In the Classroom: “Poor Kids” and Reading

The latest to give his list of summer reading books for kids is Nicholas Kristof, op-ed columnist for the New York Times.  In “The Best Kid Books Ever” Kristof writes:

In educating myself this spring about education, I was aghast to learn that American children drop in I.Q. each summer vacation — because they aren’t in school or exercising their brains.

This is less true of middle-class students whose parents drag them off to summer classes or make them read books. But poor kids fall two months behind in reading level each summer break, and that accounts for much of the difference in learning trajectory between rich and poor students.

Like so many similar well-intentioned pieces, this column bugged me.  Not only are the books Kristof recommends unlikely to end up in the hands of one of those “poor kids” this summer, even if they were in their hands, they might not speak to them at all.  The suggestions pouring in from his readers seem equally myopic— I see next to none considering what the actual reality is for those at-risk children.

If Krisof is so concerned about those “poor kids,” I wish he’d devote a column to them rather than listing books that he and his middle-class kids liked  — why are these “poor kids” not reading? What programs for them are working? Why? And what books are they liking?   What books (or other media, for that matter) are helping them keep those I.Q. points from bleeding away. (For that matter, check out Walter Kirn’s “Life, Liberty, and the Persuit of Aptitude” for another perspective on testing),  Rather than producing yet another list of books for us children’s book lovers to carp over, I’d like to see someone instead really examine those children who are struggling in school, what happens to them over the summer, and why.


Filed under In the Classroom, Reading, Teaching

21 responses to “In the Classroom: “Poor Kids” and Reading

  1. His kids’ suggestions are somewhat better, I think. The line I love is his reference to learning about education this spring. Yeah, you can learn all you need in that time frame. And where is he getting the IQ shedding stuff?? Thanks for pointing to this Monica.


  2. hope

    I think the comment about dropping two reading levels over the summer was an aside in an article clearly directed to the usual audience of the NYT– white middle class liberals. It’s not as if they need to be reminded that reading is good, but I liked his selection of books. I liked his kids’ suggestions, too, but I am with Philip Reeve, who said in the Guardian article that he is afraid that the classics like Sutcliff are being neglected. I think librarians focus too much on the new books, and consequently most readers’ selections are limited to things published in their (very short) lifetimes. This is bad.


  3. amen, sister.

    when one of his praise-y criteria is “this is a book so full of SAT words it could put Stanley Kaplan out of business” — uh, NOT SUCH ENTICING SUMMER READING, NICK. not for middle class OR poor kids.

    i too would love someone to actually interview at-risk kids and the people who work with them about what books sing to them.


  4. Elise Howard

    I was going to weigh in at NIcholas Kristof’s blog, but at 1500+ comments and counting, that space seems to have become basically a forum for Times readers to list their own childhood favorites. I was recently impressed by a a new summer reading program for at-risk rising ninth graders in my own community. Our head of reading curriculum came up with a terrific list that would especially speak to this audience. It was heavy on non-fiction, particularly memoir, sports, and biography of popular figures, but it also included fiction, especially fantasy, which is well-positioned to transcend class and culture.
    Considering your comments, Monica, I just wish I’d thought to suggest that the list include more audiobooks.


  5. lisa Von Drasek

    Thanks for speaking up. I think what made me the most crazy was that the Times had a real opportunity here. Also most of the responses of gosh, that brings me back. Lisa


  6. Thanks for pointing out the emperor”s nudity, Monica! What planet is Kristof writing from??!! Picture the disenchanted, disenfranchised, at-risk, potential drop-out adolescent—and how absorbed he/she is going to be in ANNE OF GREEN GABLES! I was appalled when I read his list.


  7. hope

    I think I am still missing something. Yes, it would be nice if Kristof studied up and wrote something on poor kids and their reading needs. But people seem to think that this was his attempt to do so, and having read the article, I don’t see why. He mentions those kids, but they were not the main subject of his column, which was addressed to his usual readers about their privileged, middle class kids. I can understand some complaint that Kristof DIDN’T write a column entirely about disadvantaged readers– I’d like to see him do so, but . . . Bwuh? What makes anyone think he intends these books for those readers?


  8. Hope, I read it that he felt something needed to be done to deal with that summer I.Q. drop, one that he then noted is “… less true of middle-class students…But poor kids fall two months behind in reading level each summer break…” Why bother even mentioning those “poor kids” if you then go on to make recommendations for the “middle-class” ones you have already said aren’t the main ones having the problem?


  9. bestbookihavenotread

    I also had read the article and was interested because I like to get the need for summer reading message out to parents as often as possible. I guess I read it with my own district in mind (middle class, suburb) and thought parents might listen to the NYTimes and push their kids to read.
    I appreciate reading your view of the article. As I reread it I could also see what you meant.
    Thanks for pointing out important issues that I had glossed over in my first reading.


  10. I encourage anyone who has not become familiar with the Center for Summer Learning located at Johns Hopkins University to visit the website and familiarize yourself with their work, the resources available. I am encouraged by their increasing reach and the high quality of work they do. Full disclosure: I do serve on the advisory board but accepted that invitation indeed because of their quality work. Good research briefs giving the substance behind many of the pieces we regularly see qutoed are found here:


  11. Rasco from RIF, thanks so much for letting us know about this organization. I took a look at it and it looks terrific — just the sort of thing I would have liked to have seen perhaps mentioned in Kristof’s piece.


  12. If I may shamelessly (but relatedly!) self-promote for a moment: we at Lee & Low Books have a whole bunch of books about working-class, often inner-city kids. It’s important for these kids to be able to see themselves in books, and the books will resonate much more. (It’s our mission to fill some of the diversity gaps in children’s literature, so our books often address issues of race and/or class.)

    Check out books like Chess Rumble, Bird, and DeShawn Days.


  13. Rose

    I am bothered by the assumption that the books on this list could never appeal to poor children. My family was quite poor when I was growing up, and I loved “Wind in the Willows” passionately, especialy wild Mr. Toad.

    I came across that book–and others on Kristof’s list–through my local library’s summer reading program; I am glad that they did not assume that those books would not appeal to me because of my economically disadvantaged status. I think it’s condescending to assume that poor children cannot relate to middle-class characters or that they would only be interested in the problems of children just like themselves. Poor children have the same capacity for empathy as middle-class children (who often check out and enjoy the gritty inner city fiction that’s supposed to appeal to the poor kids) and the same level of curiosity about people in radically different situations.

    I noticed that this has turned into more of a rant than I intended to write, but I am just so upset by many of the other responses, which are just as myopic and blithely unaware of the reading needs of poor children (diverse) as they accuse Kristof’s list of being.


  14. Rose, I actually love many of the books Krisof and other suggested and teach quite a few of them but based on my firsthand experience and from what I hear from other classroom teachers, I do indeed think the books Krisof suggested as well as most of the commentators “…might not speak to them [at risk kids] at all.” He used the term “poor kids” but I’m just thinking of any and all kids who are not thriving in school and how best to help them.


  15. Sarah

    I know I am late to this party, but I agree with Rose so entirely. I am always thunderstruck at the assumption–implied or otherwise–by people in the majority, either ecomically or racially–that “poor kids” or “disadvantaged kids” are only able or willing to read about same. Why does no one question the narrow reading of privileged white kids and lament that they are only reading about themselves? God help us all if we assume and encourage kids to explore only their own worlds. Doesn’t this contribute to the way white and upper- and middle-class kids assume that they are the norm, which in turn is responsible for the way racism–passive as well as active–continues to thrive? Where is the concern about that? And isn’t this assumption and stance toward reading uncomfortably akin to only giving kids books with words they already know, etc, rather than assuming their own curiosity and intellectwill with the advent of with new ideas?


  16. Sarah, as I wrote to Rose in response to her comment, I was not being absolutist about this at all. I would not want to presume to generalize about what all kids would read, much less “poor kids” (Kristof’s phrase, not mine.) I agree completely that kids don’t necessarily want to read about themselves. Certainly, I too was one who did not as a child.

    But I still feel strongly that as an op-ed columnist for the Times (my local newspaper) Kristof had an opportunity to go somewhere with that paragraph about what happens to these kids over the summer and didn’t. Something completely other than book titles. Books by themselves, any of them, are not the answer. Good programs, good teachers, and more are a start to an answer.


  17. Sarah

    Thanks, Monica. I agree with you completely that we need to examine the whole system behind learning and its successes and failures. I was reacting, though, in part, to the conflation of “poor” and “at-risk” kids in your post—the two terms are not synonyms. Poverty doesn’t necessarily mean you are “at-risk” , just as it doesn’t mean your reading ability or performance is necessarily compromised.


  18. hope

    I think the problem that Sarah and Rose are objecting to stems from the conflation of “poor kids” and “struggling readers.” I really appreciate the reminder that I should be careful not to use those as synonyms. Not all kids who are economically or otherwise disadvantaged are poor readers.

    When I say I wouldn’t recommend these books to poor readers, I mean ones that are struggling to read, not ones that are economically disadvantaged. I think good readers of any background would enjoy Kristof’s recommendations. But I admit to a circular definition, because I define a “good reader” as one who likes this kind of reading!

    Lots of high-income kids with no interest in reading would flee like stormy petrels from any of these books.


  19. hope

    Ha. Sarah, I wrote my message and didn’t hit the submit button because I got distracted. I wouldn’t otherwise have repeated everything you said, really.


  20. Thanks for this conversation, everyone! Sarah, I absolutely am with you that poor and at-risk should not be conflated and I’m sorry that I gave that impression. I hate any sort of generalization and this one is a particular offensive one, I agree. My concern is with the at-risk students, rich and poor. Since I was uncomfortable using “poor kids” the way Kristof did I used at-risk instead. A mistake, I realize.


  21. Sarah

    Hope, you are so funny! I really appreciated your comment, and your response, too, Monica. Thanks.


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