Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Wonder of Reading

I had lunch with one of my former middle school students the other day. Back when I was a librarian, I tried hard to get to know as many of the kids in the school as I could, and I grew particularly fond of the ones whose reading appetites I could not keep up with. This young lady, now in college, was one of those; by the time she left 8th grade, I'm convinced she had read every book in the library that I had read. She was one of my "library denizens," the kids who hung around the library before and after school and sometimes at lunch, and I take a certain pride in the fact that I probably introduced the word "denizen" into her already huge vocabulary.

Our catching up time focused on what she was doing in college, what classes she was particularly looking forward to in the fall, and, of course, what we were both reading these days. I feel pretty out of things, library-wise, lately, having been out of the library and doing my tech gig for coming up on seven years. But as I reflected on what I was reading, and what we had mutually read several years ago when she was in middle school, I began to wonder about the strange staying power of certain books.

I remembered (although I don't think my former student did) how much I loved Koly from Gloria Whelan's Homeless Bird, and how a friend of mine and I still reminisce about the very-real-to-us character of Koly; we wonder together how Koly might be getting along these days. I thought about my favorite read-aloud passages from Jack Gantos' Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key and Joseph Bruchac's Skeleton Man and Andrew Clements' Things Not Seen. I haven't had much of an opportunity to recommend a book to a student in almost seven years, but I still delight in that wonderful memory of book-talking  several of my favorites and the kids practically knocking themselves over to get to the book that had piqued their curiosity. There was always such a feeling of satisfaction when I was able to connect ANY book to the right reader, but particularly so for those kids who weren't at all convinced that reading had anything to offer them. I remember the student who could pronounce neither the title nor the author of Vivian Vande Velde's Heir Apparent, but checked it out repeatedly because she loved reading it over and over again; something in that book spoke to her.

I loved my gig as a librarian because when I saw those kids in the hall, I could strike up a conversation about what they were reading, ask them if they'd gotten to the good part yet, give them a knowing smile (but no information) when they asked me what was going to happen next, and then hook them with the next book when they finished the first. I loved that I never had to assess their vocabulary or their comprehension or whether they understood the author's purpose and/or tone; I just got to help them enjoy a book. Which is what real readers do.

I can still remember a certain passage from To Kill a Mockingbird, one I must have read and re-read 10,000 times when I first encountered it when I was fourteen or so. "A man walked into the street, dropped his glasses, and shot a dog." I vividly recall going over that passage over and over, weeping with the beauty and the pathos of it. What makes that line so beautiful to me that I can still quote it forty years later? I can't say. But what I do know is that I felt a huge connection to the people in To Kill a Mockingbird, just as I did to Koly in Homeless Bird and Eva in Lionel Shriver's haunting We Need to Talk About Kevin and the delightfully quirky Biscuit in Leah Hager Cohen's The Grief of Others. Reading fiction, as this article from The Atlantic explains, helps us get into the skin of another person, experience empathy for someone else, and view the world from that perspective.

Which brings me to today's topic, something I've wondered about for quite some time. When students' main reading experiences involve sitting in front of a computer and reading a screen-long passage and then taking a comprehension test on that passage, I wonder how in the world they are going to develop the same love for reading that springs from a deep experience of empathy for a character who becomes real to them over a period of time. I wonder how they will develop that sense of connection to an imaginary, but wholly real, person, perhaps unlike anyone they might have the opportunity to meet in real life, from a character whose only point of existence is to serve as a comprehension checkpoint. I wonder what passage from that computer screen might speak to a child so deeply that she might remember and be able to quote it verbatim the next day, let alone forty years later.

While reading programs that focus on Lexile improvement might raise test scores (and truth be told, I'm not completely convinced about even that), I can't for the life of me see how they do anything toward helping students love the act of reading. Those programs bear no resemblance to how real readers read in real life. At least part of what's missing in those programs is any kind of relationship. There is no relationship between the reader and the characters, and none between the reader and someone else who might have read the same thing and want to discuss it.

I wonder how we can convince teachers of the value in reading simply for reading's sake, when there are so many competing curricular objectives; how we can bring DEAR time back into every classroom, every day, without its feeling like a luxury; how we can take advantage of technology like e-readers and web sites like Scholastic's The Stacks in the very best way: so that students get to read a book - a whole book - and then have time to write or talk about it with someone else. And then when they're done, NOT ask them to take a test on what they just read.

Yes, comprehension and vocabulary and grammar and understanding an author's purpose are important and probably need to be assessed from time to time. Just not every time. Please. Because more than just about anything, I want kids to find at least one book that they connect with so deeply that it still haunts them forty years from now. And I wonder how we're going to make that happen without the conditions that allow them the time and the freedom to just read.

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