by Eileen Wedegartner, Blended Learning Specialist
I can remember the moment in childhood when I was first able to read independently. We were on our annual drive to the Berkshires, a family tradition. As we got onto Route 2 I began to read the signs excitedly to my father. I read each exit number and the names of the towns. “Mohawk Trail” was easy but “Leominster” and “Winchendon” were more challenging. I distinctly remember being in the back seat of the big blue Ford LTD with my dad in the front, feeling his pride as I nailed sign after sign all by myself.
Now, with children of my own, I appreciate his patience and ability to coach me through the tough words. As an adult, when reading is a reflex and you are constantly taking in information, it can be both overwhelming and empowering.
As I grew into a young reader, I would attempt to read everything, especially fiction. Oftentimes I would read deep into the night to complete a novel. I would experience the joy of having immersed myself in a good story, but I would also experience the anticlimax of having finished the story and leaving the characters I had come to know and enjoy. Every final page was bittersweet.
Reading not only brought me information; it transported me to distant places and different times and allowed me to feel the experiences of different people. It helped me develop an understanding of diverse worlds and cultures and showed me places that I might never see in real life. Over the years, the joy of reading branched from mainly fiction to nonfiction. I have had nightmares where I could not read, waking up with chills because I could not make sense of the world around me.
As an English teacher, I hung a poster in my classroom with a quotation that has been attributed, accurately or not, to Mark Twain:
I kept that poster right behind my desk. When I would conference with students about the next project, report, or concept they wanted to explore, half the class would inevitably tell me, “I do not read. I do not like reading. I can just watch the movie.” Of course, nearly all high school students who have to read the “classics” would say that, if only for the sake of bucking authority. I could always appreciate that.
Nonetheless, whenever I heard it I let out a little mocking gasp. Then, taking a deep breath, I would try to appeal to the innate rebellion in teenagers and go into a diatribe about power in the world. Knowing that I only had an elevator pitch to sell my point, I would ask, “You know how the most powerful people in the world attained their power?” Some students would inevitably answer, “Guns or money.” I would shrug and agree, “Yes, those are ways one can assert power over others. But when you trace humankind back through history, power was always in the hands of those who could read.” That is when I would see the student bristle and say, “I can read, I just do not like to read.” Like clockwork I would say “Yes” and then point at the poster behind my desk and ask the student to read it. I would add, “If you choose not to read, you are letting others make the decisions for you and giving them the power.” I would continue, “That means that you get from a book what the film director and screenplay writer want you to get. That means you listen to the newscaster summarize a speech or policy guideline, but without reading it yourself you are subservient to their biases.” I would conclude:
When it comes to teenagers, rebellion against reading does not shock me. With their access to video, text, chat, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, etc. I can appreciate their distraction from focused reading. Reading is a skill and a discipline that needs to be practiced and developed. Learning to interact effectively with a text can be taught both in the classroom and in support sessions.
At JFY, we work to help students develop these skills that are essential to a literate society. While our program tracks where students currently read in vocabulary and sentence complexity, it also allows them to highlight the text for main idea, questions, connections and supporting details. In addition, students can write annotations at the end of every paragraph or at key intervals in the text.
As an educator, I love that we can do this. I cannot induce anyone to love reading, but I can make sure they have the skills to do it well. Being a strong reader is essential to self-empowerment. There have been many occasions in history when learning to read was an act of rebellion, and when writing and reading were the tools of revolution. I will always hold firm with students that once you learn to read well, you will love it. Ever since that ride in the back seat of my dad’s LTD, I have never doubted that reading is fundamental.