06 September 2009

Reading Lessons

The New York Times last weekend ran a fascinating article on a new way to teach reading: let kids read whatever they like. The article concludes with the suggestion from a couple of experts that this is the only way to make lifelong readers of students, and with the horrifying image of a teacher’s packing up all those staples of middle-school reading – To Kill a Mockingbird, The Diary of Anne Frank, etc. – while her students curled up with Captain Underpants.

Cultural conservative (and writer) that I am, I bristled instantly. What a harebrained notion! Who the hell cares what kids want to read? The simple fact is they don't know how. Sure, Americans may have a basic grasp of reading, but when it comes to analyzing a text, understanding literary method, distilling complex meaning from a lengthy piece of prose, they need guidance. Over the generations, Americans have tended to kick the can, putting off for as long as possible this necessary instruction. This is why college graduates make up the vast majority of readers of literary fiction: because only in college, not in junior- or senior-high school, do we receive the instruction.

If we stop teaching To Kill a Mockingbird in favor of Captain Underpants, we’re only kicking the can even further: kids will arrive at college with even fewer basic tools, and it’s easy to extrapolate, then, that in due time only those with post-graduate educations will read serious books. Or, for that matter, news reports, government documents, or political analysis – the very stuff we need to be responsible citizens. (There’s a reason behind universal public education, and it’s a stronger, healthier society.) Generations of lifelong yet incompetent readers loom before us.

Yet, somewhat to my surprise, the more I thought about the Mahagonny approach to education (Read whatever you feel like!), the calmer I got.

To judge from the Times story, the humble book report has fallen by the wayside – and yet, in my boyhood classrooms, that’s how we used to get school credit by reading for pleasure. That’s how we used to construct arguments to persuade our classmates to read what we were reading. And it’s how our teachers used to get to know our personal tastes, so that they could recommend to us more challenging yet otherwise similar material. In sum, the book report is very much like the classroom method that’s now being championed as a new way to get kids to read more. And I happen to think it’s a terrific idea.

Where I get off the bandwagon is this notion that reading for pleasure should replace, rather than supplement, assigned reading – the shared experience of a class discovering one text under the teacher’s guidance. Back in the Dark Ages, when I went to school, we managed to embrace both methods. Granted, we weren’t prey to all these newfangled modern temptations, such as video games and the Internet. (It’s worth remembering, however that few of my classmates ever ran short of reasons to avoid picking up a book.) What in modern life – or modern teaching – has made it seemingly impossible to promote both the book report and assigned reading? Are teachers overtaxed by No Child Left Behind? Are kids no longer reachable? What went wrong here?

And soon, we’ll all wind up like the Eloi,
unable to read the crumbling books in our libraries,
and defenseless against the Morlocks.

1 comment:

Girl From Texas said...

Student selected titles in book reports still alive and well as far as I know