Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Reading Dilemma

I had my first book presentation at a public school, last week. Well, a public school that's not the one my kids go to. That one doesn't count. Anyway...
So I get this call to come in and do a presentation at this middle school in the area. They're all very excited and so am I. Not that I wanted to let on that I was excited, but it's hard not to be. I get there just a little early, because I don't really know what they're expecting of me or where I'm going to be or, even, whom I'm presenting to other than that it has to do with the English department. Which is, you know, appropriate. It would have been kind of weird if I'd been called in by the math department. They take me over to the library, which is where I'm going to be (which was also good because I had a copy of The House on the Corner to donate to the library), and there are actually a few kids on their lunch break waiting to meet me. That's not something that I was expecting. Of course, the librarian totally embarrassed one of the kids by telling me how eager to meet me he was. He blushed and tried to play it off as no big deal, but it was fairly obvious he'd been waiting for me to come in. After shaking off his red face, he drifted over to me just about the time his bell rang, and he had to leave. But he was back for one of the presentations, so he did get to ask me a couple of questions.

The first class came in, I introduced myself, and I took a couple of questions. After that, I read the first chapter and, then, jumped ahead to read this bit that happens on Halloween night. I felt it was seasonally appropriate. After I read, I took questions for about 20 minutes or so. There was, of course, the expected, "What inspired you to write this book?" question.

And that's a very good question. Because I wasn't struck by inspiration for The House on the Corner so much as I went out and found it. I'd love to tell the story of that, but that's not what this post is about, so that will have to wait. At any rate, Tolkien and The Hobbit are involved in that story, so I asked the question, "Who's heard of J. R. R. Tolkien?" Blank stares. Seriously. I was met with a room full of blank stares. Not having hands might be expected, because, sometimes, kids don't want to raise their hands in that kind of situation, but you can generally tell who actually knows and is just trying not to raise their hand. But I was met with blank stares. Finally, after several moments, one of the teachers raised her hand and said he wrote The Lord of the Rings. Ah, some recognition and some mumbles about having seen the movies. I went on to explain that The Hobbit is one of the two books I think everyone should read.

When the class was leaving, the English teacher (not the one that had answered the question) came up to me and told me that I had inspired her to go read The Hobbit, because she had never read it. That's a good thing. Of course, I wish I could have inspired her to read my book, but, truthfully, my book is not one of the two books I think everyone should read. The Hobbit is a good start.

So I was distressed by the whole interaction about reading, and I realized that I'd forgotten to open with the question I meant to open with which was "Have any of you ever thought about being a writer when you grow up?" That question followed by an encouraging word about reading and writing like I talk about in this post. I did ask the second group that question and was met with identical blank stares as when I asked about Tolkien.

Before that, though, between groups, I asked the librarian what kind of reading participation they have at the school. Oh, my... I'm still having problems comprehending this. She said they had instituted a program a few years ago where the students earn points for doing reading and can exchange those points for... well, I don't know what, but they can exchange them for some kind of rewards. That sounded like a good idea until she said it had had basically no impact on the students. Then she showed me some of the reading statistics from the school.

They have one class of advanced readers. These are the best readers in the school. A middle school. Hundreds of kids. Out of hundreds of kids, they have two (in the whole school) that read at a high school level. They have two more that read at a middle school level. About half of the class of advanced readers read at a 5th grade level. The rest of the advanced readers are below that. This is the advanced class. The advanced class is full of kids reading below the level of my 8-year-old daughter. I had, and still don't, no idea of how to respond to that. I can't even begin to comprehend the kids in the rest of the school. The ones that aren't advanced. Is it a middle school full of kids who actually just can't read? I do know that California, as a state, had some of the poorest STAR test results in reading ever, last year.

The librarian went on to say that they really don't know what to do about it. They don't know if it's a problem with the school or the parents or both. They do know that none of the tactics they've tried so far have made any significant difference. I would say, though, that from the little I saw, the teachers don't set a good example for reading. Of course, I think the biggest influence for that is going to come from the home, but I'm not sure I would listen to a teacher telling me about how I should read more if the teacher wasn't a reader. And the librarian seemed to be not much of a reader considering how unfamiliar she was with the actual contents of the books in the library. But that's just a guess. Maybe she reads entirely different material. She was lacking in student book recommendations, though.

As a writer, the lack of reading distresses me. And it's not a distress that's about not being able to sell books to people that don't read. I just can't comprehend the lack of reading. Is it because Hollywood is so quick to make movies out of anything that looks remotely profitable? I do have kids asking me on a fairly regular basis about when I'm going to make my book into a movie. Because they don't understand that I can't just decide to do that. After all, I decided to write a book, so I must just be able to decide to make a movie, too. But this whole thing makes me question that. I don't really have a good answer.

Is reading a skill, like riding a horse, that's passing out of common usage? Are we going beyond needing it? To a place where visual media is replacing reading like automobiles replaced the horse? Like calculators (which I was never allowed to use when I was in school) have replaced the need to learn basic mathematics (because they actually have classes in how to use calculators and, not only are they allowed in classes, now, they're often required). Honestly, the whole thing scares me. The idea of a world without reading scares me. But, I'm sure, the idea of a world without horses used to scare some people, too.

The one solace I  have in all of this is that the public school system clings to tradition like no other institution in the United States. Despite all the data supporting changing the way some things are done, the school system clings to its traditions and its "we've always done it this way" mentality. As long as that is maintained, I'm sure reading will stay in the schools even if 50% of people never touch another book after they graduate.


  1. It's still probably more people who read than 200 years ago when most people were still living on farms.

  2. I'm glad you got to do a presentation, but sad about those statistics. It saddens me when I hear adults boasting about how they've never read a book since school. I just couldn't imagine it.

  3. I'm jealous of you about your presentation; I love doing those. I got to go read a short story of mine for Middle Daughter's English class about five years ago. At the time, I was the only person anyone knew who'd published something -- one short story.

    The thing about reading in schools especially is I think they are up against the "if it's an assignment I don't want to do it" mentality, first and foremost. I used to read 2-3 books a week when I was a kid, but I almost never read the stuff the school assigned because I didn't want to do it; it was WORK, not a fun thing. Later on, I went and read some of the books I'd skipped, and found at least some of them to be okay.

    The others, though, were deadly boring: Things like "Moby-Dick" were awful. Lots of books they read are awful. Prior to senior year, only one book I read for school ("Great Expectations") was any good. Senior year, we got "Slaughterhouse Five" and "Catch-22" and "Childhood's End" and I read all of those, which were very good.

    One thing people do: They discourage reading in favor of "specific kinds of reading." Schools, especially, frown on "this reading" when you could be doing "that better reading." That's like saying "You should only listen to opera" and expecting kids to like music.

    We let our kids read what they want; if they wanted to read Sports Illustrated, at least they were reading. Two of the three oldest don't read much (but read some) and one of three reads more than I do.

    I guess what I'm saying is that teachers (and writers) could fix it if they focused more on getting people to like reading by reading good, fun things to read, and then expanding. I read tons of comics and Mad Magazine, and ended up going to law school, so it's not like you can't amount to something if you read comics. (And someday I hope to amount to something and prove that true.)

    I've got your book on my short list for Indie Book Reviews. And that cover's by Rusty, right?

  4. Oh how exciting that you got to read in front of your intended audience.

  5. Mutt: Well, that's true. When you look at it like that, I guess we're doing okay.

    Sarah: Yeah, my brother does that. How is that something to be proud of?

    Briane: I know what you're saying about schools and it being work and such, but that's also a problem with the school system that doesn't have an answer. I love comics; they should be put to use in schools. I have way too many... maybe, I'll donate some of them to my kids' school.

    Yeah, the cover's by Rusty. It's awesome!

    And I disagree with you about Moby Dick. That book is awesome. Of course, I was an adult when I read it, and I read it because I chose to read it, so I had nothing against it going in.

    Michael: Yeah, it was cool, although I'm not sure about the intended audience part. I have a hard time with that concept, because I think it should appeal to adults, too. Parents and people that grew up in the 80s especially.

  6. I think kids mimic their parents - that is, if their parents read when the kids were small, some of that will rub off. My son has probably read 50 books or so. Not a lot, but about like me when I was his age. It's hard to compete with video games, or just being outside, not to mention TV, movies, etc.

    I think Video Games are what passes for novels nowadays anyway. The amount of time it takes to get through a video game is closer to what they'd have to put into finishing a novel. Those games, the wargames, the super violent space shooters, they often have really good storytelling elements. I don't find it all that compelling, but I can at least see how it tends to hit the same buttons as a good book will.

    That said, I am afraid that one day all the calculators will stop working, and no one will know how to do anything harder than basic arithmetic.

  7. Wow that is really cool! I would love to do a presentation at a school. Kids are the greatest inspiration I think because of their excited energy!

  8. I have yet to do a school presentation. I do have a high school book club reading my novel soon and I'm planning on meeting with them. It scares the water out of me...mainly in my armpits...

  9. Rusty: I'd completely agree with you except for one thing... my parents don't read. My mom reads occasionally, but not enough for it to have rubbed off on me. My dad, like my brother, has never read a book in his life. When I was little, though, my grandfather used to read to me. That's the only early exposure I really had to reading.

    As for the math, I'm not sure most people would be able to do simple arithmetic.

    Jennifer: Yeah, it is pretty cool. Especially when they laugh at the right places.

    Charlie: That sounds pretty cool! Hmm... I should look around and see if there are any of those around here.

  10. I think it really depends on the child. My son loves to read. He rarely goes anywhere without a book. He gets in trouble at school for reading in class. He is in the 6th grade and has a 12th grade reading level. He enjoys spending time alone in his room reading. But, he also plays too much Xbox. He also runs cross country, plays competitive soccer and on his junior high soccer team.

    My daughter (same parents) prefers to stay outside. She enjoys sports, but reads only the amount required by her teacher.

    Not sure of the solution, they have required outside reading, but they get to select the books.

    I am thankful for the variety of books offered at their school and a helpful librarian.

  11. Stephanie: Your kids are so much like mine. Except my son doesn't do any sport type stuff. That's our area of contention with him (other than eating). But he's off the reading scale and got bumped to 6th grade this year because of test scores.

    And my daughter's like yours, too. Always outside and a struggle to get to read.