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Marissa Lingen

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It’s worth finding out [Aug. 27th, 2013|04:53 pm]
Marissa Lingen

So this essay, entitled “School is no Place for a Reader,” has been making the rounds in various of my social media lately. And one of the things that really strikes me about it is that the people who are insisting that the reading child is decoding things but not understanding them do not seem to be actually checking whether this is the case or not.

I have seen, with my godson, that it is useful for him to read things he does not yet understand, or does not yet understand completely. There are times when we will be having a conversation in which I explain something (because my godson is a little nerd, and information sharing is love), and he will ponder it and ask whether it’s like x or y in a thing he’s read. And often it is. The fact that he can’t apply it in the moment he’s reading it doesn’t mean that it won’t sink in later. One of my personal examples was the Shel Silverstein poem about the kid who knows how to belch, and how the adults are saying that he will go to “hell or jail or Canada.” And as a small child somewhat post-Vietnam War, this went right past me. But I had it in my mind. There was an epiphany in my twenties, when I went, “OH UNCLE SHEL” because it hit me where that trio came from–not upon a rereading, just a random day when a poem popped into my head and suddenly held more meaning than it had.

But you can check. You can say to the kid, “When it says hell or jail or Canada, why do you think Canada is included in that list?” And then listen to the response. Because there’s more than one reason. Word feel and scansion are important. Perceived distance is important. And so on. But you can check. You don’t have to just loftily say, “She’s 7, she doesn’t understand it really.” The other day my agent said to me in another context, “I think kids are smart,” and I called Alec over to the computer screen and pointed at it and said, “This is why this is the person I want to work with.” Because kids are smart. And it’s worth checking.

Also sometimes kids understand things that their assigned grown-ups don’t. It’s not linear like that. It’s really useful.

I have gotten rid of a lot of my recurring nightmares. My subconscious is a strange and forested place these days, but with fewer nightmares. But one of the ones I don’t seem to be able to shake is that I, at my current age, have been stuck by some trick of paperwork back in school. I am in third grade, or sixth, or whenever. It doesn’t really matter. And they hand me stacks of worksheets to do. In these dreams, I take the adult way out. I try to explain to the people who are responsible that I already know this stuff, that I shouldn’t have to do it again. And there is always the horrible moment in the middle of the dream when I realize that I tried that the first time, and it didn’t work then either.

There are all sorts of things broken about the way kids are schooled. There are also some things broken about the way kids are educated, and the fact that a great many people would conflate the two is pretty high on my list. But one of the things I hang onto, for my godkids and my nieces and my friends’ kids, but also for the kids I don’t know, is that I don’t want them to have that kind of nightmares. I don’t want “education” to mean “stuck and ignored,” and I think in too many cases it does. And this is bad for poor children from families that never notice that their 13-year-old can’t read or add, but it’s also bad for kids from luckier backgrounds, like I was. Like I still am in my dreams. One of the things that makes it worse for everyone is when nobody bothers to find out.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux


[User Picture]From: mamculuna
2013-08-27 11:39 pm (UTC)
I remember the special hell of being a reader in school--in 1948-54. I got in trouble for reading, I got ostracized for reading, and still it was so much better than anything else.

When my son was five, I started reading The Hobbit to him. I didn't read it fast enough, so he learned to read to be able to get ahead of where we were.

Did he understand everything? Of course not. But I've taught some of those teacher in lit classes, and they don't understand everything they read, either. I don't make them quit because of that.
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[User Picture]From: dd_b
2013-08-28 05:16 pm (UTC)
Wait, you mean perfection is not the only acceptable reading level? Are you sure?
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[User Picture]From: mamculuna
2013-08-28 08:41 pm (UTC)
Yeah, must have read the wrong directions...
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[User Picture]From: sprrwhwk
2013-08-28 12:36 am (UTC)
When I was in school the reading program (Reading Counts? WordCounts?) came with a suite of tests for various books which we could take in order to get credit for having read them, and we had to get a certain number of points or -- I don't know what, because it was never a worry for me. Theoretically a successfully-completed test proved understanding, but mostly they asked factual questions that a Cliff's Notes could have answered.

If we read a book which didn't have an associated test, we could write a short report, have it approved by a teacher, and get credit that way, but the report was still more work, so people preferred not to do them. I was reading well above my ostensible grade level, and needless to say my selections were not well-represented, so I wrote a lot of reports.

The report could also perhaps prove understanding, but mostly again asked factual questions -- questions whose answers were easy for the teacher to check without actually reading the whole book. None of my teachers ever did this for me, but imagine the teacher who would have been willing to read everything I read in order to talk with me about it, test my understanding of it! That teacher would have gone down as one of my favorites ever.

I think very few of my teachers, even my English teachers, were readers the way I was, and I wonder if that lack of understanding didn't color their approach to the reading program.

There was a study going around the Internet a while back which documented that, when students were allowed to read whatever they wanted, they actually read a great deal, and displayed good understanding. That "whatever they wanted" was key, though -- it meant magazines, comics, newspapers, not just books, nor just "improving" books either.

I vividly remember being told off by a teacher for reading a book on basic electronics -- reading time was for fiction, not non-fiction. I had stayed up well past bedtime the previous night to read the last three hundred or so pages of James Michener's Centennial in a great rush, so I was feeling a bit bloated on fiction, and not in danger of going lacking in any event if I didn't read a fiction book during the assigned time.

Not reading the right things, at the right times, in the right ways...
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-08-28 12:42 am (UTC)
I never understand the people who talk about reading all the books their kids read to vet them. 1) Someone's head would have exploded trying to keep up with 7-year-old me. 2) My parents had their own reading to do. Most importantly, 3) one of the major points of having kids, as far as I can tell from here, though I hope some day to verify, is that they eventually start getting into cool stuff you don't know about, and then they can tell you about it.

I had a gifted ed teacher in first and second grade who was actually interested in finding out what interested me. She was the best ever. EVER.
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[User Picture]From: sprrwhwk
2013-08-28 01:23 am (UTC)
Reading some of it to share -- definitely. But yeah, that really does incline me to not responding, but loudly thinking, "Your child doesn't read very much, do they?"

Though, given the high quality of much YA these days, if I as a parent didn't have my own reading to do, reading what my kids did would be a good start.
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[User Picture]From: shark_hat
2013-08-28 11:10 am (UTC)
I know one remedial reading teacher who said that a method that works well with with boys who are reluctant readers is just to bring in a whole bunch of sports magazines. Find something a kid's interested in and they will *want* to find out about it even if it means learning to read, who knew...
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[User Picture]From: leahbobet
2013-08-29 06:40 am (UTC)
This is my biggest ongoing battle as a bookseller, with a YA section, speaking to adult relatives of young readers.
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[User Picture]From: aamcnamara
2013-08-28 02:34 am (UTC)
There is a reason for my possibly-still-latent fear of school buses: because (to a homeschooled kid) sudden school buses mean they're going to take you away to a place where you have to do boring things all the time, that you already understand, and no matter how much you explain this to them they will not let you out.

(I thought I had gotten over this during high school, when I took a school bus half the time, but then the summer after my first year of college I was startled and frightened by a school bus unexpectedly pulling up, so...)
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[User Picture]From: blue_hat_guru
2013-08-28 03:59 am (UTC)
I read that essay, and it looks like a whine about the school system in this country based on one example.

To be sure, our school system has some severe problems, but that's because we're* asking it to do a lot of things that are not education, while doing our best to conflate it with such.

*The societal "we".
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-08-28 11:01 am (UTC)
Well, if you look at the URL you will see that you are likely at least partially wrong: right general Western society, wrong country. And that matters, because Canadian schools are a lot more standardized than US schools, at least on a provincial level. A lot more. They're influenced by the same trends and issues, but not nearly so patchwork-weird as American schools. This has up sides and down sides.

If you have been paying attention to people with kids in pre-collegiate schooling in North America and are finding this to be an isolated example, start paying more attention. It's not.

Also, sure, we're asking a school system to do things like babysitting kids whose parents have not readied them for school. Welcome to life in a democracy; there's a reason we don't just have schools for kids whose parents are amazing and attentive and value education. That's only one of the problems our school system has, actually, and yet it's the one people seem to fixate on. Wonder why that is.
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[User Picture]From: lydy
2013-08-28 03:21 pm (UTC)
There is a long-standing crazy-making claim that the real problem with schools is that the parents are insufficiently involved. As if every parent was gifted with the same amount of time, talent, and knowledge. As if the real answer to education is to make it all the parent's job. Yes, an involved parent can make a difference. Yay for good parents. But the tendency to write off the rest of the kids because it is All The Parents' Fault makes me want to hurt people.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-08-28 04:24 pm (UTC)
I think the thing that drives me most nuts about that claim--oh, I can't pick. Too many options. But 1) we cannot control parenting. We can influence it, sort of, maybe--and the people who make that claim almost always oppose doing so. But focusing on variables out of our control and declaring ourselves done is irresponsible if there are variables under our control.

Haranguing parents in the editorial section of newspapers and news magazines does not count as "doing something." The parents who need haranguing will not hear it there and/or will not recognize themselves.

And 2) the people making that claim consistently act as though no one has thought about it or been willing to discuss it before. When in fact it comes up in every discussion of education reform I have ever seen.
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[User Picture]From: dd_b
2013-08-28 05:22 pm (UTC)
All the way up in highschool, we did have one English teacher let us pick books to read for official credit (and papers and so forth). We had to find at least two other people to read the same book to keep his reading load down to something possible (which seemed entirely fair; he had a day job, after all, to interfere with his reading time!).

I and two friends brought Dune to that table. It was very interesting, discussing a book I knew much better than the teacher with an English teacher. (I'd read it multiple times before, and read it again for the class, and also re-read the first sequel, all that was out at that point, for the class; put me way ahead in discussions.)

I guess that was also the last literature class I ever took, since I managed to dodge it in college (didn't have time for those horrid reading lists, it would have interfered seriously with my reading).
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[User Picture]From: hilaritasetlux
2013-08-28 11:03 pm (UTC)
I remember in sixth grade I found, to my great horror, that there was a more advanced reading group than the one I was in, and I demanded to be moved up. I had to take all the tests of the lower level first (grammar tests, I believe). I passed them all with no problem, but then I was smart enough not to tell the teachers that I really didn't understand the questions (pick out the adverb that correctly completes, etc) but it was easy enough to answer them anyway because I had read enough to understand how English worked. In fact, I could never have correctly explained English grammar (though my working knowledge of it was just fine) until I took Latin in high school.

It sounds like the complaint people are making has more to do with understanding content, but I think the principle is the same.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-08-28 11:06 pm (UTC)
A great many teachers can't explain English grammar either, and mostly don't try when teaching reading. A great many professional writers read this lj, and I expect many of them could not explain, for example, the pluperfect tense. That kind of explanation is just...not what we're actually looking for except in special cases.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-08-28 11:07 pm (UTC)
(Oh also, I think that must have been before we really got to be friends? Because otherwise I would have expected you would report in on the topic in high dudgeon, and had your dudgeon consoled/confirmed by me and Bec.)
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[User Picture]From: leahbobet
2013-08-29 06:46 am (UTC)
...I was, in retrospect, very lucky. I had a kindergarten and grade one teacher who colluded with the school librarian to not just let me take out anything I wanted, but who both encouraged me to check out the Agatha Christies and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle collections at six or seven.

And then I had a fourth-grade English teacher who was explicitly enthusiastic about the idea of me writing books of my own. And a sixth-grade English teacher who let me sit in the back of the class, at a private table, and ignore said class in favour of putting away three novels a week.

Not that there were not some serious, serious downsides to that school and how it treated things like bullying and religious education, but. Maybe I should give it the credit that's due, too.
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[User Picture]From: rmnilsson
2013-08-29 02:31 pm (UTC)
Maybe it's different in public school, but at my daughter's reading assessment yesterday, the (small Catholic school) kindergarten teacher commented that Nora reads very well for a kindergartener and will probably be reading first and second grade books before the school year is up.

That's consistent with my Catholic school experience from the early 80's. Kids were allowed to wander the library, and encouraged to jump to the middle shelves and then to the other side (where the big kid books were) when that individual student was ready.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-08-29 02:35 pm (UTC)
I'm glad for Nora!
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