School is no Place for a Reader

A perplexing fate awaits a reader in an elementary school. There is no place for this strange child in classroom, library or playground. Watching my daughter caught in this predicament I find myself troubled by the paradox of an institution charged with teaching children to read that seems unable to offer either welcome or nourishment to the ardent reader within its walls.

With the arrival of the child came the books. From the shelves of used bookshops, thrift stores, libraries and Oma’s house, from the Amazon and Indigo warehouses, out of wrapped packages at Christmas and birthdays the books arrived like an endless small town fair parade – floats, marchers, brass bands, clowns – some finer than others, in crowds bunched together or singly straggling, not well-marshalled, but hanging together somehow. Each met with narrowing, gleaming eyes – what will this one do? Mother Goose, the Grimms, Kipling, Seuss, Beatrix Potter, Edward Lear and the Ahlbergs. A perverse favourite known as “Josh and Jude” that put readers-aloud into hypnotic trance.

By the time the child started school she had taught herself to read. Joining the carnival, she kept company with her favourites as long and as often as she liked. She met Moomintroll and Mary Poppins, Dido Twite and Pippi Longstocking, Loki and Laura Ingalls, Borrowers and Bastables, Swallows and Amazons. Awake and dreaming she gazed on Asgard, Olympus, Canaan, and Camelot. She lived at Willoughby Chase, Villa Villekula, and Greene Knowe. She stopped reading only when the book was pried from her small hands.

The books from school came home in a Ziploc bag with a detailed letter explaining how her parents or caregiver should read with her at home every night for ten minutes. The first small ten-page book was called “Noise,” its recurring line “Yukka, dukka, yukka, dukka, ya, ya, ya.” There was one book to last the week. “Noise” was the beginning of a parade as well. All entries wore the same uniform, had the same number of performers and arrived at precise weekly intervals. The drill lasted ten months a year for four years. In December of the first year, the child said she wanted to get up off the kerb and go home.

I

At the parent-teacher interview, the child’s mother sits in a small chair, knees at her chest.

“I wondered about the reading,” says the mother. She holds up two books – The Borrowers, from home, and A Bad Day, from school. “Do you have any books more like this one she just finished reading? She’d love to bring something more like this home from school, and it might . . . well, make more sense than sending these other kinds of books home.”

“Sequential levelled readers” are making their punctual way to the house in the backpack, one every week. The teacher leans forward and says, mysteriously, “There is a difference between decoding and comprehension. Perhaps she is decoding that book, but she isn’t comprehending it.” Raised fingers twitch around his words.

II

From junior kindergarten to Grade 2, the child’s classes march linewise down the hall to the school library for a weekly visit. Pre-selected books in a box wait to be grabbed and checked out at the end of library period. The students file in and obediently sit down. The librarian dims the lights and presses play on the DVD player. The child reads in the dark as the videos play. The librarian confiscates the book. “Stop reading and watch this movie.”

III

During library period in grade 4 the librarian teaches the children computer skills: making their names appear in various colours and fonts on the screen and designing brochures. At the end of the period there are a few minutes to check out two books. Most children decline the offer. The child sees a book she wants high on the top shelf and asks the librarian to reach it for her. “No. You can’t have anything with a yellow sticker. They are too hard for you. You might be able to read it, but you wouldn’t understand it. Pick one of the books with green stickers.” Green stickers mark the spines of The Magic School Bus, The Babysitters’ Club and The Pokemon Guidebook. The book the child has just finished reading, Oliver Twist, is not in the library at all.

IV

It is the first day of school in grade 3. All morning the child looks forward to recess. The pavement is still warm in September. She will make a pillow of her jacket and lean against the brick wall, reading. The bell rings. The teacher pulls her from the line on the march downstairs, “Give me the book. You have to play outside during recess.”

That afternoon, the child tucks The Two Towers inside the sleeve of her jacket before she makes her way outside. Vigilant against unauthorised reading, the teacher looms in the stairwell. She puts her hand out. “Give me the book. That’s sneaky – hiding that book under your jacket.” Then, very slowly and clearly, “Don’t – be – sneaky.”

V

The teacher calls the child’s mother. “She has to stop talking in class about the books she’s reading. It’s very insensitive. She’s making other students feel bad.”

“They feel bad? Why? What is she saying?”

“She said that Harry Potter isn’t hard to read.”

* * *

School is no place for a reader. An object of suspicion and a source of discord in the classroom, the reading child is a threat to school harmony. Her act of reading is itself a provocation to authority. She must be stopped and made to play team games or gaze dumbly at a screen. The silent reader dangerously escapes supervision and the escape is most threatening when the content of the book is unknown.

But reading boosterism is everywhere. Notices in the hallways advertise the Book Fair. Slogans abound. “Reading Rocks!” “Reading is Cool!” “I ª 2 Read!” Oracular posters prophesy “TODAY A READER, TOMORROW A LEADER.” A spurious promise. Reading seems at least as likely to undermine a desire to “lead” as to encourage it. In the act the reader retreats from the world, makes herself absent from the forum. When I think of “readerly leadership” Tolstoy’s General Kutuzof comes to mind – observing, waiting, delaying action, frustrating the ambitions of courtiers and counsellors. His was a leadership prone to doubt, aware of the vagaries of chance, and the unpredictability and frequent futility of action – “When in doubt, don’t.”

The Book Fair tables are filled with things that aren’t books – pencil sharpeners, stamp art kits, novelty pens – and things that only look like books – video game character guides, Lego sets packaged in a book form, One Direction Fact Books, Power Rangers and Angry Birds advertisements disguised as “Early Readers.” The Book Fair is a hoax.

Not only does school present a shallow conception of what reading is, the experience of school offers almost no opportunity to read with pleasure. Readers need relatively quiet libraries and classrooms well-stocked with excellent books, tended by well-read teachers and librarians always ready to suggest a book or to read out loud with enthusiasm and familiarity with the story.

The judgement of teachers and librarians putting books in the hands of children should be formed through wide reading, experience and appreciation of written language. Instead a member of one school library committee in Ontario can say that he doesn’t see any difficulty at all in consolidating two school libraries into one, smaller, space. After all, he never has any of his students check a book out of the library. “What’s the point? They should be using Wikipedia.” His fellow member (two of this type, on one small school board committee!) concurs, “I have taken loads of courses over the years – upgrades, professional development, content courses – I have never needed to read a single book. No one reads books anymore. It’s all articles and PowerPoint.”

School libraries are filled with computers and the shelves are filled with dreck based on video games, cartoons and movies. It is said that this is the only way to tempt children away from screen to page, but these book impostors are created to foster and capitalize on an appetite for a product. Is it likely that “Barbie in a Mermaid Tale,” printed out as sixteen pages of dull and disjointed summary, will increase the odds of the child reading Alice in Wonderland or Swallows and Amazons? Whatever the market may cast before consumers, school should not be its enthusiastic accomplice in corrupting the taste and abilities of the young. We must know these things for what they are. The Pokemon Character Guide is not a book, it is a toy. Children ought to have toys, but they should also have books.

Chances for reading in school are too frequently squandered on something else – computer training (a ludicrous idea equivalent to teaching students how to operate a DVR or a microwave oven), fundraising, and, most egregiously, watching mainstream commercial movies and television programs. Why, if reading is universally agreed to be essential to learning, if we all “ª” reading, would teachers choose to fill those inevitable unplanned 50-minute periods with a movie rather than have students read to themselves, or hear a book read aloud? Every child in school lives in a world throbbing with noise and the constant flickering of video display. Why would a movie ever displace the chance of a quiet hour with a book in school?

Sitting in waiting rooms with children over the years I have had the same experience time and again: when I open a book and read out loud every child in the room wanders over. They stop complaining, leave behind their iPod or NintendoDS. Children are transfixed by books read aloud. They should hear books and poetry often. Even if we adults rarely, or never, speak well, through reading out loud our children will hear the cadence of beautiful language. Children will listen to words, will imitate purely for the pleasure it gives them. Even the youngest children in the schoolyard parrot insidious pop song lyrics like “So here’s my number, so call me maybe.” Surely this has less meaning for them than Jabberwocky? And unlike Carroll’s nonsense, the pop lyric is devoid of the invention and impact of language shaped by formal considerations.

I have read a great deal in these pages and elsewhere about the demise of a literary sensibility and the dwindling number of discerning and independent-minded readers, not only among the population at large, but also, and more inexcusably, among university students, professors, publishers and critics. We are reaping a crop sown in the soil of elementary school, fertilised with Scholastic pseudo-book order forms, literacy texts, and reading logs, and grown in the glass house of bookless classrooms and school libraries converted into computer labs.

Lest we think the Ziploc reading bag a local phenomenon, here is poet and children’s writer Michael Rosen on the British “reading scheme” (in his 2007 Patrick Hardy Lecture):

Schools want and need parents to be partners in the education of the children. . . . But in this matter of reading – how should parents be partners? When? Where? And with what? Is the parents’ role to be a matter of reading the book a child comes home with? More times than not, in more schools than not, I have a pretty strong feeling this book isn’t actually what I’d call a book. It’s more a kind of pamphlet or booklet that tells some strange inconsequential tale about a group of people who don’t say things in any kind of recognisable, nor indeed utterly fantastical way. They seem to talk mostly in short statements in the form of instructions, intentions and conclusions, ‘I am going out.’ –  ‘I am happy.’ Is this what the teachers mean by reading with your children?

That fierce and erratic writer for children, Roald Dahl, created in his eponymous heroine Matilda the archetype of the avenging autodidact book lover. She discovers her uncanny powers in the rage provoked when her father tears her book apart. She first comes to the attention of the nightmarish headmistress Miss Trunchbull as the impossible child reader of Nicholas Nickleby, a book the Trunchbull praises for the liberality with which the “admirable” headmaster Wackford Squeers uses his stick on his pupils:

“A fine book, that. But I don’t suppose this bunch of morons we’ve got here will ever read it because by the look of them they are never going to learn to read any thing!”
“I’ve read it,” Matilda said quietly.

“Read what?”
Nicholas Nickleby, Miss Trunchbull.”
“You are lying to me madam!” the Trunchbull shouted, glaring at Matilda. “I doubt there is a single child in the entire school who has read that book, and here you are, an unhatched shrimp sitting in the lowest form there is, trying to tell me a whopping great lie like that! Why do you do it? You must take me for a fool! Do you take me for a fool, child?”

Dahl’s own schooldays were remembered bitterly in his autobiographical story, “Lucky Break.” He felt the only worthwhile learning in his long, expensive and brutal English boarding school education came during two and a half weekly hours spent with one Mrs O’Connor, who supervised the boys while the teachers made their Saturday morning outing to a country pub. To each boy, she gave a copy of her six-page list of the most significant works of English literature and she talked about and read aloud from one of these books during each of her visits. “And the result of this,” wrote Dahl, “was that by the age of thirteen I had become intensely aware of the vast heritage of literature that had been built up in England over the centuries. I also became an avid and insatiable reader of good writing.”

Matilda’s Mrs O’Connor appears as the village librarian, the kindly Mrs Phelps, whose very great service is to aid and abet Matilda’s precocious reading while rejecting the prohibitions and ignorant judgments routinely pronounced against child readers:

“Mr Hemingway says a lot of things I don’t understand,” Matilda said to [Mrs Phelps]. “Especially about men and women. But I loved it all the same. The way he tells it I feel I am right there on the spot watching it all happen.”
“A fine writer will always make you feel that,” Mrs Phelps said. “And don’t worry about the bits you can’t understand. Sit back and allow the words to wash around you, like music.”

Dahl gives us a vivid image of the misfit child reader in school and the antipathy she can provoke in teachers. He also shows us the ease with which a sympathetic adult can make a place for the child – Let her read books.

Why should school be such hostile territory for readers? Why this ambivalence toward reading?

In part, at least, a difficulty is thrown up by the imperative to pursue a “literacy agenda” – the teaching of reading as a functional skill and the concomitant concern about testing results has left little place in school for literature.

In the fulfilment of the literacy agenda – enabling functional and useful reading – it really doesn’t matter what books kids are reading, so long as they’re learning how to read. Levelled readers, The Magic Treehouse, The Ninjago Guidebook, Barbie movie derivatives – the texts are disposable and fundamentally interchangeable. Because it is easier to test and assess based on a system of sequential readers, because it is easier to trick students into picking up a book because it looks and sounds like a television programme, the shelves are stocked with such things in the name of efficiency. The way that literacy is pursued in schools has profound implications for books. Readers of CNQ – writers, editors, publishers, critics, booksellers – take heed. Children’s education in literature and, but more often or, literacy prepares the field on which you carry out all your endeavours. The literacy agenda has resulted in the near elimination of actual books from schools. Peter Hunt describes the situation in Children’s Literature: “[A] utilitarian culture sees the ability to read and write as paramount and looks for simple methods of achieving it. . . . The teaching methods . . . eliminate fiction on the overt grounds that it is too complex, and on the covert grounds that the unrestrained imagination is not politically malleable.”

Arguably, the literacy agenda is a limiting approach that ill serves all children in schools. It is inarguable that it ill serves those who are already readers.

Does it make any sense for the child who is reading fluently, far beyond her grade level, to spend hours in school learning “strategies” for sounding out words, completing phonics worksheets and reading basic introductory texts? Is it wise to have her sit in school for years waiting for a time when she will be taught, when she will be challenged and drawn deeper into her ability? What might be done for this reader? Teachers already have a great deal to do in addressing the many problems and challenges in the classroom, but does that absolve schools from doing what they might for readers?

Perhaps a talent for reading is more easily and readily overlooked than a talent for mathematics. Certainly it seems widely felt that identifying and fostering talent in math is essential to national economic success. Millions of dollars in government funding are available for Science Technology Engineering and Math (so-called “STEM”) initiatives from kindergarten to grade 12 with the goal of “developing the next generation of STEM leaders to fuel business innovation.” A plethora of specialist math and science programs are available in schools – Scientist in the School, Science Fairs, Math Olympiad, FIRST Robotics competitions, among others – programs that recognize the importance of students interacting with knowledgeable practitioners in the field.

In my experience, the usual approach to talented readers is to keep them busy with extra writing assignments – book reports, independent study projects and worksheets. Asking them to make predictions before, during and after reading, to explain how predictions help them understand their reading, to make connections between text and text, text and self, text and world. I instinctively dislike this approach. I might be persuaded that it is an attempt to break down the actual engagement with literature into teachable component “skills,” but it produces only a parody of thinking. And applied to a ten-page, 60-word text it is just nonsense.

The earliest version of writing about reading in school is the reading log. The kindergartener draws a face in the box beside the title to show how she felt about the book – the mouth curved up or down, or sliding across the face in a straight line, resisting, I think, the demand that she make a judgement. The reading log expands and continues through the grades and the smiling or frowning faces must become prompted opinions: “I liked/did not like this book because . . .” Virginia Woolf thought giving an opinion of a book forced the reader to “get outside that cloud of fertile, but unrealized, sensation which hangs about a reader, to solidify it, to sum up. . . . [The reader] says it is a great book or a bad book. Yet, as he knows, when he is content to read only, it is neither.” Doesn’t that “cloud of fertile but unrealized sensation” sound like childhood? Let it linger for the child reader.

In searching for something to offer young readers in school, perhaps we ought be guided by those most experienced and able of readers – writers.

Eudora Welty remembered in One Writer’s Beginnings her mother instructing the public librarian that the 9-year old girl had permission to read “any book she wants from the shelves, children or adult.” Eleanor Farjeon rejoiced in her family’s “Little Bookroom” – filled with the precious dust of ages – “a lucky dip for a child who had never been forbidden to handle anything between covers.”

Let the books work on the reader, and let the reader do work that will make her consider and become more familiar with the form of written language.

She might study Latin – a language not for conversation or writing, but for reading. Again, Welty: “It took Latin to thrust me into bona fide alliance with words in their true meaning. Learning Latin . . . fed my love for words upon words, words in continuation and modification, and the beautiful, sober, accretion of a sentence.” Our own John Metcalf regretted in his memoir not having learned the ancient languages from his elementary school years. This would indeed be a gift to the young reader. If this seems far-fetched consider that in the UK and the US the study of Latin in primary schools is growing rapidly through programmes developed by classics organizations outside the school system, and being met with eager appetite by students and parents.

She might commit poetry to memory. Clive James wrote that what “we need to make explicit, for the benefit of our children if not ourselves, is that the future of the humanities as a common possession depends on the restoration of a simple, single ideal: getting poetry by heart.” Through memorizing she will acquire a feel for metre and might be taught to scan poetry and be introduced to a vocabulary of form that has the taste, delicious to the child reader, of the esoteric and encoded. In encouraging child readers to think about what they are reading perhaps we cannot do better than having them memorize and perform it. Reading a poem or play out loud is, in fact, a retelling and a work of understanding – one that does not require a reductive judgement.

If we can imagine a school that allows children to read widely for pleasure, spreading before them a large and varied collection of excellent books; that makes time for them to read and to listen; that instructs them in the form of words and written language; that fosters their imaginative engagement with reading and teaches them to resist facile judgements; if we keep before us Woolf’s idea of the reader, who –

must check the desire for learning at the outset; if knowledge sticks to him well and good, but to go in pursuit of it, to read on a system, to become a specialist or an authority, is very apt to kill . . . the more humane passion for pure and disinterested reading. . . . For the true reader is essentially young. He is a man of intense curiosity; of ideas; open-minded and communicative, to whom reading is more of the nature of brisk exercise in the open air than of sheltered study.

– then we will have begun to imagine a place for a reader in school.

75 Responses to School is no Place for a Reader

  1. You left out the part where they go to middle and high school (or 5th grade if the teacher recognized the advanced reader) and spend days and weeks picking the books apart chapter by chapter, tutting disapprovingly if Child dared to read ahead, gradually sucking all the life out of the book in an effort to “make it come alive” through overanalysis.

    I seriously re-lived most of my public school childhood while reading this article, and my older Bookworm is in the same boat now in 6th grade.

  2. max says:

    This accurately sums up my life. My entire life I have learned more from personal reading, books or otherwise, than I have in years of lecture. People make comments on my intelligence. They ask me how I know, about the breeding habits of ducks, and I simply smile and say “I read.”

    My children will read books, I am sure of that.

  3. Alissa says:

    I am so grateful my child’s school does not resemble this at all. She is beginning 1st grade and is not only reading chapter books, but allowed to check out what she wants from the library. Their homework includes reading comprehension which checks to see that they are understanding the books they are reading and determine their reading level. Reading level is forced upon them.

    Both my son’s and daughter’s early school experience (preschool to first grade) included being read to.

    My son’s pre-school program has them picking from a pre-selected group of books on the table. However, I discovered the table was a suggestion, not mandatory as witnessed by the independent girl wandering the aisles of the school library and having the librarian assist her with a different selection outside of the books on the table. I was told the table just makes it easier for some of the younger children to select different books, but is not a requirement.

    I don’t think I have ever been more grateful for my children’s school than after reading this article. My children love and adore reading, and it appears their schools are reinforcing their love for it.

  4. Karen Dorsey says:

    As an elementary school teacher I would like to respond. First of all, I do agree with much of what you said. However, ten years ago when I was teaching 3rd grade for several years, I had many great books in my room for students to read. We had a free reading time each day. I spoke about the books, reading excerpts. However, at least half of my class would not ready during that time. They would get a book, then trade it a few minutes later while trying to visit with friends instead. Instead of a time of pleasure, it was a daily battle. So, NOT all students will take the gift of reading when offered.

  5. Sydney says:

    As that child, I loathed those extra reading assignments. My reward for being good at reading was… extra homework? That nobody else had to do? That’s NOT FAIR! And as an adult? That’s still not fair.

    My mom says she actually started looking forward to her yearly September “Do you KNOW what your CHILD is READING?!” phone call. Every time she mentions the time I turned in a book report on Flowers in the Attic I seem to be a year younger (It was sixth grade).

    Also, Walter? I can attest that she’s not making any of that up. If anything, she was probably downplaying or leaving out incidents. I regularly had to challenge papers that had been graded low for “made up words” by presenting the teacher with a dictionary. Elementary school? Try ADVANCED PLACEMENT 10TH GRADE ENGLISH.

  6. Anna M says:

    Your essay reminds me of the way that reading gets Scout “into trouble” with her teacher in To Kill a Mockingbird.

    It’s so hard to meet the needs of every child while herding an entire classroom (or school) along the path of scrambling into an education. I can sympathize with the teachers/librarians, because as a teacher, I did encounter kids who would check out impressive-looking books that they could not comprehend/read. They would stare at random pages throughout the book, them return it. At least I had the benefit of working with a small class, so that I actually knew which third graders really could read Moby Dick and which couldn’t.

  7. Michelle Curtiss says:

    This was exactly like my experience with public school. I remember asking librarian after librarian (we moved a lot) for book suggestions. I was always met with recommendations for The Babysitters Club and horror books like Fear Street. I have hard feelings against these people. Once I discovered literature I couldn’t believe how cruel it was to be kept from books for so long. I don’t consider the other books, but junk food for the mind. I would no more say “it doesn’t matter what we read, as long as we read,” then “it doesn’t matter what we eat, as long as we eat.” Ice cream and soda won’t sustain the body for long and junk food books won’t feed the mind.

    This also describes my son’s experience for the two years we sent him. Oh, how I hated the little plastic baggies with “pamphlets” called books. He was reading Stuart Little at home so I took it to his teacher and asked for something more like it for his reading assignments. She said she couldn’t. I said, “Can’t you at least test him and move him forward to his level? He can read very well, but refuses to read the boring books sent home.” She said he had to complete each book and have it checked off. It was more about control and submission than learning. We brought him home and he and his younger siblings thrive on homeschooling.

    @Walter Sobchak I do not believe these are made up. I experienced the same thing myself. If I finished my work early in class and tried to read, I was told I must not have been given enough work and handed another sheet to fill out. “No outside reading in my class.” I believe those were the teachers words. And there were many variations on that by many teachers.

    We use a curriculum heavy on reading classics and light on “drill and kill.” Free time around here looks pretty much like school time: reading, reading and more reading.

    Thank you for this article. I intend to share it freely.

  8. Rebecca says:

    Yes, everything you said is true. I have lived it (in Illinois)and now my husband and I refuse to send our children to public or private school. I homeschool my children and they test way above their “grade level”. I am using Ambleside Online intertwined with the Eclectic curriculum, if anyone is interested. I have also used the reading list from Five In A Row curriculum when they are very young. I actually had my husband build an in wall (entire wall) bookshelf in our Great Room because of all the books we are accumulating. I joke that we will have more books than the library someday. Again, wonderful article.

  9. jamie oberst says:

    The story of my life! Taught myself to read at 4. Had a brother one grade ahead; I’d come home in the afternoon and read his books and figured it out. Education came one-size-fits-all in the fifties. School was mostly a total bore. I did have one teacher that got it. Hooray for Mrs. Akey (grade 4)!

  10. Liz Busby says:

    I too can vouch for the truth of teachers confiscating books at recess. I think this policy is pretty broadly instituted due to worries about childhood obesity. But it sure made recess a trial to those of us who lost the taste for tag in favor of reading at and early age.

  11. Janis Ossmann says:

    the sad thing is, we are also doing the same thing to children who are beyond their age-mates in math, in the name of making it more friendly – explain how you know that 1 + 1 = 2. School nearly destroyed my curious, interested children.

  12. Melissa R says:

    Reason 12,352 to homeschool.

  13. Adam says:

    I lived in a small town in western Tennessee growing up. Once I learned to read (in First Grade), I was the child that the teacher had to tell to stop reading my book and pay attention in class.
    Fortunately, they didn’t discourage reading, just reading during class.
    The school library was stocked with a wide variety of books (with no limitations on what we were allowed to read), and by the time I reached Fifth Grade, I was reading on an Eighth Grade level.
    Now I’m 27, and I always bring at least one book with me to work every day to read on my short breaks and lunch.

    A.C. Flory, you are exactly right. Every child should be encouraged to read whatever sparks their interest, because that spark is what can become a roaring flame of curiosity and intelligent, independent thought later in life.

  14. adarc says:

    I’d like to think our kids went to the same school. Sadly, I know they didn’t. Which means that there are other schools out there where kids are told things like “put that book down, you are supposed to play at recess”. Yes – both of my children were told that at least twice at school. It means that there are still more teachers who truly believe that a 5 year old can “read” but not understand books like Harry Potter. Mine both did – I know, we had lengthy discussions at home about every aspect of the series. It means that more kids are bored to tears reading “at level” instead of being told there is no limit to what they can understand, if they just try.
    It means there are more schools using reading logs to make a daily chore out of reading. I handed ours back to our very shocked teacher with a “no thank you”. When she asked didn’t I want my daughter to love reading? I asked her to name one thing she loved doing that she was forced to do paperwork on. She couldn’t come up with anything.
    I pulled my kids out of public school to homeschool them after a third grade teacher told me “if you didn’t teach them so much at home, they wouldn’t be so bored here.
    We read far about our “levels” daily and never record a word of it. My 17 year old is headed to college in a year, and decided to “try” school this year. She has an A+ in every class, and while she is still bored, her teachers find her charming, fresh, interested, inventive and creative. Her English teacher contacted me specifically to find out how I taught her to read & write. He wishes he had 30 kids like her. I told him I think they all start out like that.

  15. adarc says:

    Oh and I forgot to mention – my 17 year old’s summer reading list from school had not one single “classic” on it. Not one. No Dickens, no Austen, no Shakespeare. Sad. But at least she has spent the last 10 years reading them for herself.

  16. Penny says:

    I am relieved that the New Zealand education system is so different. As a primary school teacher and a school librarian, my primary aim is to develop a love of reading in children and it saddens me greatly (and shocks me) that not all 1st world, developed countries actively do this. Please bring your child to NZ!

  17. Julie says:

    I highly object to “lelnet’s” statement that those in the education field are among “the least intelligent, least motivated, and least academically inclined human being capable of getting themselves admitted to college at all.” I’m a teacher, and a darn good one. I get paid significantly less than many people less-educated than I, but I chose this profession because I want to make a difference in the lives of children. It is the public school system, which is run by politicians and not teachers, that is destroying the love of learning in our children. Most teachers are competent professionals who truly try to foster a love of learning in children, but we’re tied to the rules and regulations of the system — so much so that our salaries and jobs depend on test scores. Please do not make blanket statements based on ignorance. By the way, you spelled “illiterate” incorrectly.

  18. Soj says:

    @Walter – I can vouch for the fact that these kinds of things do happen in real life. Every word rings true.

    I learned to read when I was 3 – I had read most of Shakespeare by the time I was 5. I did NOT understand it all – so what? If you restrict yourself to only reading that which you already understand, where is the learning? In the first grade, the teacher stood me in front of the class and told everyone I was a liar after I told her I already knew how to read. I spent 2 weeks in the first grade after my mother found out what that teacher was doing. During a parent-teacher-principal conference over the matter, the teacher suggested I be put in “special ed” to address my presumed mental retardation. Where she got that idea, I have no idea – except that it was an exercise of power against a child who she had decided to hate. Instead I was tested and then skipped a grade. Only one grade, because I was so small for my age that it was felt 2 grades would be physically too risky as it would put me in with kids twice my size.

    In the 3rd grade, the teacher would confiscate books I had brought from home for being “inappropriate”, eg beyond her definition of proper reading level. She would also police my library choices. Fortunately the school librarian entered into a secret collusion with me – she allowed me to come in after school and select whatever books I wanted, without the interference of my teacher. I deeply regret having lost all memory of that woman, her name, what she looked like, what we talked about – while unfortunately retaining memories of my harridan 3rd grade teacher.

    I once overheard a teacher tell my fellow students with great contempt that I was “contemplating (my) navel again” (eg reading a book). Such snide remarks by teachers to my fellow students were common.

    I was constantly in trouble for reading ahead, which was often true – but more often arose from the fact that I had already read the material some years before (for example, a Sherlock Holmes story in the 6th grade reader, when I had read all the Sherlock Holmes stories finishing up some time in the 4th or 5th grade). The point being – why should a child be chastised for doing MORE than is required?

    Throughout school I was isolated and treated with contempt because I loved to read. Not only by other students, but by teachers (with a few exceptions) as well. I have seen it done to other students. My own son was subjected to some of the same treatment. I had to go to the library desk with him when he was checking books out because interfering librarians often tried to talk him out of his selections. When he was in 3rd grade, he checked out a copy of “Alice in Wonderland” and the librarian tried to take it away from him and reshelve it, suggesting he get something he could actually read. I had to make the librarian check it out to him. When he brought the book back the following week, the librarian smugly said, “So, you gave up on it?” My son looked at him with great surprise and said, “No, I finished it and I want the next book in the series. Also, where can I find a copy of Moby Dick?” Which made the librarian angry (and I had to help him find a copy of Moby Dick).

    A teacher at a school where I worked for awhile didn’t know who Charles Dickens was, and stated that reading “that drivel … rots (their) minds”. The other teachers agreed with her.

    You, Walter, sound like every reader-hater I’ve ever run across. LOL!

  19. Sarah B says:

    Ah yes, I remember the rule that break was for running around outside – where I was normally bullied – not for reading. Staying in at break was a PUNISHMENT.

    It took my parents being called up to school for a talk about my behaviour before the teacher realised WHY I had started behaving so very badly. In the meantime, though, all those ‘punishments’ got me several weeks of escape from the bullying and the chance to read D’Artagnan…

  20. CanadianGirl says:

    As a mother and a teacher, I am infuriated upon hearing your daughter’s experience. It reminds me of my daughter’s own experience at school a couple of years ago. My daughter, then in grade 3, came home from school upset because of what had happened during a trip to the school’s library that day. She had picked out a book and was standing in line to check it out, when her teacher came up to her and told her to pick a new book because the one she chose was too hard for her. Of course she dutifully put the book back and picked another one. Needless to say I was incensed with her teacher!! I told her that she has the right to choose any book she wants, and if she is questioned about it, she is to say, “Well, my mom said I can read any book I want, and if you have a problem with that, you can call her!” My daughter was, and is, perfectly capable of determining whether or not a book is “too hard” for her to read. The point is that she reads . . . whatever, whenever, wherever!
    Also, lelnet said, “those who graduate from college in the Education department, are consistently recorded as the least intelligent, the least motivated, and the least academically-inclined human beings.” Well, I can tell you that I graduated from an Ed program with some of the dumbest people I’ve I ever met!

  21. Laurel says:

    It won’t solve the problem of schools that aren’t sympathetic to readers, but here’s a good Band-Aid:

    There are lots of miniature books to be found on eBay. I recommend the Del Prado collection of classic titles. Another publisher has printed miniature editions of Gatsby, Alice in Wonderland, Twain’s short stories, The Wind in the Willows, and others.

    They’re small enough to fit in a child’s coat pocket (and mine!).

  22. Commenter says:

    I enjoyed your essay, Ms. Franssen. It resonated with my experience in school and that of my child. All of your anecdotes ring true for me because I have experienced similar.

    I remember vividly the debacle of first grade, when I asked my new teacher if I could read my own book (Hardy Boys) instead of following along with the alphabet recitation. She told me that I couldn’t possibly read that book. I read the first paragraph aloud. She then accused me of having memorized the paragraph instead of reading it. I tried to argue that it would be more difficult to memorize the book than to read it, but she shut me down. That was my introduction to schooling. I never spoke to that woman again. Mid-year, they sent me to a counselor for assessment of my possible autism. I explained to the kind counselor that I could speak perfectly well, but my mother had told me not to speak when I had nothing nice to say, and I had nothing nice to say to that woman.

    It is entirely accurate to say that, then and now, some teachers get very angry when confronted with a small child who is a fluent reader. Their vindictiveness seems to me to stem from jealousy. They want to take the child down a peg. Thus the perennial nonsense about “being able to decode but not understand.” This is language being used as a weapon rather than a means of understanding.

    My mother had to come to school in second grade to argue with the principal and the librarian in favor of the idea that I should be allowed to check out any book I wished from the library, not subject to the librarian’s concept of my grade level.

    From then on, school was a success for me only on those occasions when I could reach a truce with my new teacher allowing me to sit in the corner and read a book on the condition I didn’t disturb the class. It was not frequently a success. I also got shaken down for illicit (and by this, I mean any) literature. I found school unremittingly hostile.

    Many teachers predicted bad ends for me. All it took was escaping school to avoid them. I got my BA at 19, traveled the world, got a PhD, am fluent in five languages, and have a pretty darn nice life now, which includes educating my own children myself.

    My son did not have such a bad experience as I did, principally because I removed him from school in first grade. Kindergarten went all right, because it was mostly field trips, but first grade was terrible for him. It was sad to hear how little things changed in thirty years. He read perfectly well by then, but they still sent him home with stupid little books in plastic bags. He was not interested in the least in graded readers about fluffy bunny gets a boo boo when he was reading fantastic novels with space pirates. One had to progress through the graded readers and if one had read them all one had to start all over again. Books sent from home might be confiscated (as you say, the reason given was how disruptive they were). And stop complaining, because the kids who still can’t read are the ones who deserve teacher’s attention. There were other issues (shortage of math, excess of bullying), but I had no need to allow this foolishness to persist, and when he asked I brought him home. He is much happier now, and spends hours each day just reading, with nobody harassing him.

    Again, thank you for your essay. It was an interesting read.

  23. Donna says:

    Let’s not tar all teachers with the same brush. They are not all “the least intelligent, the least motivated, and the least academically-inclined human beings” to graduate from university. None of my teacher colleagues would behave in the ways described in this piece and all of them would do all in their power to nurture a love of books and reading in all their students.

  24. Clorinda says:

    I was fortunate in the teachers and librarians I had. My elementary (through 6th grade) and junior high (7th – 9th) had limits on the number of books you could check out and when you could go to the library. They recognized my love of books and took those limits off. I could go in at lunch, recess, when I had free time in class…. When I was in high school, I would often walk to the public library after school and check out books. I would have anywhere from 5-20 books in the house at any one time, and be in the middle of 3-4 at a time.

    My oldest child, on the other hand, had a great Kindergarten teacher who recognized her reading skills and gave her harder and harder books to read. But she admitted that my child would end up being bored in later grades because readers were not encouraged. They were given busy work while the teacher worked with the other students. So we homeschool and use the public libraries.

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