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Smart Kids, Unacceptable Reading Scores


While reading scores in this country have been in a downward trajectory, IQ scores have been going up. In other words, as our students have been getting smarter their reading skills have been declining. That shouldn't be happening. One of our leading educators, E.D. Hirsch, Jr, blames the "ephemeral fiction" used in most reading instruction.

In "The Knowledge Deficit," Hirsch writes, "The association of language arts mainly with fiction and poetry is an accident of recent intellectual history." We once taught reading with "narratives about the real world of nature and history."

. When the Voice of America visited a classroom students called A Hisstory of US books "page turners." ( Which is what all good books should be. .

Switching from books to devices is meaningless unless content is engrossing and mind challenging. Stories have always excelled in the teaching world. Today true stories are known as narrative nonfiction. Textbooks should captivate young minds. Anything less is unacceptable.

This is the Information Age. To productively handle information you need to research (read), process (think), and use (write). So reading, writing and critical thinking are today’s essential skills. They are what I, as a writer, do as a way of life. It’s fun. And it's the kind of mental training that all our students need.

Reading is often taught as an abstract decoding process. While decoding skills are helpful, that is not what reading is about.

Writing is a process that helps readers make sense of their reading. You can't write without doing some thinking.

So writing is something students should do every day. But what does a teacher do with all that written work? Get students commenting on each other's work. Make it clear that every writer at every level needs thoughtful commentary--that's why there are editors. Many teachers do in-class analysis of written work, as students read and write.

Good writers do draft after draft of their work. Writing rarely comes easily to anyone--but it always makes you think.

When students give oral presentations of their writing, teachers get a chance to grade on the spot, helping with the paper pile problem.

History is the ultimate Information Age subject. It is the great mother discipline that brings all the others together. Digesting its big ideas teaches critical thinking, using those big ideas demands another layer of thinking.

As for science history? Mostly we don't teach it. Why not? In this the greatest age of science ever, it is essential. It's also interesting, timely and.mind-stretching.

Cultures have traditionally passed on their ideas through stories. The Greeks knew that, and so, too, did Mr. McGuffey, whose story-filled "readers" taught generations of Americans to think.




Sam and Joy

I grew up in Rutland, Vermont and graduated from Rutland High School. After earning a bachelor's degree in government at Smith College, I went on to get a master's degree and, later, was presented with an honorary doctorate from Goucher College. In between I did a lot of teaching. Then I became a newspaperwoman: I was a reporter for The Ledger-Star in Norfolk, VA, a business writer and editorial writer for the The Virginian-Pilot, as well as, a freelancer for a number of publications including the The Wall Street Journal. I was also assistant editor of McGraw-Hill's World News in New York City.

I have never stopped being a student. I've taken courses at Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Bennington, Cornell, and the Wharton School of Business.

I've been a teacher: in Syracuse, New York, Omaha, Nebraska, and Virginia Beach, Virginia. And I've taught in elementary school, middle school, high school, and in a community college. I taught a writing course to high school English teachers (who got U of Va credit for it). I had fun, the teachers may have worked harder than they expected.

While my husband and I spent many years in Colorado and Virginia, we now live in the DC area. We have five grandchildren.

Currently, I am writing a storyteller's book on biology, which includes new research into evolutionary biology and presents the three domains that currently describe the biological world (but may soon change). It's an amazing subject, perhaps the defining science of our time. I'm having fun.

"I have been using [A History of Us] in my classroom for three years, and I can state unequivocally that it is the best resource I have ever used."
-Lynn Silk, Alexander Elementary School


"Joy Hakim... has become a hero to school-children in the United States by putting the 'story' back in history."
-–Patti Thorn, Rocky Mountain News


In 1995, Pulitzer-prize winning historian David McCullough went before the Senate Education Committee in support of a bill sponsored by Lamar Alexander and Ted Kennedy intended to improve the teaching and learning of history. McCullough gave a scathing attack on the state of textbooks, but cited Hakim's book as an exception: "Joy Hakim's new... multi-volume History of the United States is superb. But others are dismal almost beyond describing."

Joy and her books have garnered numerous awards and accolades. She was honored with the Smith College Medal: awarded for achievements as author of innovative textbooks.

Her series A History of Us has been awarded:
• 2012 McGuffey Award in Humanities and Social Sciences by the Text and Academic Author’s Association
• 2012 Ron Pynn Award for National Distinction in Educational Publication from the Text and Academic Authors Association (TAA)
• 2003 Matrix Foundation: Edith Workman Award
• 2001 The NY State Council for Social Studies: Salute to Joy Hakim
• 1997 Hakim's books earned her the first James A. Michener Award for Writing by the National Council for Social Studies and two Parents' Choice awards.

The Story of Science was:
• 2008 Winner of Benjamin Franklin Award for Education/Teaching/Academic This award is sponsored by The Independent Book Publishers Association.
• 2008 Awarded Selector's Choice 2008 CBC/NSTA's Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K-12
• 2008 Selected as a nonfiction finalist in the 2008 Colorado Book Awards
• The Nation’ s Best Books 2007 Award Winner, Science General went to The Story of Science: Einstein Adds A New Dimension. This award is sponsored by USA Book News and is given to the best science book of the year.

Now in revised third and fourth editions, incorporating new materials and corrections, books from A History of Us have been recommended to accompany the Common Core curriculum. The books are also used in some home school curricula.

Click here to read excerpts from David McCullough's testimony before the Senate Education Committee. (21 KB)

Read what Pulitzer Prize-Winning Historian and Author David McCullough had to say before the Senate Education Committee about Joy's Books and the State of History Textbooks

Quotes from teachers....

"This book is outstanding! I found myself reading all around the house, even trying to read while giving my daughters a bath! Now all I want to do is read the rest of the books as soon as possible and get them for my students."
-Teacher George Coggan, from Port Charlotte, Florida


"I wish you had been here with us on Friday afternoon. When I finished reading the first chapter of your book, A History of Us–The First Americans, the students all clapped. Your style is so passionate that it stirred the ten and eleven year olds and their much older teacher. This is the first time in my 36 years of teaching that reading a textbook sparked spontaneous applause! Thank you for writing these informative and engaging books!"
-Ellen Baker, a fifth-grade Masachusetts teacher

I often get letters from kids. Here are just a few examples of what they have to say.

"You have saved me from another year of boring Social Studies text books.
Your books are great and make you feel you are in the book with the Indians or the Europeans or whatever it is. You make me feel like I am really jumping into a time machine into the past."
-Katie Rahowski


"My name is Jason Goodine. I am in 6th grade. Last year when my class studied the Civil War I did not want to stop learning about it....I like how you talk about so much in your books. Before our school got the History of US books, I hated social studies...Then I really started to like social studies. I like your books. They are so descriptive. In my spare time when I start to read one of your books I cannot put it down." - Jason Goodine


"Ever since your book on American History was first published, our eighth-grade teacher, Charles Schefer, has wanted it for our school. Well, after five years our class is the first to use it! It is an awesome way of presenting American History, so that we look forward, five days a week, for our American History class!" - Katie Schneider, St. Petersburg, FL


"My name is Claire Dorman. I have all ten of your A History of US books, and I love reading each and every one of them. I like the way you make the reader feel like she is in the time that you are talking about...One of my favorite books was An Age of Extremes. Yes, the one with the "boring" presidents chapter. Hey, you know, that chapter was not boring at all."-Claire Dorman, Newark, CA


"Other books just give the information, plain and flat. You make it fun. I don't know exactly how you made Social Studies fun, but you did, and I thank you for that."John, 5th grade, Hearst Elementary, San Diego

"Joy Hakim makes it so kids can understand about Martin Luther King, Jr, Harry Truman, and Thurgood Marshall, or Malcolm X, Cesar Chavez, and Ronald Reagan....I think this is one of the top history books, if not the best. But I haven't read all the history books, and I probably never will, but this will be my all-time favorite." -Jason Diemer


"I think it's so important that kids understand about America. If we don't know how it was formed, if we don't understand what freedom, liberty and justice mean, how will we ever become good citizens? You can't stand up for your rights if you don't know what they are. And now I do." -Susie Allen, Palo Alto, CA

I certainly didn't create the books all by myself. Byron Hollinshead produced A History of US and The Story of Science, besides providing guidance and support. This picture shows the amazing team that made The Story of Science possible: Lorraine "Lorri" Egan, editor, Kate Davis, copy editor, Byron H., Marleen Adlerblum, designer, and Sabine Russ, managing editor. Byron's amazing skills as a publisher, and his elegant taste, helped make the books what they are. We all beleive that publishers should be producing the best books possible for young readers. They know the difference.

Tamara Glenny, not pictured here, was the incredible editor of A History of US. You can read about her at the end of Liberty for All (Book Five).

I see myself as a writer, not a speaker, but sometimes I do leave my nest; here are some pictures from The Kennedy Library in Boston

Same theme each time I speak: We need to use subject matter, especially history and science, to teach analytical reading, critical thinking, and sophisticated writing. Reading, writing, and thinking are not subjects, they are skills. It's the content of books, the ideas they hold, that should be exciting. Best way that I know to convey those ideas is through stories.

That's Edwin Taylor on my left. Taylor is an MIT physicist and was the terrific guru for Einstein Adds A New Dimension. We are with a Boston teacher at the Kennedy Library.

This is a panel at the Kennedy Library. That's Anita Silvey in a hat, she is creator of the online "Children's Book-a-Day Almanac", then me, then Wendell Minor, an artist and children's book illustrator. Next is Sy Montgomery, who writes about nature, and Catherine Thimmesh, who has written books on space exploration and discoveries by women. I felt lucky to be in such great company.