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Blogging On History, Science, and Education

For the Love of Reading

A review in the NY Times of a new edition of “Wind in the Willows” reminded me that my older son (now in his 40ties) loved that book. His younger brother (now in his 30ties) refused to read it. When I asked him why, he said, “It’s a schoolbook.”

In the decade between them, schools around the country had introduced new reading series. They contained lots of great authors–all presented in bits and pieces. The younger boy had read a single chapter, out of context, from Wind In the Willows. It had become a schoolbook, not a story to cherish, or remember, or read.

That trend to excerpt has, today, gone much further. Young students read few classics and almost no whole nonfiction books. Mostly they do what I call “snippet reading.” Teachers gather those snippets into units or classroom presentations. It can make for very lively sessions, but the teacher has done most of the work, and it’s the teacher who learns and remembers. The students have been entertained. I believe that kind of teaching helps explain the stubborn refusal of test scores to rise.

Anyway, I’m out here with books that kids seem to love to read. And, if anecdotal evidence can be trusted, they do make a difference in reading comprehension scores. But more and more it is the home-school teachers who read the whole volumes. Public schoolteachers, with some wonderful exceptions, often "chapterize". I’m finding that charter school teachers are apt to go even farther down that snippet road (with the best of intentions and also to save money).

Will today’s Twitter-generation students read whole books? I haven’t found that a problem. (The Harry Potter phenomenon makes that clear.) I still get love letters from young readers. From what I hear, lots of kids are starved for solid content.

Around the country I find teachers who are appalled by current materials and trends. In one Illinois city seven elementary teachers went before the school board protesting the choice of social studies books and asking for A History of US. Their story is kind of interesting. The city ended up adopting a standard textbook and also the A History of US reading/thinking approach to social studies (okay, I’m biased). Giving teachers a choice may be the best way to go. A Virginia district did the same thing.

Visiting a Maryland public school I was met by a tenth grade girl, with hot pink hair, who had read all three of The Story of Science books on her own. (Yes, that made me feel mighty good.) Visiting an 8th grade classroom where students were reading “Einstein Adds A New Dimension,” I was peppered with questions about black holes. “Is the book difficult?” I asked the kids. (After all, it’s a book that tells the story of quantum physics, not the easiest of subjects.) They looked at me as if I were missing something. “No, it’s not hard,” they told me. And I realized that they were learning at their level and exulting in their knowledge of black holes, supernovae, and dark matter. These are the great idea-based subjects of our time and, mostly, we are keeping information about them from our students.

The big scandal in education today, at least from my perspective, is in the textbook publishing (now expanded into technology) world. A few firms have made huge profits from our schools. In return they have produced books with phony professor authors-who sell their names but don’t write the books. That concept has spread to some of our great institutions, who also sell their names. Then underpaid freelancers write/produce the actual works. Good books or materials rarely come out of a committee format, especially a committee dedicated to making money. And that begins to explain the textbook/school materials travesty that is impacting our schools with serious implications for the future of our democracy. As my friend Tom Jefferson said in an 1816 letter to Charles Yancey, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”
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