Ta-Nehisi Coates on the magazine. He’s been on all the NPR shows and on the TV talk shows. I’m reading his book, Between the World and Me. It’s one of five I’ve got going. I don’t usually have five going. 

If you’ve seen him on TV or heard him, the book’s a lot better than he talks. He’s a real writer.

Everybody tells you to read this book. I can see why. It’s not the standard fare.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Fifth day back on the street with the sign after Wyoming. Nothing alters the sign’s
mandate for me to hold it there every day that I can.

Three comments today:

Bright, tall guy. He‘s walking by, grinning in a well-educated way at the sign,  and says proudly, competitively, ‘In Canada, we do that.’

Black woman stops her car in the far lane, rolls down her window, smiles at me, puts both arms out and raises them high, her large palms catching the morning sun. ‘Praise the Lord,’ she says so people can hear. ‘God Bless You.'

A 50-something guy with a wide smile in a straw hat and blazer that David Hockney might wear on a sunny day says, ‘How can I help you? What can I do?” I said ‘I don’t know. I don’t really know what I’m doing. I just want the words to get in the air.’ He nodded. He knew what I meant.
He said, ‘It’s inspiring.’

Saturday, July 4, 2015

I Will Love the Twenty-First Century

Dinner was getting cold. The
guests, hoping for quick,
impersonal, random encounters 
of the usual sort, were sprawled
in the bedrooms. The potatoes 
were hard, the beans soft, the meat—
there was no meat. The winter
sun had turned the elms 
and houses yellow;
deer were moving down the road
like refugees; and in the drive-
way, cats
were warming themselves on the hood of a car. Then a man
and said to me: “Although I love 
the past, the dark of it,
the weight of it teaching us noth-
ing, the loss of it, the all
of it asking for nothing, I will 
love the twenty-first century
for in it I see someone in bath-
robe and slippers, brown-eyed and poor,
walking through snow without 
leaving so much as a footprint behind.”
“Oh,” I said, putting my hat on, “oh.”

Two women. Each in their way. Engage with the sign.

A late-40-something white woman on her way to work, a good job you could tell, leaned in with good teeth and energetic eyes, and said with graduate degree worldliness, I concur.

An older-than-her black women, shortly after her, came by, and without any shining teeth or eyes that I recall, when she was right next to me, softly said, Amen.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

I don't often enough remember to take stickers with me to stick on things. I have a lot of them. I just made a note on an index card to remind me to take some with me this afternoon when I go down to an impressive bookstore on Prince Street to drop off some cityReaders. I'll put a small pile of newsletters in the store's vestibule where there are a lot of other free printed things. I'm supposed to ask if I can leave things, but I never do ask. I'm let's call it shy about asking stuff like that. I have no ability to sell anything or ask for anything. I would talk to the clerk about everything but.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

(I wrote this 4 1/2 years ago. It still applies.)

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.