Distracted by Books

IMG_0122I have written about my own love for reading and described my implementation of middle school reading workshops. Those workshops were designed to give my students the same experiences with books that fueled my own love of reading: choosing what I wanted to read and making reading a priority in my day.

Two recent blog entries show that my values continue in contemporary classrooms. Former high school teacher Julia Franks describes making a change in her AP English classroom when she moved away from communal reading and analysis of the classics to choosing their own reading. Her practice arose from her belief that readers make better citizens as they are able to construct more sophisticated narratives around events in the world around them:

As a nation, too, we need these narratives. Election results end in an upset, and we spend a whole lot of time trying to answer the question why? Or a man walks into a church and opens fire on the congregation. We as a country respond by trying to make a narrative: cause, effect, cause, effect. When we can’t do it, we feel adrift, even despairing. And yes, we’re tempted to oversimplify the story. But the more practice we have at story-making, the more we’re able to construct a nuanced national story.

Given the option of reading the books on the syllabus or reading twice as many books from a list of 300 titles, all students chose the latter and, by the end of the year, had read nearly twice as many pages as mandated on the original plan. And those AP exam scores that seem to dictate the analysis that eats up so much class time? They did not suffer at all.

Franks concludes:

We have to offer more choice, and we have to set actual time aside in the school day for reading.  (Maybe fewer hours, say, discussing Hamlet?) In this moment in American culture, we need reader-citizens more than ever. Because of that, English departments have the opportunity to be especially relevant in civic life. Some of them are already taking up that challenge.

Middle school teacher and founder of The Global Read Aloud, Pernille Ripp, describes her own “horror” when, at the beginning of the year, her students reported how little they enjoyed reading. She was determined to change that and she did it with books:

Books, and plenty of them.  Books that were accessible through audio and text.  Books that were not there to push them in a certain direction.  That were not forced on them.  Picture books for the days where chapter books seemed to be too much work.  Free verse for those who had lost their connection with the magic of reading.  Graphic novels meant to teach, entice, and enthrall.  Everywhere they looked there were books and the books called to them.  Without judgment.  Without restriction.  Without one path to being a reader.

And time:

We also took time.  Ten minutes every day to read.  To find books.  To have conversations about the texts we chose.  To find something worthy of our time, that we perhaps would want to read later as well.  Ten minutes that were the expectation coupled with the idea that one should only read good books, not waste our time on books that would make us dislike reading more.  To abandon when needed, to book shop when desired.

The two priorities: the ability to choose your own books and the time to read them.

This message has also been part of The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend, the book I am reading right now. Sara Lindqvist is a reader who uses books to change a small, dying Iowa town. As she organizes the books in her shop, she put “every unreadable book she could find” on a shelf. These mostly included the award winners that everyone talked about but never read. Sara had tried to by systematic about reading these classics:

She had thrown herself into one ambitious reading project after another, but things had rarely gone according to plan. It was boring to think of books as something you should read just because others had, and besides, she was much too easily distracted. There were far too many books out there to stick to any kind of theme.

Lots of the teachers I follow on Twitter are busy planning their summer reading. I applaud their desire to dive into professional reading, and I have a few of those books on my own list. But, I also would encourage them to let themselves be distracted and see where it leads.

 

 

 

 

 

Integrating Electronics Into Our Lives

As summer begins and kids get out of school, various versions of “summer rules” are floating around the Internet. It’s a way to set expectations for a time of year when it can seem that all rules are off.

This one, from the Thirty Handmade Days blog, is typical. Its purpose, according to the creator, is to keep the kids from spending the whole day glued to a screen so they earn the time with their gadgets  while spending time reading, writing, creating and playing outside. I like the spirit of it but something felt off, based on my own use of electronics.

For instance, I often use my device to read and write. I’m writing this blog post on my laptop. I often carry my phone on a dog walk, partly for safety, but also in case we happen upon something interesting that I want to record like an unusual bird or flower. I imagine that kids might want to do the same: create a video of the rules for a game they created or do some macro photography of bugs or butterflies. As for creating, I often reference the Internet for ideas or directions for things to my projects. I’m participating in the DS106 June 30 Day Daily Create Challenge. The goal is to be digitally creative by providing a new challenge each day and move us away from just “like buttons on Facebook or retweeting other people’s memes.” The tools we carry with us offer almost infinite possibilities for creativity but if we don’t help kids see that, then they will rush through the other items in order to be able to settle into the consumer pull of those same devices.

And, I understand that concern. We certainly don’t want the kids to spend the whole summer playing video games or watching movies, never lifting their heads or hands to interact with the real world. And, as Mique says, every family has to do what makes them comfortable. I would just like to see a more integrative approach to technology, finding ways to use it as part of our other activities. Maybe that is what she meant but this seems a little too much like the classroom where the kids only get to use the computers when they do everything else. Electronics shouldn’t be a reward but a natural part of our daily lives.

I also can’t help but wonder if these rules apply to parents, too?

A Homemade Education

John Wesley PowellIn Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, Wallace Stegner tells the story of John Wesley Powell, probably best known as the first explorer of the far reaches of the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon. A Civil War veteran who lost an arm at Antietam, he was an ethnologist and geologist who led both the US Geological Survey and led the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian.

Stegner deliberately does not provide lots of details about Powell’s early life. His book, he says, is not a typical biography full of personal details. Instead, his focus is on Powell’s career and how his work led to the opening of the American West.
Stegner does discuss Stegner’s early education and, like many of Powell’s contemporaries, it was a “homemade education.” The son of a poor preacher, his family moved several times when he was young, and Powell had little formal schooling. Instead, he borrowed books from wherever he could find them, reading when he could find the time in his hard scrabble life. It is reminiscent of Abraham Lincoln who said, “The things I want to know are in books; my best friend is a man who’ll git me a book I ain’t read.”
Depending on who that “best friend” was often determined the direction of the reader’s later life. Lincoln borrowed books from a lawyer and thus the law became his path. Powell was fortunate to meet George Crookham, a farmer and scientist, who kept a private natural history museum and a scientific library. This meeting is fortunate for the rest of us as well as it led Powell to his lifetime’s work.
But, Powell had another teacher and that was nature itself. Like John Muir some years later, Powell spent time in the woods around his Wisconsin home:
Both boys were confirmed in their scientific interest by the surroundings of a backwoods Wisconsin farm, by nature in its intimate variety, by wandering Indians, by the persistent, constant stream of questions that the mind proposed and clamored to have answered. Both boys broke away for long rambling excursions justified by scientific collections (p. 15).
And they engaged with formal education on their own terms:
Both sought college at their own expense and interrupted their schooling by intervals of teaching and farm labor; and both ultimately got what the schools could give them, but never graduated (p. 15).
This education sometimes hurt Powell as he was not as systematic in his science inquiry as those with more formal training. But, it also helped him as well. Stegner compares him to Clarence King, a contemporary of Powell’s who enjoyed a Yale education but failed to live up to expectations:
Clarence King failed for lack of character, persistence, devotion, wholeness. For that important job he seemed to Adams cut out out to do, John Wesley Powell was actually much better equipped. Despite his homemade education, and just possibly because of it, he would do more than Clarence King would do and do it better (p. 21).
There is a lesson here for contemporary educators: Powell was just one of many great Americans who spent very little time in school rooms, putting in seat time. His own curiosity and creativity was what drove him to learn. I was struck by a similarity in the path of Evan Williams, one of the founders of Twitter. A recent New York Times’ article describes how Williams, a farm boy from Nebraska, found his life work and it did not happen in a classroom:
In 1993, a chance encounter with a new magazine at the mall in Grand Island, Neb., seemed to seal his destiny. It was the second issue of Wired, a publication dedicated to the geek gospel that a new world was dawning. One story was about a retired Army colonel named Dave Hughes who wanted to hook up all 5.5 billion brains on the planet. No farmer’s kid need ever be lonely again.
I am heartened to hear stories of innovative schools that are letting kids explore the world and pursue their passions, designing their own “homemade” educations. The stories of people like Abraham Lincoln, John Muir, John Wesley Powell, and Evan Williams suggest that they will turn out just fine.