Monday, January 21, 2013

The Path that Rocks

For years, my wife and I have tried – and failed – to get our children to read books. 

We’ve thrust “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” into our daughter’s hands on multiple occasions, but the book always ends up, unread, back in our study, waiting to go back up on the shelf with Alsan’s other adventures. 

Same goes for E.W. Hildick’s McGurk mystery series, this time aimed at our oldest son. Always thrust in his hands. Always found unread. 

What’s wrong with these kids today, we wonder. They don’t like to read. 

Not quite. 

They love to read. We’re constantly slapping books out of their hands, at meal times, when it’s time to head out the door to school, when it’s time to go out and play, head to the movies, go to Granpa’s house or just in general do something else besides sit and read. And most of the time, they bring books with them on all these occasions. Our son even tries to smuggle books into the movies, thwarted only by the darkness and our refusal to let him bring a flashlight. 

Our daughter loves Erin Hunter’s Warrior series, to the point we trip over Warrior books literally in nearly every room of the house. Our oldest loves Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid series, but also pores over a variety of non-fiction books, ranging from books on architecture to atlases. He spews facts in the way other kids spew beets. And our youngest, well, he’s the one who’ll carry books around but not necessarily read them. But he loves to be read to.

We do reading every night – guaranteed scripture study. This is good not only for their spiritual development, but also for their reading proficiency. We read aloud, we discuss and paraphrase, we ask and answer questions. And when it comes to reading scripture – or anything else for that matter – aloud, in front of a group, none of our kids have a problem with it. I guess we can be proud of that.

We must be the exception – because there are a lot of people out there worrying about reading and the skills that go with it – analysis, critical thinking, and writing. To the point they’re put together a comically complicated website on what’s called the Common Core, in which groups of experts have banded together to propose a long laundry list of objectives in language arts and math that our schools ought to be holding kids to before they get to college. 

I’m all for the standards, though I think the description of the website as comical is apt. You can’t look at the standards all in one go, for example. Nor even view the standards grouped by subject or grade. You have to read them one by one. One. By. One. And that’s annoying, despite the good the standards aim to uphold. 

Going to my state page – Idaho, in this instance, where the standards will be adopted in the 2013-14 school year – offers a better chance to read the standards without clicking through page after page after page. That’s a step in the right direction. (And to be fair, maybe the standards are there, in one package, on the Common Core main page. But it’s not clearly evident where. That’s a flaw.)

But I’ll stop nitpicking the website. 

The standards look good. They’re not outlandish, but rather well inside the realm of what I’d consider to be good readin’ and good writin’ – I’m not looking at the math standards because, hey, math standards. 

Aside from suggesting “Mr. Popper’s Penguins,” I’m pleased with the reading list for readers K-5. The inclusion of Susan Cooper’s “The Dark is Rising” and John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley” and “The Grapes of Wrath” is also impressive for readers in the 6-12 range. 

But I go back to my own kids. Their reading habits. The fact that “good books” thrust into their hands went unread, while other books were devoured. 

I’m not saying we shouldn’t be stretched when we read. We should be challenged once in a while. I’ve been challenged myself – reading, just last year, for instance, a rather substantive and technically-heavy biography of Albert Einstein, plus a treatise on the hydrogen bomb, and several books on Richard Nixon.

But I chose them. I chose to read them and accepted the challenge presented. I’m also a voracious reader raised in a family of readers raising a family of readers. Others won’t have this background.
Can’t we let them pick a book they might read, because even reading is a challenge? Can we cheer for a kid who finally manages to read a book like, say, Farley Mowat’s “Lost in the Barrens,” while others successfully read “The Grapes of Wrath,” and recognize that both books were exceptionally challenging, considering the reader who tackled them? I hope so. 

So glad I’m not a teacher in K-12. But I do teach college. And I do see a need for such standards. But I also recognize that I’ve come a long way as a writer and a reader since I left high school. Since I left college. Since I earned a masters degree in English way back in 2009. 

It’s an evolution, not a final destination. But evolution has to start somewhere. Here’s to hoping we’ve got our kids going down that path of rigtheousness. 

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