Dawn Reader

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

Thursday, September 27, 2012

SAT Reading Scores Drop, and ...?

The story was all over the newspapers on Monday and Tuesday: SAT reading scores had dropped to a new low.  (Example story: Washington Post--SAT)

The writing average also dropped a little--but that test is so absolutely meaningless that I'm not even going to say much about it.  For twenty-five minutes students have to write to a prompt they've just been given.  Twenty-five minutes.  The test measures speed and the ability to write a formulaic response.  Neither is a virtue for a writer.  Some of the best writers I ever taught did not do well on that test.  The reason?  They were good writers.  Deliberate ones.  They took their time.  Thought about things.  Worried about individual words and sentences.  Just what good writers do.  With predictable results on the SAT.

Anyway, what about reading?  Should we be wringing our hands?  Introducing more testing in the lower grades (is that even possible?)  Excoriating kids and parents and teachers for their egregious failures?  Maybe firing some folks?  Getting back to the basics?  Kicking some butt?

Of course there's lots of blame--if blame's the game--to go around.  Kids don't read much.  Neither do their parents (Fifty Shades of Grey does not count--okay, it does; just being snotty). Teachers pound away at "basic skills" because that's what the brain-dead proficiency tests measure.  But the good teachers know that the only way to help kids become lifelong readers is to make reading fun.  Fun and useful.  If we make reading onerous, we are making it far less likely that our students will continue to read when they no longer have to.

But we all know that the real culprit is the culture--this largely non-literary culture of pleasure and entertainment that now pervades all.  Our children did not invent it; we did.  And it's so alluring and fascinating that it's virtually impossible to resist.  I've told Joyce many times that I'm glad I grew up when I did.  If I'd been born twenty years ago (forty years ago?), I don't know if I would have been much of a reader at all.

When I was a kid in the 1950s, there were not all that many options for my leisure time.  Play outside (which I did as often as I could), read (which I also did a lot), listen to the radio or to records (activities that do not preclude reading--I often read, and still do read, while music plays), watch TV.  But through most of my childhood and adolescence there were only three TV stations (CBS, NBC, ABC), and my parents controlled the on-off button (no remotes--can you imagine!).  We also couldn't watch TV on school nights, and we had to ask permission to turn on the set at other times.  (Oh, the oppression!)

And nowadays?  Many kids walk around with the world in their hands.  Internet, streaming video, Facebook, more music than you could listen to in your entire life, a reference library of unimaginable scope and range (can you imagine carrying around all 13 volumes or so of the OED? well, with a smart phone, you can), and on and on ...

Throughout the history of the printed word, people have read for two principal reasons: (1) to find out stuff and learn, (2) to enjoy themselves.  Sometimes, obviously, the two overlap.  Well, nowadays the "finding out stuff" job is surpassingly easy.  How many times have I checked my iPhone for a spelling, a definition, the dates of Henry V, the location of a writer's grave--all while sitting at Starbucks and sipping a grande Pike (no room).  And the entertainment function of books?  Except for some very notable exceptions, entertainment resides not between covers but in the air.  For from the air we are able to see films our grandparents saw, listen to just about any song ever recorded, watch TV shows we missed, see interviews with celebrities we love, look a strangers making fools of themselves on YouTube, and on and on.

We can even read e-books, too.

In such a high-tech, fast-moving world, an old codex looks pretty pedestrian.  At least for many people.

Still ... a book, for me, remains my main source of information and entertainment.  Sure, I stream video; I check Google to find things quickly; I use the Internet for many, many things (not for those foul ones you're imagining right now ... I know your dirty minds!); I am far too interested in Facebook for my own mental health; I Tweet occasionally; blog every freakin' day.

I like all those things, but I love books.

I just recently read an essay "On Reading" by Siri Hustvedt, a writer I like very much.  (Her husband, Paul Auster, is another of my favorites.)  It's in her brand-new collection of essays--Living, Thinking, Looking (Picador, 2012).  "Reading," she writes, "is not a purely cognitive act of deciphering signs; it is taking in a dance of meanings that has resonance far beyond the merely intellectual" (139).

I like that--a dance of meanings ... beyond the merely intellectual.

And at the end, talking about books that have meant a lot to us, she says, "The ones that stay with us, however, become us, part of the mysterious workings of the human mind that translates little symbols on a page into lived reality" (140).

To a certain extent, she says (and I agree), we become the books we've read.  And they become us.  Remember the end of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451?  In a society that bans and burns books (451 is the temperature at which book paper ignites) Montag, a reformed burner, finds a remote community where people have memorized books.  They are the books.  If you ask, they will recite to you The Odyssey, Hamlet, whatever.  They are holding out for the day when books are once again needed.

But then ... oh ... read it yourself.

I know that there have been books that have become part of my students' lives.  They grew up with a little wizard boy.  Many of them read the Twilight books--and The Hunger Games--and the Tolkien books--and many, many others.  Those stories and those characters now occupy a permanent place among their neurons.  I like to think that I have dropped some other folks in the mix, too--like Hamlet and Elizabeth Proctor and Hester Prynne and Buck and Cash and Edna Pontellier and Nick Carraway and so many others.

I hope those characters populate their dreams; I hope their dreams intertwine with the greatest stories ever told.

But we've got to make reading a pleasure--from the very earliest days.  Otherwise ...

No comments:

Post a Comment