I never intended to become a literacy advocate. Although I’ve always been a voracious reader; I sort of assumed that most people were at least somewhat adept at reading, that they probably engaged in this wonderful activity as much or as little as they pleased, and that if they didn’t it wasn’t “societies”‘ problem. Boy was I mistaken! Not only are a stunning number of Americans illiterate, but the ones who can read too often don’t! The reasons for this are multiple, and probably start with the fact that sources of news/entertainment in America are now largely digital, (TV, internet, I-pod, you name it). In addition to this, people work hard at their jobs; they put in long hours and deal with high stress levels and often want to “veg” out to one of the afore-mentioned electrical entertainments in their leisure time. But friends, this is a very sad state of affairs. And let me tell you why. The simple act of reading is a brain activity. Not only does reading provide all the same entertainment/information that electronic media does, it does so by actively engaging the brain. The rewards of this brain engagement are truly limitless: increased vocabulary and critical thinking skills, powerful creativity and problem solving abilities, improved self-esteem and personal empowerment. By contrast, the penalties for not engaging the brain are staggering: a limited job and personal growth forecast, increased lethargy and complacency, and a more likely feeling of powerlessness in the world. In short, reading is doing something. By contrast, watching a re-run for the umpteenth time on Channel whatever is sort of like just phoning in your evening, (no offense to Nic-at-Night!).
My earliest memories of books occured before I could even read. I can remember looking at the pictures in “Goodnight Moon” as a kid, and how they seemed like they were made of magic. That book might as well have been carved in gold for all the worth it contained for me in the early 70s. I didn’t know what the accompanying words were even saying, but I knew they were speaking about those magical pictures, and I longed to decipher the mystery they contained. Because I came from a household of readers, books were regularly read to me, and undoubtedly helped form my vocabulary and visualization skills. However, my sometimes over-active imagination caused problems when I went to school in 1977; I simply couldn’t sit still all day! This eventually led to a “special ed” student label and resulted in my having to reapeat the 1st grade, which ended up being a good thing because I’d been the youngest person in my class and frankly wasn’t ready for school. While being held back didn’t instantly turn me into an exemplary student, it did allow me to adjust to the school environment and meet people whom I’m still friends with. And while I didn’t like subjects like math or social studies, I absolutely adored the part where we wrote little mini-books. This was an awesome project that I hope is still being done in elementary schools. It was so fun to make up a story, draw some pictures, and put it all together. I still have one of my mini-books on the wall, it’s called “How to Write.”
I entered the 5th grade in the fall of 1982 and had a truly excellent teacher, Miss Thompson. She came from the old-school view that to become accomplished at any subject, practice (and reading) makes perfect. She worked us 11-year olds relentlessly hard, and as a result of this I was actually able to learn and memorize my most hated of scholastic nemeses, the multiplication tables. This feat would have seemed simply impossible just a year previous, what with my poor attitude and all. But Miss Thompson demanded excellence from us. She also devised a brilliant system whereby kids would read a book, do a report, and then recieve a construction paper ice cream scoop on the wall. The student with the most scoops at the end of the year would win a sundae. Miss T. encouraged us to read a book every month, a goal I still adhere to to this day. If we read a “harder” book, we’d get multiple scoops. The piece de resistance for the class was “Moby Dick,” for which I spent six weeks reading, and then doing a book report for. This was amazing, considering I was only in 5th grade and had been a remarkably poor student just months earlier. I was able to do this assignment, (and win a Friendly’s Reces Pieces sundae), because I had an encouraging teacher who not only made it clear that extraordinary things could be performed by all of us, but that indeed anything less was a waste of our time, (and hers). What I really learned in 5th grade was that it is worth pushing ourselves to excellence, that merely getting by is a shame, and that one should simply never settle, EVER in this life.
Being a teenager in the 1980s who listened to and played punk rock music had many interesting elements. I considered the poetry of Johnny Rotten to have the same value as William Shakespeare, and voiciferously devoured both. In fact, I read the entire works of Shakespeare in 11th grade while simultaneously making an album with my punk band Flowerpot Demons. My grades were OK, and I frankly still had somewhat of an attitude concerning how much smarter I thought I was than my teachers, but I was also slowly starting to grow up. I came to understand that the reason kids don’t read is because reading isn’t considered cool. Not by the media, pop culture, peers, parents, video games, and even many teachers. In fact, if the only person encouraging kids to read is the school librarian, it doesn’t take a Michael Crichton to figure out there’s going to be problems, (no offense to Mrs. Osburn, the wonderful school librarian at my school). In order to create an idea, (and not just consume the ideas of others), to really do anything of value or vision requires an immense dose of determination mixed with a healthy sprinkle of imagination. Reading sparks brain facilities better than anything elese I’ve ever seen. It is the mental gymnastics that one needs to build a foundation of life-long learning, and is an absolutely critical component of understanding anything about the world, (Physics, math, geology, you name it…they all use books!).
I’ve been teaching kids how to read since 1997. I’ve worked as a teacher’s aide and literacy coach for grades K-12 in 5 different school districts. I’ve seen every type of learning disability and social reason for kids not to read, and it’s made me realize that this is a truly unacceptable situation that needs an immediate and 180-degree turnaround. For kids to be effective in any subject, they need reading comprehension skills. Since passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, we’ve been judging kids (and schools) on the quality of their standardized testing scores, and in far too many districts these scores are sub-par. The main area students continuously have trouble in is their essay writing, which is a major part of any standardized testing system, (every test subject uses essays and they ALL require reading skills). Often students aren’t even comprehending the questions they are being asked. For example, if a question requires a student to read a paragraph about a science experiment and then asks for a way to simplify the independant variable of said experiment, a student will need at least some understanding of the scientific method and conducting experiments. But to answer the question correctly also
requires comprehension of the words “simplify” “independant variable” and “experiment.” Without this basic comprehension, the whole essay becomes a wash. And without a soild foundation in reading, a student will simply never be able to excel in high school, let alone college. It is for this reason that I have pledged to read a book every month, and the kids I tutor will also. In this way, we all can become Champion Readers and make Miss Thompson proud!
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