When I was a child, I read almost constantly. This was in part because for most of my childhood, I did not have access to a television, and probably in part because I was raised by bookish types: My father wrote poetry (still does, actually, the poor fellow), and my mother has written a couple of children’s books. Furthermore, I was not a terribly popular child. I was kind of fat and slow and ungainly, and I probably don’t have to tell you that these are not revered qualities in elementary and junior high schools.
I have a vivid memory from this period of my life of setting my alarm for 4:30, so that I could read for an hour or two before school began. I’d set up my bed so that the head of it fit into a closet; sounds weird, I know, but there was something cozy and comforting about it and I read in that closet for hour after hour after hour. Reading is just what I did.
We have spent almost no time formally teaching the boys to read, although we have read to them extensively almost since the day they were born. Penny has an enormous capacity for reading aloud; even now, with the boys nearly the ages of 9 and 12, respectively, she reads aloud to them every night before bed, often for more than an hour, and that’s a mere fraction of what she did when they were younger. Fin and Rye favor real life adventure stories, both fiction and non-fiction, and are particular fans of Gary Paulsen, which is convenient, because he’s a pretty fantastic writer.
Fin started reading when he was eight; a month shy of his 9th birthday, Rye is just starting to read. Both of them spend a tremendous amount of time with their faces in books, particularly during the colder months. Fin in particular carries books with him almost everywhere; I suspect that once Rye is fully capable of reading to himself, he’ll do the same. I remember being somewhat stressed when Fin turned eight and still didn’t read, probably because their ability to self-learn reading felt to me like the first big test of our informal teaching stye. But of course my stress was merely the result of standardized expectations set by the institutionalized schooling system. Without those expectations, set by – well, set by whom, really? I can’t say, but someone, somewhere must have decided children should learn to read by age 7, just like someone, somewhere must have determined every one of the “educational” milestones that define our sons’ and daughters’ school experience. Maybe the people who set these standards and designed these curriculums really do know a whole lot about how children learn and are thus qualified to make such decisions. But I know for a fact they don’t know my children.
I’m struck by the fact that I don’t see many children reading books anymore. I know some do; I just don’t see it much. I’m struck by the fact that as a society, we seem to revere the ability to read, and we seem intent on teaching it to our children as early as they can possibly grasp it. And then what do we do? We take it away from them. Not overtly, of course. Not with any conscious intent, but by slowly filling every “spare” minute of their waking hours with activities and opportunities. I remember an article that ran in a local weekly paper about the implementation of iPads in elementary and junior high school. Here is a revealing passage (the entire story is here. Gotta love the quote about parents who spend their “time cutting down trees in the middle of the woods”):
BFA Fairfax middle school principal Tom Walsh is equally jazzed about iPads and their power to get kids more excited about learning, in and outside the classroom.
“It doesn’t matter what kind of home you come from. Everyone has the same access. Everyone has the same tools,” he says during a tour of the school. “To me, public schools are the last bastion of equity in education.”
Next door to Skerrett’s classroom, an eighth-grade language-arts class is engaged in iPad learning games. One student is playing “Words With Friends,” a crossword game similar to Scrabble. At a desk alone, a young boy is engrossed in “Math Ninja,” a game whose objective is to defend a treehouse using martial-arts weapons.
Walsh asks the boy what he likes about the game. “You get to viciously attack cats and dogs with throwing stars and swords,” the kid says with a perfectly straight face. To reach the next level, however, the player must answer basic math questions, such as 22 divided by 11.
“Not really rigorous learning,” Walsh says, “but if you’ve got downtime, there’s worse things you could be doing.”
Perhaps Walsh is correct. Perhaps there are worse things a child could be doing than viciously attacking cats and dogs with throwing stars and swords on his way to learning that 22 divided by 11 is 2 (which, by the way, either one of my sons could’ve told you long before they reached the age that would correlate with their being in 8th grade).
Yeah, so, perhaps there are worse things. But l know for a fact there are better things, too.