Why Don’t Our Students Read?

I read two fascinating articles today which really got me thinking. Reading has been my “thing” this school year. I don’t mean to brag, but it’s working. My students read, and read, and read, and read. They are sharing books, discussing them, making recommendations to friends and family. They constantly tell me that they have read more this year than they ever did before. Almost all of my students have read 20+ books since September, and many of them have read 35+.

I see the effects of their reading everyday. Their fluency has improved dramatically. Their own writing has improved, thanks to the abundance of great writers they are reading. Granted, not every book is an award winner (some even make me cringe!), but the point is they are reading for pleasure. And that they are equating reading with pleasure.

If only legislators and administrators could see this.

Jordan Sonnenblick, (author of Drums, Girls, And Dangerous Pie, one of my favorites) has a kick-butt editorial on SLJ.com right now. Entitled Killing Me Softly: No Child Left Behind, Sonnenblick laments the state of education across our nation right now. A former urban teacher in NJ, he visited his colleagues and was told more than once to stay home, keep writing, don’t come back. Why? Because of what has happened to Language Arts classes. Like myself, Sonnenblick loves sharing great literature with students. In this day and age of high-stakes testing, we are tossing out the books for workbooks. What has happened to us?!

No Child Left Behind has done to my school what it has done to untold thousands of urban schools. Our arts programs are gutted, our shop courses are gone, foreign languages are a distant memory. What’s left are double math classes; mandatory after-school drill sessions; the joyless, sweaty drudgery of summer school. Our kids come to us needing more of everything that is joyous about the life of the mind. They need nature walks, field trips, poetry, recess….What I loved most about teaching middle school English was the books, the stories, the poems. I loved putting great thoughts into the hands of my students, and watching what I really, truly saw as a holy communion between child and author, with me as the officiant. And it kills me to know that if I went back, I wouldn’t have much time to teach literature, which is increasingly seen as a frilly extra.

What???? What type of country do we live in now, where students no longer have time to read great books, learn about nature, or otherwise enjoy their learning experience? We have reverted back to the drill ‘em and kill ‘em rote memorization ideal of the 19th century. I fully believe that 50 years from now this will be looked upon as the worst time for education in American history.

A recent survey of 3 million kids in the U.S. revealed the number of books children read in 2007. Seventh-graders averaged 7.1 books in 2007, while 12th-graders averaged 4.5 books. This number is less than the amount of books I read in a given month. Yet I have seen the evidence in my own classroom. Students enter my room in September and fill our a reading survey. Most of them do not have a favorite book/author and it’s a rare student who has read more than 4 books in the last year. Why are our children not reading?

In my experience, our students are not reading because of NCLB. The joy of reading has been taken out of the classroom and the library. Students are no longer “allowed” to read for pleasure when they must attend mandatory test prep sessions, so that the school looks good on high-stakes testing. They are rarely introduced to the hundreds of new books that are published each year because library budgets have been slashed. Most schools have removed their classroom library budgets, too, so teachers are left to use their own money to stock their classroom library. Students crave new books. Instead, we force our idea of classics on them over and over again, never allowing them to find their own niche in the wide world of books. There are plenty of canon-worthy books that have been published in the last decade. Would it kill us to switch out a Hemingway or two for something like John Green’s Looking for Alaska or Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak?  Both are award-winners that are relevant to our students and their lives.  Both could also be used as a gateway to what adults deem “real literature”.  In other words, not YA literature.

To get back on topic, NCLB is destroying our classrooms and the education we should be giving our children.  Reading Jordan Sonnenblick’s editorial, coupled with the Washington Post’s recent survey, has lit a fire under me.  I hope it does the same for you.  Find a child or teen today.  Share a book with them.  Buy them a book or get them a library card.  Show them the blogs in the kidlitosphere and get them reading.  Help them find their niche and give them back what our schools are taking away.

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