Friday, April 15, 2011

How to teach books to kids

My friend Jamie sent this to me.   It seems not to be so much "How to teach books to kids," as "How not to teach books to kids like me."  Here's my response in its entirety.





*processing, please wait*

Well, at first blush, I reject the premise that schools are strictly utilitarian in nature, or that the objective is to make productive little workers ready to jump into the job market.  I also reject the unstated premise that no "form of mass education" can be of benefit to "poor students."  Coates himself seems to be a product of public schools, and he seemed to turn out all right.  (I love Coates, by the way.  I hadn't seen this piece yet.  I'll have to subscribe to his RSS.)

Second, the way he describes the process and pleasures of reading is insightful and almost poetic.  I had a rough day trying to teach a couple of pieces of poetry to my students today, and I can hear echoes of what went poorly in what he writes.  He says it in a way that adds clarity to some important thoughts I was having.

But more broadly speaking about school, research shows that there's a right way to teach reading and a wrong way.  Handing out a copy of a book which is far beyond 60% of the class and far behind  20% more, and then going around the room taking turns reading paragraphs out loud, isn't it. Michigan actually has a pretty good model for teaching literature.  At any given time, barring other considerations, students should be reading 3 books: one which they choose, anything they want.  Judy Bloom, Dungeons and Dragons, Philip K. Dick, whatever.  It should be something they'll be reading successfully on their own with NO intervention from the teacher.  One book should be a little bit beyond them, and a small group of similarly just-slightly-out-of-their-league students are reading the same book, and they're all  trained on how to support each other's reading.  The third book is the book the whole class is reading--it should be considerably, but not impossibly, out of the range of most students in the class.  It should be something they can be successful at with significant support, scaffolding, and instruction from the teacher.  The idea is not to have kids read certain things, or to get specific ideas out of particular pieces of literature; it's to teach kids how, and why, to read.

 But this model leaves the teacher with a need for a lot more human resource management and a lot less knowing-how-to-read-good.  Most English teachers are good at reading, and not great at HR.  Teachers also like to teach what they love, which is why everyone reads The Scarlet Letter and Jane Eyre.  (I take that back.  I've never read Jane Eyre.)  And a lot of curriculum decisions are made by other people, which is why people still read Beowulf in high school.  To add wrinkles to this, there is a great deal of support for the idea of thematic units: you're not just reading The Scarlet Letter, you're reading it and a lot of things like it to study, say, the role of women in 19th century literature.  The development of the American Dream.  The literature from war zones.  Colonialist literature.  Whatever.  So that makes coordinating everything much harder.  The point is, though, there are other, better, much much much harder ways of doing it.

And the broader BROADER point is that the objective is to teach reading, and not to have kids read specific things.  I also reject the "cultural literacy" point made by the first commenter.  And the way to teach reading is to have students read things that are too hard for them and show them how to be successful at it.

And more broadly speaking about literature, it is in the nature of good books to change with their readers.  One Hundred Years of Solitude is not the same book for me now that it was 10 years ago; it's one of the reasons I keep re-reading it every couple of years.  I understand that I might quite enjoy Scarlet Letter if I re-read it now; I just can't bear the thought of trying.  So I understand Coates's frustrations, and I share many of them.  The article has a sort of "Don't even bother trying to teach me to read; I'll get it in my own time or not" feel to it that I'm not sure I like.  He doesn't have to be rational or correct about his response; I do (or at least look and sound like I do).  It's what I'm paid my absurdly big salary for.

By the way, I'm going to post this response and your link on my blog, if that's okay; I have at least one other reader who might find this really interesting.  Thanks!


1 comment:

Raymond said...

What is reading? I am pretty fluent when I read and have the ability to put a lot of inflection into my reading but I really struggle with comprehending what I have read. The early years of a student’s life should be learning how to read and by second grade they should begin to read news articles, textbooks, and short stories (chapter books) for the purpose of learning or enjoyment. It is possible many children will learn to read at a younger age based on their experiences and opportunities. I agree with Coates, that many students couldn't understand what the message is in the classics but it might have more to do with not caring rather than ability. That was how it was for me a student, I didn't take the time to understand any of the "good books", I had other things to do (sports and party).
Once a student has the capability to read, I believe the experiences they have in life will determine the meaning they get from a good book. Two good books that are must reads for those who want to change reading in schools are Readicide; How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It by Kelly Gallagher and Focus: Elevating the Essentials To Radically Improve Student Learning by Mike Schmoker. Gallagher describes how American schools are killing the love of reading in schools and then he gives a plan to change the issue. Schmoker’s book is how we can take some straight forward steps to increase student knowledge in every subject through teaching some very simple steps for reading, writing, and talking.