Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Reading in School

I'm going to blame Dr. Ravitz for all of this.  He was one of my English professors during my student years at Hiram College (1962-1966), and I've written about him before.  Yes, he was my favorite.  Yes, I learned from him the habit of reading a writer's complete works.  Yes, I owe him a tremendous debt (which, of course, I will never pay.)  Oh, he also reviewed books for the Plain Dealer in those years, and I, coincidentally, have been doing so, too--an occupation I never would have thought possible back in those Hiram years.

But there's another thing Dr. Ravitz taught me: School is a time for reading a lot.  A lot.  Not for spending weeks and weeks on a single text.  For his upper-level English courses we routinely read fifteen or so novels.  We'd spend a few days on each--then head on to the next.  For Dr. Ravitz knew, I think, the importance at the undergraduate level--especially for English majors--of reading complete texts (not excerpts) by a lot of folks.  My parents' word for this was background.  (This was the word they continually chirped at me in my high school days when I was Lassitude Personified.  I pretty much stopped reading altogether for a few ... years ... and my parents were understandably concerned that I was not painting much background in the mural of my life.)

Perhaps I've written this before, but here it is again: One of my early shocks from Dr. Ravitz came when he announced one class that we would be discussing The Sun Also Rises on the following day.  Read a whole book in one day!?  I did it (it's not all that long) and learned a lesson about myself: I can do more than I thought I could.

And just to show you: When I took my first graduate class at KSU (American Literary Realism), I noticed two things right away on the syllabus: (1) lots of titles to read (no worry--I'd come to expect that); (2) I'd already read all but two of them for Dr. Ravitz.  One was The Yemassee, a novel by William Gilmore Simms.  I forget the other.  I of course re-read them all for the course (no irony here--I really did) and found that my parents, once again, had been right about something, although by that point I had already resolved never to chirp background at any of my own children, a vow I quickly broke as soon as I had one.

I raised this issue yesterday in this space, and I wanted to spend just a little more time with it today.  The McGuffey's Eclectic Readers urged teachers to triple the amount of time they spent on reading--and the reading they offered was pretty weighty stuff ("To be or not to be" in sixth grade?).  True, the books offered only selections for students to read--but, remember, these were primary, elementary, and middle-school-age folk they were writing for.

When I was teaching my final ten years at Western Reserve Academy, I was even more Ravitzian than I'd been in my middle school classes.  I told my students each fall, "We're going to read a lot and talk a little."  In and among our writing activities (we had lots at the school) the kids read fifteen books (four outside of class, one each marking period.)  This, I don't think, was excessive--not at all.

I've had very talented and dedicated colleagues over the years who have preferred "close reading"--spending lots of time on a single text (weeks--months even), thereby giving kids--so the theory goes--the tools they can use while reading other books.  Okay.  I understand and respect that.  But I don't buy it.  I think--along with Mr. McGuffey (and Dr. Ravitz)--that school is a time to read, read read.  To read as much as you possibly can.  Because--later on--it gets harder to do so.  Life has a annoying habit of getting in the way.

Lots of reading also enriches writing--in more than one way.  Not only do young writers (who have read a lot) have a wealth of allusions and comparisons to employ but they also have a lot of literary models.  They've seen ways of doing things, ways that others have not seen.  Every study I've ever seen points to a strong correlation between lots of reading and good writing.  I've also read many biographies of writers, all of whom read a lot.  A lot.  Expecting kids to write well but read little is the same as expecting an instrumental music student to play well but listen little--or an artist to paint well but look little.

But ... it's not just any reading that helps young writers.  Not just any books.  It's good books by good writers who have tried to do novel things.  Who have engaging ideas and unique ways of communicating them.  I used to love to direct my students' attention to a moment in The Great Gatsby.  In Chapter 4, Fitzgerald wants to tell us something from the past.  But here's the problem: Nick Carraway, the narrator, was not there when these events happened.  So ... what to do?

Well, look at what Fitzgerald figured out :

   One October day in nineteen seventeen--
   (said Jordan Baker that afternoon, sitting up very straight on a straight chair in the tea-garden at the Plaza Hotel)--I was walking along from one place to another ....

See what happened?  Nick has passed the first-person narration off to Jordan, who carries on for a few pages.  The I in the story becomes Jordan, not Nick, for a while.  A few pages later--an extra space between paragraphs announces another change of some sort:

   When Jordan Baker had finished telling all this we had left the Plaza for a half an hour and were driving in a Victoria through Central Park.

Nick has the I  back again ...  A sure sign that I was an English major?  That technique turns me on!

A quick thought to end with: I love popular fiction, too; I read it all the time--usually at night, in bed, when I'm ready for something that doesn't require the firing of too many synapses.  I eat mysteries and detective novels--I always have at least one going on my Kindle or betwen covers (not the bedcovers).  And I in no way want to discourage kids from doing this, as well.  (In general, some reading is better than no reading, and studies show that many/most lifetime readers were folks who, as kids, got caught up in "series" books.  In my day it was the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew.  Many others have come along since, including a boy wizard and a young woman who turns on vampires and werewolves as well as high school classmates, and a young woman who shoots like Robin Hood.  More power to them.)

Anyway, this is all very annoyingly pedantic and preachy, I know.  So I'll quit.

But, as I said at the beginning: It's not my fault, anyway.  It's Dr. Ravitz's.

No comments:

Post a Comment