One more post before my August vacation: two stories and a conclusion. Regular readers of this blog will know where I'm going; as ever, I think our thinking about school should be informed by extracurricular learning, which varies much more than school, and I think we should be spending a lot of our energy on helping kids find texts and creating time and space for them to read.
Summer #1: From non-reader to reader
A good friend of mine, a fellow teacher, was concerned
that her son wasn't reading enough. Maybe she had been reading a blog
post that cited data linking school achievement with time spent reading
outside of school, or maybe she was just, like many other parents, aware
that reading is the most important academic skill, and that no one
becomes really good at anything without spending large amounts of time
doing it (K. Anders Ericsson's 10,000 hour rule may be a cliche and may
be nitpicked in various ways, but it's basically right that almost all
expert musicians, athletes and readers spent many thousands of hours as
children practicing their skills). In any case, her son was not reading
at home very much, and hadn't been reading in school, either (his
reportedly excellent second grade teacher had allowed him to spent most
of his literacy and reader's workshop time writing a very long story and
drawing pictures of hockey players). Her son needed to read more.
So my friend took action. She told her son that he would have to
read for twenty minutes every night. Following good SSR protocol, she
would read her own book alongside him. They went together to the
library and spent the better part of an hour searching out books he
might be interested in. They took out a bunch of Matt Christopher sports novels, and a book by Avi.
That first week, the reading did not go so well. He asked every minute or two how
much time was left, and he never picked up a book when it wasn't his
appointed time, preferring instead to go outside or to pick up the
family iPad and check the sports scores.
That was in June and early July. Then, two weeks ago, the boy
visited his grandmother for a weekend, and his grandmother took him to
her local library and asked her local librarian for help. The librarian
spent a half an hour or so with him, reading and talking, and set him
up with a number of volumes from the "Weird School" series that were much easier to read than the Matt Christopher or the Avi . When he came back from his grandmother's, he not only had easier books to read, he also had fewer distractions: his parents had put away the iPad.
I saw my friend and her son last week, when they were staying
with the rest of their family at a cabin in the woods. More than once I
saw the boy take out, unprompted, one of his "Weird School" books and read it to
himself. His mother reports that he has been voluntarily reading more
than the required thirty minutes a day, and she has not had to sit with
him and read. Within a month, he had moved from reluctant reader to reader.
Summer #2: From reader to non-reader
My own son is in sixth grade. Since the second grade, he has always
read a lot. His favorite books have been biographies of athletes (he's
read the new Willie Mays biography a few years ago, and last summer he
raced through Andre Agassi's Open), but he has also enjoyed
graphic novels (Tintin, Bone, Persepolis) and action books (Alex Rider
books, the Hunger Game series). He probably reads, over the school year
alone, rather more than a book a week, and over the past few summers he
has read at an even faster pace.
This summer is half over, and in its six or so weeks he has not yet read a single book.
I ascribe this to three factors: 1) competing activities; (2) electronic distractions; (3) more limited availability of books.
First, he has been pretty busy, going to a few different camps,
going on two different camping trips, and playing a lot of sports when
he's not at camp.
Second, he has spent an hour of every day at home on the
computer, and he just got an iTouch. He is allotted an hour of computer
time a day, and he rarely spends even a minute less. Most of that time
is following the professional tennis tour, and he is frighteningly
well-informed about who is ranked what and why and so on. His iTouch,
which is somewhat under our control, hasn't increased his screen time by
much, but somehow his relationship to books seems different.
Finally, and this may be the most important, he hasn't been to
the library yet this summer. He himself blames his non-reading on this:
"I don't have anything to read!" Despite our shelves of books, nothing
has jumped out at him, and I haven't thrust a We Die Alone into his hands this time around.
Conclusions: Providing appropriate books and a distraction-free environment matter a lot
two stories are mirror images of each other. In both cases, reading
was difficult for kids who (a) were distracted by electronic devices and
(b) didn't have interesting, appropriately leveled books easily to
hand. When appropriate books and a distraction-free environment were
provided, both kids read a lot. These conditions may seem obvious, and
they don't seem terribly difficult, but still, most children don't have
either one, and most children don't read as much as they should (45
minutes a day at a minimum).
Because in fact these two conditions are not easy to
provide. I am extremely interested in my children's reading, and yet my
son has read next to nothing in the past six weeks. My friend is also
very interested in her kid's reading, and yet he read very little over
his whole second grade schoolyear. And no wonder: providing the
appropriate books and the time was in fact not so easy.
books for my friend's son (the "Weird School" series; I love that
title) took two trips to the library and a few hours of adult time, and
in the end it took a trained professional--the children's librarian in
the grandmother's town. It also took a well-stocked library--the boy's
grandmother lives in a town that's probably as wealthy as Leafstrewn.
(If we want to get kids reading, we should not be cutting library budgets,
and we should be taking the 20 billion or more dollars we spend on
standardized testing and spending that money on books and librarians.)
Providing distraction-free time is also not easy. We're all busy, and we all have lots of things that need to get done now.
In English class we feel we need to get through the whole-class novel,
we need to do the prewriting work for the essay, we need to teach the
vocabulary lists. At home, there's television, music, texting, sports,
iPads. But it's important to provide the time, both in and out of
Post-script: a trip to the library
After I wrote the post above, we took my son went to the library, and he came home with a stack of books two feet high. That night he
read a graphic novel and started a mystery story about a brother and
sister whose mom disappears in the Grand Canyon. And now we're going on
vacation, so he'll have a lot of time!
As for this blog,
I'm going to take a month-long break. I'm going to do some pleasure
reading, and I'll also think about how to take the message I've been
hammering away at here to a broader audience..