Monday, October 27th, 2014...9:19 pm

Let Them Read Books

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I spent the last hour of the school day today stamping brand new books. It’s the best feeling, really, opening box after box of books that tomorrow I’ll get to put in the hands of teachers who will then get to put them in the hands of students.

Some of these books are bound to be the one that finally shows a student how amazing a book can be. Or maybe one of them will remind a used-to-be-reader of why they used to sneak books after bedtime when they were younger.

For some, one of these books might be the very first book they’ll ever finish.

Last week I read a blog focused on “this generation” of students, how they lack focus and attention span and how they just aren’t readers. The blogger wrote:

The underlying problem here has been studied both empirically and anecdotally by anyone who has been in a classroom in the last 15 years. An alarming portion of the students who enter college classrooms apparently have not read…anything, really. I have serious, well-founded doubts as to whether some of the students I deal with have ever read a book. I know for a painful fact that most of them read no news. At best they look at headlines. Essentially anything longer than a tweet or a Facebook status update is too long. Any video longer than about 3 minutes – the average Youtube clip – is also incomprehensible. This is the first generation of college students who were raised on both the internet and wireless devices, and it is absolutely goddamn staggering how poorly they are able to focus on anything. Anything at all, be it educational or entertaining. Open a textbook in front of them and their attention is drifting off to their smartphones before the end of the first page.

I’ve been in the classroom 15 years and I often think about this too. What have the iphones and smartphones done to our kids? To us? Are they making us smarter? Are they sucking away the valuable moments our students should be listening to a teacher or speaking with a group? Is sneaking a text different from sneaking a note on a lined piece of paper?

Will the iphone generation be the generation that stops reading – where, as Aldous Huxley argues in Brave New World, what we love will be our demise?

My students are supposedly reading Brave New World right now. At least, that’s what I’ve assigned them. We are talking about this in class. Some of them will be writing about this too. And because I talk about this for 3 hours a day, I keep entering in an argument with myself.

Yes. Huxley was right.

No. He wasn’t.

Which is it?

My students are distracted. If I look up at any given moment, I’m bound to see an earbud in, a phone lighting up with a text, a student taking a selfie and probably snap chatting. They have a constant distraction at their fingertips, their friends always a text away, the newest game calling to them as the teacher asks them to read or write or solve or hypothesize.

I wonder, though, if they are more distracted than my former students, than I was when I was a teenager. We wrote notes. We went to our lockers when we didn’t really need anything out of them. We made up our own games of distraction.

Is the smart phone making today’s students distracted? Yes. But if it wasn’t, something else probably would.

My students aren’t all readers. But I don’t think I can say any class I’ve ever taught or taken was comprised 100% of readers. I’ve certainly had classes where most were, or most were worried about grades enough to fake it. Maybe my students aren’t the avid or, at least, willing readers I taught 15 years ago, but I don’t blame the iphone for my students not reading the news or being unwilling to read a short story.

When I was a teenager I didn’t read newspapers. Neither did my friends. We were high-achievers, but only some of us were true readers. We didn’t even have flip phones.

If I blame anything for today’s students lack of interest in reading, I’m going to look, not at the phone, but at the educational landscape. What are we doing, or not doing, to make it a true statement that a student can get all the way to a college classroom without having read a whole book? What are we doing, or not doing, to make reading seem like a chore and not like an investigation into life, love, human nature, the world we all live in and share?

We aren’t letting them read books.

We are assigning test-prep packets* and focusing on raising test scores*. We are replanning lessons to combat the “distraction” of the phone instead of teaching them how to use it as a tool for learning, reading, sharing knowledge (I have a lot to say on that – which I’ll save for another post). We aren’t giving them time to read for the simple pleasure of it.

I read my daughter a chapter from Ramona last night and during the part where Ramona exhibited pure joy at the thought of sustained silent reading, I started to think about how different things were in the 80s when Beverly Cleary wrote of the idea that a student would read a book – any book – for the pure joy of it. No book reports. No worksheets. No “accountability” except for reading it. The students in Ramona’s class all loved it. Students in today’s classes would too. But how often do we allow them to just read. To pick a book just because.

Maybe that’s why today’s students complain a lot about reading.

No one has taken the time to show them the way in to the reading world, to hold a book in their hand as a form of entertainment, as a way of finding who we are, as a way of answering questions we don’t even know we have.

We still must, of course, assign reading and give assignments -expose them to ideas and viewpoints they may not find on their own (I obviously assigned a novel. They obviously don’t all love it). But  that can’t be the only thing we are doing.

So let’s let them read. Let’s not always follow it up with multiple choice questions or art projects. Let’s let them explore books that might matter to them – not just the ones that matter to us. Let’s just let them read.

I bet that might solve some of the problem.

And if they find a good book, I bet, just like good books used to distract us from whatever made our minds wander, they’ll forget about their phones for a while.


Let Them Read Books

*I feel compelled to say that these are my observations from teaching over the past years and that myself and my colleagues do not test-prep our students to death. I work in a school that supports literacy over test-prep. I wouldn’t work at a school at which that wasn’t true. 


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  • I love this. I agree that you’re probably unpacking books that will be someone’s first favorite. I think readers develop at so many different times and I’m not sure smartphones play into the timing as much as the headlines would have us think. I know one English teacher who didn’t become a reader until his sophomore year of college and he didn’t even text at that age. It comes down to finding that book that finally “gets” you. And then you start to “get” reading.

  • I wonder whether the current generation of kids has observed their parents reading for pleasure. If not, that may be another factor (besides digital distractions and current classroom trends).

  • p.s. a lot of my cohort (30-somethings) claim that they “don’t have time to read books”. I have a theory as to how that time is being spent…

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