Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Read Like An Idiot



Today, I had to give some students the bad news. I do not think they are cut out for English Honors courses. I based this on our class discussions of the first few weeks of the year and the essays they wrote about the books they read for the summer. I hate doing this. I did not get into teaching to discourage people. Still, I have to paint an honest picture for them, and it would be better to drop to a less demanding course than to have Ds and possibly lower grades on the report card.

So I called the class to order, discussed the common errors I found in their essays, explained the procedures for dropping the course, and promised them I would reconsider them for the program next year in June. I tried to deliver the blunt truth without discouraging them, but I did not feel I succeeded at the end of the class. In fact, several came up to me later in the day to ask if they really should drop the course. I reaffirmed that yes, that is exactly what I was telling them in class. To be successful in English Honors, one must read like an idiot, and write even more compulsively. “You might have the desire to do this kind of work,” I told them, “but simply having the desire does not get the job done. You have to walk the walk. Or in this case, read the book and write the near perfect essay.” Some of them were a little stuck on my use of the word, “idiot.” I had to explain: read like a madman, like you cannot get enough, like you breathe.

In an issue of Publishers Weekly dated August 27, 2007, Editor-In-Chief Sara Nelson recited some scary statistics. A few years ago, in the Reading at Risk survey published by the NEA, 57% of Americans said they had not read a book in the last year. A Gallup poll in 2005 proclaimed that the average American read only five books per year. Finally, in mid-August 2007, the AP-Ipsos poll revealed that 27% of the people questioned had not read a book in the previous year. Pretty disheartening stats, I think.

If people—parents, teachers, relatives, priest, rabbi, doctor, lawyer, holistic healer—model reading behavior for students, show them reading in practice, these dismal statistics might change.

Parents must read. The household should stop for at least an hour each evening for family reading. Turn off the radio or television; shut down the computer. Pick up a book or newspaper or magazine and read. Parents teach their children values, or they teach them bad habits. Teaching them the importance of reading, placing reading on a pedestal, demonstrating the intrinsic value of diving into a good book for at least an hour per night should be a parent’s job, alongside providing braces for the teeth and solid, nutritious meals, among other important items. If a parent models the behavior, the child will be part of a reading culture. With that, we are half way to the finish line.

Teachers—oh, they are the worst offenders. They assign books. They assign homework. They hand out reams of paper. But do they read? It is my first question when interviewing a candidate for a teaching position: what books have you read in the last month? Inevitably, I get the nervous, blank stare. Nervous ticks flourish. “I liked that Harry Potter book.”

“Really? Me, not so much. He dies at the end. That was a real downer.”

“Yeah,” the poor job seeker responds. “Sad.”

Next candidate!

Teachers must read. Sounds stupid and redundant, but there it is. I have taught with teachers who scoured Sparks Notes for the answers and the questions. But they did not open the book. I have taught with teachers who read half the book in college. And did not pick it up again. I have taught with teachers who saw the movie. Hated it! But they will show it to their classes all day, every day, for five school days straight.

Teachers should read like they will die if they don’t. They should eat books. Swallow them whole while they also wolf down that tuna sandwich during the fifteen second lunch period. Stay out of the faculty room. Find a dark corner. Read a book. What would the kids say if they saw you sitting against the lockers, knees up against your chest, enthralled by a book? You do not need to go this far, but students should see you reading, should be able to tell you have read, feel certain that you have read nearly everything on earth. And you should. You are an English teacher, for crying out loud!

Talk about books at a family gathering. Select a family book to read. Choose one now so you can talk about it at Thanksgiving. Enough of going around the table asking everyone what he or she is thankful for; be thankful that you can read!

In the Sunday Los Angeles Times Opinion section (September 16, 2007), there is an article about how schools are no longer assigning homework. Randye Hoder, the writer of “The School Ate My Homework,” tells the story of her nine year-old son’s first day of fourth grade where the teacher informed the class that they would have to do no more homework forever. After the initial shock wears off, Hoder is not all that displeased. She believes that much of the work students are assigned at home is simply what we in the profession call, “busy work.” This needless and time-consuming stuff turns the evening into a battlefield, where parents must fight with their children to complete the assignments and get to bed at a decent hour.

From the classroom perspective, I know that there are many teachers who assign busy work. Does a child need to do 75 math problems in an evening? Do they need to answer every question offered up at the end of the short story in the literature anthology? And what about those dioramas of stars and planets in a shoebox? Is your child able to find Venus near the setting moon in August because he built one in third grade? Besides, couldn’t he just borrow dad’s GPS star finder that he bought last year at The Sharper Image?

Sometimes I worry that I am turning my high school students into twenty year-old coronary cases. It is the pressure, man.

If we are going to abolish homework, let’s make time for more reading. Go home tonight and read and think and dream and plan. May be you should write some of that down. Several times a week, I may ask you to discuss what you read last night, or I might ask you to go on the computer and find out why the Spartans were such fierce warriors.

Homework should be important and meaningful. It should never be busy work. And it should be centered around a child’s need to know, a child’s question, not some editor’s question at the end of the story.

To those students I had to put down today, I am truly sorry. I am sure you will all prove me wrong this year, and by December, I will be kicking myself that I did not let you stay in Honors English. Please, please, make me wrong. I love when the hero faces defeat, regroups, and comes back to conquer and achieve victory. I root for those heroes. Most importantly, if you want to know the secret, it’s reading. Read, read, read, read, read.

No less than Ethan Hawke, actor and novelist, in a recent New York Times Magazine interview said, when asked what advice he gives his kids, “I tell them the more you read, the more intelligent you are. It’s really that simple.”

Yes it is.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Mr. Martin,
I really enjoyed reading this and couldn't agree with you more... I think reading should be a huge part of everyone's life because its the only means to real, legitimate information and knowledge. Reading for enjoyment purposes also has its advantages; and I'm sure you know them, so no need to go on and waste your time listing them. I just wanted to leave a comment to let you know that I really think you have a great point with the idea of reading as an essential part of life. You entertained me for about five minutes! Thanks! :)
-Talia Tanielian