Dawn Reader

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

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Reading, School, and Other Fun Stuff, 2

A couple of days ago, I posted here a reaction to a review of a new book about learning to read (my copy should arrive today!), and I presented the novel (!) idea that reading is fun--but that, in schools these days, we seemed determined to replace "fun" with "work." A bit more on the subject below ...

I've ranted and raved here on other occasions about the Test Mania that has surged through our schools since, oh, the mid-1990s. I was a middle-school English teacher for about thirty years, and I was hit by the initial waves of it in, oh, 1994 or so (I retired in January 1997--and Test Mania was one of the principal reasons I retired the first second I was eligible). I've noted, too, that our eleven-year-old grandson (about to turn twelve!) has already taken more standardized tests than I did, K-Ph.D. Much of school for him is just test-preparation.

There were some years--decades, really--when a dominant idea in public education was that learning is fun. (I was fortunate to spend most of my career during years when that idea was prominent, at least in our building.) It seems fairly obvious, doesn't it? As adults, many of us pursue interests we love, learning more and more about them, enjoying it all. For me, it's been baking bread, reading Victorian novels, reading and going to see Shakespeare plays (Joyce and I have now seen all of them onstage), and on and on. And, obviously, if I were not having fun, I would not do those things.

When I was going through public school, I'll confess that I did not have a lot of teachers who thought there was a connection between learning and fun--in fact, there were some who seemed determined to show us that it was manifestly not fun. (I dare not mention their names: I don't want them waiting for me when I arrive in hell.)

But there were the other kind, the "this-is-fun" teachers--and I remember them with deep fondness and gratitude. Mrs. Rockwell (4th grade), who read aloud to us when we were "good" coming in from recess. In such a way she introduced me to Tom and Huck, and my friends and I ran around the streets of Enid, Oklahoma, hiding from the King and Duke, wishing we could attend our own funerals (alive), making up bizarre and elaborate games, etc. Much later, teaching Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I thought of Mrs. Rockwell every single day.

Of course, it didn't really occur to me then, in fourth grade, that Mrs. Rockwell was showing us (not preaching to us--showing us) that reading is fun.

One other example--somewhat later. At Hiram College in the early 1960s I was fortunate to have a wonderful English professor, Dr. Abe C. Ravitz (from whom I took seven courses), who showed us another variety of reading and fun: knowing stuff. Sitting in his classes (not always, uh, thoroughly prepared, I'll confess--come on: It was college!), I was dazzled by all he knew about the writers and the worlds of the writers we were reading in his various American literature classes. And it was in his classes that I realized learning about this kind of stuff was fun.

In later years--a teacher myself--I tried to practice what I preached. I tried to read everything by and about the writers I was teaching; in the summers, Joyce and I drove to see the homes, the graves, the relevant sites related to those writers. (We still do it, even though we're both retired now.) I thought it was fun to go to Grand Isle (a setting for Kate Chopin's The Awakening); to hike over the Chilkoot Trail (Alaska to the Yukon), a setting important in The Call of the Wild; to visit Hannibal, Missouri, and Montgomery, Alabama (where Scott Fitzgerald met Zelda), and Ketchum, Idaho, to see the home where Hemingway ended his life (okay, that one's a little dark, I confess); etc. And in my classes I tried to make my enthusiasm, well, spread.

But nowadays--as I wrote last time--we seemed determined to measure reading skills and levels in kids, not encourage them to want  to read. And, yes, I'm well aware of all the cultural clutter now that makes reading seem obsolete, archaic, whatever. Electronic games, streaming video, instant communication with friends, social media, etc. I grant you: All of these seem brighter and, on the surface anyway, more appealing than turning the pages of a book.

But they aren't.

Reading a good book draws you into another world--familiar, foreign--where you reside, where you live and learn (well, until your iPhone sings its siren song). Reading about a subject that interests you gives you a depth, a storehouse of detail, that seeing a documentary or visiting Wikipedia simply cannot match. Reading a celebrated book connects you with countless others in ways that make Facebook look primitive and juvenile.

I know that many (most?) kids are still eager to read. One of the great moments of my life was seeing a line outside our local bookshop--a line that was blocks long--on a July night in 2007 when the final novel about Harry Potter (HP and the Deathly Hallows) was released. Most of the people in line were kids.

So what can we do to encourage kids to read? To make reading, once again, fun? To get kids to swim in print, where Truth and Lie live?

Tune in next time for some suggestions ...

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