Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Reading is fundamental

The best way to teach our students to read is to allow them to read. If that sounds redundant, I can assure parents that this basic task is not at the top of the priority list for most public high schools, falling somewhere behind paperwork pushing, cell-phone gathering, and restroom policy.

I propose that if schools are serious about teaching students to read, they’d facilitate the reading habit throughout the day, especially during slack times and home room, then after school, both by promoting the concept to parents and providing a quiet place for the students to read. In addition, enough books would be provided that students could read as much for their own enjoyment as for a course requirement.

One of the first things I noticed upon arriving in Houston from Iowa 23 years ago to teach at the all-black Worthing High School was the paucity of books available for my students to read outside of the library and reading classrooms. On the occasions that I would ask students to bring a book or a magazine in from home for a specific project, many students would claim that they had none to bring. When I had the temerity to suggest to students that they consider buying books for birthday or Christmas presents, I was nearly laughed out of the room. It hit me that the idea of getting these students to read anything substantive was akin to chopping firewood with a Bowie knife.

Having married the older sister of one of my first students, I learned from the inside that societal factors prevented these otherwise bright children from reading, that the few who did were subjected to considerable peer pressure to remain under the teacher’s radar, lest he/she be accused of “acting white.” It made little difference if I introduced black-authored books, for although the students would be less reluctant to be seen holding and looking at them, the level of readership hardly changed. The books I would loan them rarely made it home.

I soon realized that these students were somehow passing English and Social Studies without actually doing the required reading. It was only recently that I heard schoolteacher and author Cris Tovani label this as “fake reading.” The savvy students learned the education game, that teachers were being pressured to pass students along despite their glaring inadequacies. Most chose the path of least resistance, the one where they did only what was required of them shortcutting wherever possible. Administrative insistence that teachers maintain a high passing rate still prevent teachers from presenting challenging materials lest the students be discouraged and simply quit. Too often their real needs were ignored as they were passed along until their lack of skills caught up with them, usually about the ninth grade where they stayed, unable to move along in the educational system, dropping out anyway.

My more ambitious students employed a combination of cheating, grasping the predictable teacher patterns, and remaining docile in class, thereby securing grades high enough to be placed in "honors" classes where the learning environment lacked many of the noisy subversives and the ill-mannered. This fiction of high achievement would be maintained throughout junior high where researchers have often noticed a precipitous drop-off in reading skills. Reading level tests I've seen administered while at Elsik Ninth Grade Center consistently indicated only around 14% of the districts students read at or above ninth-grade level and that was before the recent influx of students (mis-)educated in New Orleans.

In my next column, I'll lay out my simplistic plans for improving reading (that I don't expect to be implemented simply for that reason).

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