Friday, August 3, 2012

A tale of two summers

One more post before my August vacation: two stories and a conclusion.  Regular readers of this blog will know where I'm going; as ever, I think our thinking about school should be informed by extracurricular learning, which varies much more than school, and I think we should be spending a lot of our energy on helping kids find texts and creating time and space for them to read. 

Summer #1: From non-reader to reader

A good friend of mine, a fellow teacher, was concerned that her son wasn't reading enough.  Maybe she had been reading a blog post that cited data linking school achievement with time spent reading outside of school, or maybe she was just, like many other parents, aware that reading is the most important academic skill, and that no one becomes really good at anything without spending large amounts of time doing it (K. Anders Ericsson's 10,000 hour rule may be a cliche and may be nitpicked in various ways, but it's basically right that almost all expert musicians, athletes and readers spent many thousands of hours as children practicing their skills).  In any case, her son was not reading at home very much, and hadn't been reading in school, either (his reportedly excellent second grade teacher had allowed him to spent most of his literacy and reader's workshop time writing a very long story and drawing pictures of hockey players).  Her son needed to read more.

So my friend took action.  She told her son that he would have to read for twenty minutes every night.  Following good SSR protocol, she would read her own book alongside him.  They went together to the library and spent the better part of an hour searching out books he might be interested in.  They took out a bunch of Matt Christopher sports novels, and a book by Avi.

That first week, the reading did not go so well.  He asked every minute or two how much time was left, and he never picked up a book when it wasn't his appointed time, preferring instead to go outside or to pick up the family iPad and check the sports scores.

That was in June and early July.  Then, two weeks ago, the boy visited his grandmother for a weekend, and his grandmother took him to her local library and asked her local librarian for help.  The librarian spent a half an hour or so with him, reading and talking, and set him up with a number of volumes from the "Weird School" series that were much easier to read than the Matt Christopher or the Avi .  When he came back from his grandmother's, he not only had easier books to read, he also had fewer distractions: his parents had put away the iPad.

I saw my friend and her son last week, when they were staying with the rest of their family at a cabin in the woods.  More than once I saw the boy take out, unprompted, one of his "Weird School" books and read it to himself.  His mother reports that he has been voluntarily reading more than the required thirty minutes a day, and she has not had to sit with him and read.  Within a month, he had moved from reluctant reader to reader. 

Summer #2: From reader to non-reader

My own son is in sixth grade.  Since the second grade, he has always read a lot.  His favorite books have been biographies of athletes (he's read the new Willie Mays biography a few years ago, and last summer he raced through Andre Agassi's Open), but he has also enjoyed graphic novels (Tintin, Bone, Persepolis) and action books (Alex Rider books, the Hunger Game series).  He probably reads, over the school year alone, rather more than a book a week, and over the past few summers he has read at an even faster pace.

This summer is half over, and in its six or so weeks he has not yet read a single book.

I ascribe this to three factors:  1) competing activities; (2) electronic distractions; (3) more limited availability of books.

First, he has been pretty busy, going to a few different camps, going on two different camping trips, and playing a lot of sports when he's not at camp.

Second, he has spent an hour of every day at home on the computer, and he just got an iTouch.  He is allotted an hour of computer time a day, and he rarely spends even a minute less.  Most of that time is following the professional tennis tour, and he is frighteningly well-informed about who is ranked what and why and so on.  His iTouch, which is somewhat under our control, hasn't increased his screen time by much, but somehow his relationship to books seems different.

Finally, and this may be the most important, he hasn't been to the library yet this summer.  He himself blames his non-reading on this: "I don't have anything to read!"  Despite our shelves of books, nothing has jumped out at him, and I haven't thrust a We Die Alone into his hands this time around. 

Conclusions: Providing appropriate books and a distraction-free environment matter a lot

These two stories are mirror images of each other.  In both cases, reading was difficult for kids who (a) were distracted by electronic devices and (b) didn't have interesting, appropriately leveled books easily to hand.  When appropriate books and a distraction-free environment were provided, both kids read a lot.  These conditions may seem obvious, and they don't seem terribly difficult, but still, most children don't have either one, and most children don't read as much as they should (45 minutes a day at a minimum).

Because in fact these two conditions are not easy to provide.  I am extremely interested in my children's reading, and yet my son has read next to nothing in the past six weeks.  My friend is also very interested in her kid's reading, and yet he read very little over his whole second grade schoolyear.  And no wonder: providing the appropriate books and the time was in fact not so easy.

Providing books for my friend's son (the "Weird School" series; I love that title) took two trips to the library and a few hours of adult time, and in the end it took a trained professional--the children's librarian in the grandmother's town.  It also took a well-stocked library--the boy's grandmother lives in a town that's probably as wealthy as Leafstrewn.  (If we want to get kids reading, we should not be cutting library budgets, and we should be taking the 20 billion or more dollars we spend on standardized testing and spending that money on books and librarians.)

Providing distraction-free time is also not easy.  We're all busy, and we all have lots of things that need to get done now.  In English class we feel we need to get through the whole-class novel, we need to do the prewriting work for the essay, we need to teach the vocabulary lists.  At home, there's television, music, texting, sports, iPads.  But it's important to provide the time, both in and out of school. 

Post-script: a trip to the library

After I wrote the post above, we took my son went to the library, and he came home with a stack of books two feet high.  That night he read a graphic novel and started a mystery story about a brother and sister whose mom disappears in the Grand Canyon.  And now we're going on vacation, so he'll have a lot of time!

As for this blog, I'm going to take a month-long break.  I'm going to do some pleasure reading, and I'll also think about how to take the message I've been hammering away at here to a broader audience..


  1. An observation: in k-8, kids are taken to the library (school library) on a regular basis...or at least given time to go. The librarian is an active participant in each kids' learning. In HS, kids must go to the library for freshman orientation--a research skills workshop, lasting a few days. If you ask most seniors, they will not be able to tell you the librarians' names.

    I once took a class of seniors to the Brookline public library. At the end of the visit, a student came up to me to share his big discovery: the books were organized by subject! He was looking for a book on topic X, and, right next to that book, he found ANOTHER book on a related subject! Who knew!

    What if (a least part of) our English department mission statement was, "Students will learn how to find books that they will enjoy reading" (or "that they will feel are worth reading" or "they want to read" or something of this sort)?

    We (and I do mean "we") loved the "Weird School" books. They point out that school can be weird and senseless (but also humane), which jives exactly with our son's experiences. Some smart teacher or librarian made Lois Lowry's The Willoughbys ("A novel nefariously written by its author") a required summer reading book for 5th graders, a great choice because it makes fun of all of the conventions of "old fashioned books" (such as how there are always orphans who end happily) while referencing these books (a sarcastic but informative summary of many classics is included in the back of the book). The summer list also pointed him to the Phantom Tollbooth, which has made him want to know the meaning of the many 7-syllable words that the silly characters shout at Milo and Tock along their journey. Hooray!

    1. Yes! We should be going to the library much more often (monthly?), and I love your proposal about the mission of high school English Departments. Overall, I think high school could be a lot more like elementary school in many ways--more independent reading, more attention to helping kids find books that they like and that are at their level--and a lot more like college in some ways, too! My college offered me more independence and choice than high school, which was in retrospect one of the times I was offered the least independence and freedom in school--ironically, since Leafstrewn is always talking up its freedom.

      Your proposed addition to the HS English mission is perhaps more radical than it seems, since my sense is that there is often not much time spent on "books that they will enjoy reading" (or "that they will feel are worth reading" or "they want to read" or something of this sort)". Most of our students experience school reading as being, not about enjoyment or desire, but about "work". Sometimes they don't even grant it the dignity of "work"--see If reading is "work" then students may not care about finding books they "enjoy".

      I'm going to look up "The Willoughbys"--my daughter really likes Lois Lowry's "Gooney Bird Green" books. Thanks!