Category Archives: Reading

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

In the Classroom: Don’t Blame the Book

I know that I am, like, annoyingly old-fashioned about this, but it seems to me that a big part of the problem is that we have lately empowered students to think that their reading of a book is inherently good and/or interesting.

Too often, we teach kids that all readings are created equal and that there are no bad ideas and etc.

But kids are not in school so that they can tell us what they think about Holden Caulfield. They’re in school to learn what to think about. And whether or not you like Holden is not, imho, the most important or interesting thing you might be thinking about when reading Catcher.

It’s not Holden’s fault if people read him poorly.

Those fighting words are from  John Green in his response to a recent New York Times piece on kids’ dislike of The Catcher in the Rye and, perhaps more significantly, its main character.  I recommend reading the article, reading John’s response, and then — most of all— the comments. For many of them are from high school kids and quite a few of them are fans of Holden.

To me the missing ingredient in this discussion is the teacher.  A great teacher can make most books interesting. (Mind you — I’m not saying likable.  You can enjoy the experience of reading and talking about a particular book — say Catcher — without necessarily liking it.) Now I know that all too often teachers in schools sadly make the experience of reading a book together as a class a misery.  But I have to say that I believe that done right it can be transcendent.  With a great teacher a group becomes a community discussing and considering and wondering and thinking hard about all sorts of stuff by way of a great book.  It bugs me that there is such a negative view about community book readings — IN SCHOOL SETTINGS.  After all, people are big on book groups and whole towns and cities reading a book together. Yet too many of these same folks tear up and spit out teachers and schools for doing something similar.

Good teachers guide and prod and get everyone thinking hard. I teach 4th graders and I like to think I’m able to do this with our study of Charlotte’s Web and am arrogant enough to think I could do it with Catcher in the Rye. It doesn’t always have to be just personal.  Sometimes reading is about something else — about ideas, about the world, about all sorts of stuff. When we do a close reading of Charlotte’s Web we consider the circle of life, irony, nature, death, and tons more.  The kids move outside of their personal response to consider those of others and whether those change their own. The conversation is  exhilarating.  For the kids and for me.  As wonderful as when I first did a close reading of the book with U.C. Knoepflmacher at Princeton in 1990.

I don’t think every book in the classroom needs to be done by the whole class, but I think it is a shame if some aren’t.  Be it Catcher or Charlotte’s Web or another book that is full of meaty stuff to tussle with, to consider, to rail against, or to love.  Books and teachers and students together can create extraordinary classroom communities.  Don’t rule them out.

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My Take on Summer Reading

Some recent posts about summer reading reminded me of mine from a couple of years ago; since my feelings are the same I’m reposting it here for anyone who didn’t see it back then (or via my twitter update of today).

To require, or not to require, that is the question:
Whether 'tis safer for the child to tackle
The tomes and texts of summer reading,
Or to rest after a year of standards,
And by resting be just fine?  To bore: to make tedious:
No more; and by saying no required reading we end
The heart-ache and the hundreds of pages down
That eyes are following, 'tis a consummation
Urgently to be wish'd.  To bore, to make tedious
To read: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
for in required reading what dreams may come
When they are reading not what they chose,
It must give us pause: there's the worry
That makes calamity of so long a summer;
For who would otherwise bear the scores of tests,
The teacher's wrong, the greater authorities correct,
The pangs of summer fun, the sandlot game's delay,
The insolence of NCLB and the spurns
That patient scoring of the unworthy tests,
When the grader himself might his intellect make
content with a book? who would a library visit,
To read and turn pages under a flickering light,
But oh that dread of something after Labor Day,
No matter the undiscover'd book in whose pages
No child is lost, or left behind
And indeed makes us happier for we have
played with others and enjoyed the sun!
But required reading make cowards of us all;
Teachers and parents unresolved
Are sicklied 'oer with the pale cast of thought,
Is casual fun of greater import and meaning
In this regard than our children's future?
And so we go --- required summer reading all!
The fair child!  Innocent, in our eyes
Be all our beliefs --- read required, read.

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Revisiting: AS Byatt’s Possession

Okay, it isn’t really quite my revisiting, but I am an AS Byatt fan, loved Possession, and am eagerly waiting for the US publication of her latest, The Children’s Book.  So I very much enjoyed reading Sam Jordison over at the Guardian book club leading a discussion of this title.  Like a fellow Guardian writer, Jordison considered himself a Byatt skeptic due to a problematic experience earlier in his reading career, but this book  changed his mind. He writes:

The first thing that surprised me about an author I had previously pigeon-holed a dry old stick was how witty she is – and how playful. Among (many) other things, Possession is a wonderful comedy of manners. It sends up academics of all stamps (dusty, thrusting, shy, ambitious, greedy, gender-obsessed, sex-obsessed, celibate). It laughs at English eccentricities, foibles and inability to talk about emotion. It lampoons a certain type of overwhelming, over-articulate American. It mocks class mores. Anyone and everything that falls under Byatt’s gaze is a source of fun.

Indeed, the entire book is a clever joke; a sophisticated riff on the manners and tropes of detective novels. It swaps the private dicks for two literary academics – Maud Bailey and Roland Mitchell – who use their skills in textual analysis to follow a series of arcane clues in order to unravel a mystery surrounding two Victorian poets (Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte). So it reads like the Da Vinci Code – only with brains and a sense of the absurd.

Since this is a book club, be sure to read the comments.  Fascinating and very smart conversation!


Filed under Literature, Reading

Alexander McCall Smith on Reader Needs and Demands

It can be very inhibiting for an author if he or she knows that what happens in fiction is going to be taken so seriously. I write serial novels in newspapers and have learned the hard way that people will readily attribute the views expressed by characters to their authors. In one of my “Scotland Street” novels a character called Bruce, a rather narcissistic young man, made disparaging remarks about his hometown. Although these were not the views I hold about that particular town, I was roundly taken to task, with the local member of the Scottish Parliament suggesting that I should be forced to apologize to the offended citizens. I pointed out that these were the views of a fictional character, who was just the type to make such remarks. That did not help.

It was very timely for me to come across this Alexander McCall Smith’s WSJ essay, “Lost in Fiction”  because, after seeing the excellent first episode of HBO’s No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, I had a hankering for the books and picked up the latest.  High class comfort reading,  I think.


Filed under Africa, Reading

British Footballers’ Favorite Reads

Rooney’s is Harry Potter, but whose is The Iliad? – News, Books – The Independent

Wonder what our footballers (and other ball players) would name?

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Marking Books

Okay, okay, I admit it.  All my life, with library books too.  Hang head in shame.  All those turned-over-corners.  I did it.  You can blame me.

The days of embossed leather bookmarks are of course long gone and 62% of people in the poll admitted they turn the corner of the page to keep their place. “I consider that mutilation,” said Simon. “I would never do that, what’s wrong with using bookmarks – tickets, pieces of paper?”

Jonathan Douglas, director of the National Literacy Trust, admitted he had bent the truth. “My first degree was in theology, I got a 2:1 at Durham. I’m embarrassed to say I never finished the Old Testament.”

The results are based on 1,342 responses to a survey on the World Book Day website, and Douglas said that in many ways the results were reassuring. “It shows that reading has a huge cultural value in terms of the way we present ourselves as intelligent and engaged people.”

He said he was far from surprised at the turning down of pages or the 14% of people who admit writing in a library book. “I used to be a librarian and I can tell you books come back in the most horrendous condition. Turning down corners is better than surgical stockings hanging out of Tolstoy.”

From the Guardian piece, Our guilty secrets: the books we only say we’ve read.

Been there about those unfinished books, but what about book marking?  I’m curious — you librarians out there — what sort of stuff have you found being used as book marks? (Or do I really not want to know?)


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Vote for One of Your Favourite (this is a UK thing) Literary Characters

Leeds Read 2009: Now we’ve got character

Perhaps because I find him endearing, I voted for Rincewind.

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Reading, Books, and Obama

Much has been made of Mr. Obama’s eloquence — his ability to use words in his speeches to persuade and uplift and inspire. But his appreciation of the magic of language and his ardent love of reading have not only endowed him with a rare ability to communicate his ideas to millions of Americans while contextualizing complex ideas about race and religion, they have also shaped his sense of who he is and his apprehension of the world.

From Books, President-elect Barack Obama Found His Voice –

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I Knew It!

Lying about something you’ve read to impress the person you fancy is the second most common dating deceit, after fibbing about your previous sexual conquests, new research from the National Year of Reading reveals today.

Back in the day, l suspected that many of those copies of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time sitting around on coffee tables (not to mention its long tenure on the best seller list) were a passive form of lying. That is, had the book owners actually read the book?  I was always skeptical.  And now I’m even more dubious.  A new poll indicates a whole lotta lying about book reading going on. More here.


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