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.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

It’s not like it never goes through my mind that this might seem a crazy thing
I’m doing; the sign, the newsletter, now this daily blog. Some mornings I’m walking with the sign in its big Kinko’s bag and I’m just about where I’m going to stand with it and it hits me that I haven’t even connected clearly to my reason to be there again another day, that I’m on automatic pilot. But it always happens, never doesn’t, that I’ll be prompted by some need to get meaning, to take five seconds and flash to an image of poor kids on some inner city street like I’ve seen in countless black and white photographs, (surprisingly never to an image from a movie or a TV show [I know, I should see ‘The Wire’]), and I’ll know why I’m there again, and I pick up my step. Crazy as it may look to some people that I’m there again. Crazy as it may seem to my kids.

I don’t want it to be seen as crazy. The sign’s message is too important. That’s why I don’t stay for more than an hour. That’s why if the weather is severe I stay home.

It may not seem crazy to my kids. But, if it does now, it won’t some day. 

Monday, June 29, 2015

School is out. I could feel it walking to the subway with the sign this morning. Kids I normally pass weren’t there. The subway was less crowded. No Asian
moms and kids getting off at Canal Street. I read James Agee on the train.

There were 20 parents, mostly women, I’d see every school day with their kids walking by me from both directions on Chambers Street taking their pre-schoolers and first graders to school. They’d smile as they went past my sign. A few of the kids got to where they could smoothly read the sign. Many of those parents and kids I won’t see again. One mother took my picture with her two little boys on Friday.

I saw high school kids every day walking towards hard-to-get-in Stuyvesant High.  One kid once had a basketball sweatshirt on that had the school logo and the team nickname on it: the Peg Legs.

These kids, the young ones and the teenagers, are not who the sign is about.