“What makes people smart, curious, alert, observant, competent, confident, resourceful, persistent – in the broadest and best sense, intelligent- is not having access to more and more learning places, resources, and specialists, but being able in their lives to do a wide variety of interesting things that matter, things that challenge their ingenuity, skill, and judgement, and that make an obvious difference in their lives and the lives of people around them.” – John Holt
A young man, maybe 8, sat quietly for the first 10 minutes of a half hour of reading time. Suddenly he discovered that his reading foundation logo sticker fit perfectly over his mouth. Looking at his neighbor he wiggled and began talking to her through the sticker, and she giggled. First a teacher swarmed to his side, sternly looking at him until he sat still. Then another adult sat beside him, and the first left. This is a perfect metaphor for a program I attended last night.
For an hour I attended an elementary school’s reading night program with my girlfriend and her kids. Sponsored by a local reading foundation, the agenda for the evening began with the school’s black, brown, and white students singing an anthem about love for the world. It was very kind, and from their mouths it felt sincere and real. However, the tone for the evening was really set in their follow-up, the school principal, a well-dressed white man nearing retirement, speaking to a diverse crowed of apparently working class parents and students. After he clicked off instructions, many of the kids and parents swarmed to the school cafeteria, where they were read to by a librarian and a teacher. Afterwards a yellow bear mascot floated around the roam while students alternated between stations, making bookmarks, eating cookies and picking books to keep.
The books were used. The milk served with the cookies was standard issue school lunch fare. The teachers were uninspired, though well-meaning. Students were crammed into sitting in the center of the multipurpose room, which at that moment had all the allure of a gym, but all the seriousness of a library. While the students were in the middle, adults congregated along the outside of the group, standing in awkward clumps, jostling for position to watch their “little learners” (as one teacher referred to them), or meandered around the room entertaining young children (the sitting was explicitly for kids older than 4, and as old as 3rd grade).
I understand good intentions, and I’ve perpetuated more than my share. In my capacity at the state health department I constantly have the opportunity to propagate these characteristics through grant-making, curriculum writing and policy development. That does not release me from my critical responsibility to ask for a more democratic, more responsible way to educate students.
Simply arriving in a school and dropping books on the heads of kids doesn’t make for a successful reading program. Even couched in teaching parents how to read to kids or decorated with cookies and mascots, these programs are at best designed to meet the needs of greedy adults whose apparent need to see themselves as useful in the lives of children overrides their own well-intentioned ideas about how to make their lives better.
Rather than driving children to distraction, these programs could potentially help young people re-envision their roles and purpose as learners and leaders throughout society. One-on-one reading between parents and students, coaching from teachers and reading specialists, and activities designed to get kids active and reinforce their commitment to reading and learning could complete a learning cycle of empowerment. By actively engaging kids and parents together as co-readers, co-teachers and active partners, these events could have a truly revolutionary effect, particularly in a climate as disengaging as a traditional suburban elementary school.
The reality is that distractions of the setting, the culture created by the authoritarianism and adultism, and the ill-conceived program of action are singularly to blame for students’ “bad” behavior and disinterest in reading. As ethical parents, teachers, and co-participants with young people, we have to accept responsibility and take action to change this paradigm throughout our society. It is inherently unethical to be anything less fully engaged in the struggle for educational transformation, and social change, if we know there is a different way. And we know there is.