Thursday, June 30, 2016

Is Reading the Magic Bullet?

Well, of course it isn't. There is no magic bullet. But here's a great piece from the New Yorker presenting the idea of reading as therapy, with a particular emphasis on fiction. I'm a great fan of fiction, and if left to my own devices, that's mostly what I will read. Because I love it, I also love to teach it. Now it's not my favorite thing to teach--I love to teach beginners English, and watch them move rapidly through utter confusion toward muddling through toward mastery, but it's my second favorite thing.

Some of my most gratifying moments were when students came to me and said, "Thank you for forcing me to read that book. I never thought I could read a book in English." And I am relentless in browbeating kids to do that work. Of course I'm not always successful. I really believe reading is a solitary pursuit, and while I will try to motivate kids by reading paragraphs here and there, I make them do the bulk of it outside the classroom, and do that so we can discuss it in class.

There are some books I won't teach. I'm a great fan of Steinbeck, but I won't teach Of Mice and Men, because I don't want to be the person who introduces my newcomers to racial epithets. Maybe that's lazy thinking on my part, and maybe I could make kids understand them better, but I want my classroom to be a place where those things simply do not exist. I don't want anyone to remember my class as the place they learned that stuff.

I think the way to trick kids into loving reading is to carefully select stories to which they can relate, stories that mirror or expand on their own experiences. As such, I'm very fond of The Joy Luck Club. This is a book full of brilliant interwoven stories of people overcoming the situations into which their thrust and making something of their lives. A great extra, for me, is that it's all about several generations of Chinese women. And although neither I nor a whole lot of my students are either Chinese or women, these are stories that everyone can relate to.

Of course my students are all newcomers, which is kind of a hook for this selection, but they're also facing all sorts of personal difficulties. I think just being a teenager is an almost insurmountable problem in itself. Add to that being in a new and strange country with limited use of the dominant language, and things become challenging indeed.  But people rise up from the most awful situations, and a book like this, I hope, gives my teenagers the notion that they too can overcome their troubles, no matter how awful they may appear right now.

This approach is in stark contrast with that of Common Core, that no one gives a crap what you think or feel. Jesus, who even wants to live in David Coleman's world, where no one gives a crap what you think or feel? While I will grant that I honestly don't give a crap what David Coleman thinks or feels, that sentiment does not extend to my students.  I want them to feel cared for in my class, and I want them to know that I care what they think. That's why I'm always asking them what they think and fairly thrilled when they tell me. I spend a great deal of time trying to open up kids who've been told to sit down and shut up all their lives.

The Common Core approach of answering tedious questions about a text out of context actively discourages love of reading, and is precisely the wrong approach, counter to everything we know about how kids learn. There is certainly a time and place for plodding through tedious text, but that's not how we start our kids. And those best equipped to deal with tedious text are people who love to read.

I gotta admit, I read a lot in college, and there were things I just did not love. Moby Dick, classic though it may be, wasn't my favorite. I had the misfortune of reading Beowulf for not one course, but rather two. By the second course I had learned not to tell the truth when the instructor asked us to write our impressions of this classic work. In my job I'm constantly perusing the Contract and looking through regulations to determine just what is and is not kosher, and I sometimes have to counter the preposterous interpretations of the folks the DOE "legal," whatever that is. I'm fortunate in that a whole lot of folks at UFT have already interpreted the bejeezus out of these things, and that they are always right while "legal" is always wrong. Honestly, I think they just make stuff up and hope for the best.

I developed a love of reading early on. I still remember the first book I read, and being amazed that I'd cracked the code. I moved from there to comic books, and from there to the paperbacks my mom had lying all over the house, and from there to whatever grabbed my attention. Once I found an author I liked I sought out everything that writer produced.

I was lucky because reading, in the high school I attended, entailed mostly reading books aloud. You read page one, the girl behind you reads page two, I read page three, and so on. It's a great gig for an English teacher who doesn't actually want to do anything, and even better for a lazy student like me, who only had to pay attention when the person in front of me was reading. The only books I was asked to read in high school independently were The Incredible Journey, about a dog and a cat running around doing something or other, and The Good Earth, which everyone in my social studies class found fascinating. None of us could get over the notion of arranged marriage, though we were perhaps only one generation away from it.

But not every kid grows up in a house full of books, and for those who don't, teachers are the best bet to pick up the slack. It's tragic that Common Core gives kids precisely the opposite of what they need, and will likely lead them to despise reading rather than simply be indifferent to it. Reading is power, and without it, our kids will be swept under those who possess it. Our system is designed to create and maintain drones rather than thinkers.

We can surely do better. We're kind of pinned under the yoke of ridiculous, arbitrary measures of "college readiness," and we begin to measure such things at absurdly young ages. I don't think Hillary Clinton knows that, or much of anything of what is good education for our kids (as opposed to her own, who attended an elite private school that used none of this nonsense) and sadly, I don't think Bernie Sanders does either.

But as long as we do, it's our job to get the word out.
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