Thursday, June 06, 2019

Why Are We Raising a Generation of Non-readers?

I had a lot of time on Monday. I proctored for one hour and 15 minutes, and then I was pretty much free. Also, we were free the next day. It felt like a Friday, and I just want to thank all my Muslim brothers and sisters for giving us that Tuesday off.

No one was in trouble on Monday This was good for me, and my members, but I hadn't brought a book or anything. So I sat down and read the new social studies Regents exam. I haven't studied history in, oh, decades, and I'd have aced this test. I had almost no prior knowledge whatsoever. There were only two questions that confused me, and both were in the short answers.

I don't remember exactly what the first one was, but I do remember that I looked at it very carefully, reconsidered, and decided it was a different answer. I was absolutely sure I was correct. The hardest question on the test for me was one about revolutions. Was it the Iranian Revolution, the French Revolution, or one of two other revolutions?

I had no idea. Then I looked at the source names, and waddya know, one of them was in French. It was the French Revolution. There was some essay question about the rich oppressing the poor, or the capitalists exploiting countries, and they asked me to choose three out of five given non-fiction pieces to cite and prove my point. I chose the last three, which were on target. I was very confused by a tea advertisement, though it may have just been evidence the English were using Indian tea. It didn't matter. The last three all fit.

What I noticed about this exam is that it was a reading test. If you could read, you could pass. You needed no specific prior knowledge. Odd, then, that you'd have to spend a year sitting in a social studies class all so it could culminate in a test that you needed no particular information to pass. I'd think that would be more appropriate for an English test, but the English Regents exam does absolutely nothing of the sort.

So we have a social studies exam that tests reading, and an English exam that tests nothing. And a lot of students, unless the geniuses in Albany set the past score low enough so as to render the exam utterly meaningless, are going to tank on this test. This is because they are not readers, and we are no longer developing readers. We are developing a generation who knows how to look at line 24 and decide whether it means A, B, C or D. We minimize the importance of reading fiction and push tedious crap, and it has precisely opposite the intended effect.

I am a reader. When I was very young my mother sat with me until I cracked the code, and from that point I was liberated. I was fascinated with comic books and read them compulsively when I was very young. I'd read just about anything except romance. I was not particularly romantic when I was eight years old.

From there, I started reading all the paperback novels my mom left lying around. I read a lot of mystery stuff, and I still love reading pretty much anything like that. Right now I'm reading Prime Suspect, about the character on the great PBS series with Helen Mirren. So I'm an English teacher and I don't sit around reading Shakespeare or Moby Dick all the time. I read all of Shakespeare, and Moby Dick in college, and despite the best efforts of my professors,  they're not my go to when I have free time. I'm still reading the same mindless fiction I've been reading since I graduated from comic books. (And that's not to say I wouldn't instantly read a comic book if I found one lying around.)

Why am I going into detail here? I'm trying to point out why I am a reader. I am a reader because I was encouraged, actively or passively, to read for enjoyment. I am thrilled on days I have to go to Manhattan and I don't need to drive to Queens. That means I will spend hours reading on the train, on the subway, when waiting for whatever meeting or event I'm going to. Sometimes, if the event is tedious, I'll hide in a corner somewhere and read some more.

Because I am a reader, I can ace that social studies test while knowing little or nothing about the topic. I can parse the sentences. I can eliminate bad answers (note to Regents--your distractors suck). I can plod through all the boring crap you can toss my way. That's because I'm a reader.

However, we are not raising a generation of readers. We are raising a generation of students under the premise put forth by David Coleman--that no one gives a crap what you think or feel. Thus fiction is unimportant. Placing yourself in a deeply empathetic position with a fictional character is of no consequence. Being fascinated by stories, an element of every human society since forever, means nothing.

You will take this crap, you will read it, you will answer questions about it, and that's it. No love of reading for you. No enjoyment for you. No empathy for you, and no one gives a crap what you think or feel.

I see absolutely no evidence that either MaryEllen Elia or any sitting Regent has the remotest awareness of this. That's a disgrace, of course.

But it's also a tragedy for the children of New York State.
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