Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The Art of Reading, Lost or Otherwise

AJ recommends lots of books that we both know might wait years before I get a chance to read them. But when he slid this small trim size, 150-page book across the table, I decided to give it a go. I'm glad I did.

It took me about 50 pages to get past his description of a reading life that is nothing like mine, and which made me feel more than a tad inferior. But then he got to some big points.
"We come to books (or at least, I do) to see beneath the cover story, to be challenged and confounded, made to question our assumptions, even as the writers we read are compelled to question their own. 
What does that mean? On the one hand, it's an argument for nuance, for the role of narrative as a mechanism to confront the chaos, to frame a set of possible interpretations while acknowledging that these could shift at any time. Yet even more essential, I would argue, it's a call to engage. Stories, after all--whether aesthetic or political--require sustained concentration..."
Ulin defines reading as an act of creativity that requires sustained concentration, which, in a world of "endless information," has become harder and harder to maintain.

"Technology is rewiring the neurology of our brains," but we shouldn't be too alarmed by this. It's been happening since the first symbols were carved into clay. We need to remember that Gutenberg shifted the world of reading only about 600 years ago. Ulin quotes Jane Smiley, from 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel when he gets to the heart of what should worry us about the loss of book readers,
"When we talk about the death of the novel, what we are really talking about is the possibility that empathy, however minimal, would no longer be attainable by those for whom the novel has died...If the novel dies, or never lives, for children and teenagers who spend their time watching TV or playing video games, then they will always be somewhat mystified by others, and by themselves as well."
Ulin sees reading as "an act of resistance in a landscape of distraction, a matter of engagement in a society that seems to want nothing more than for us to disengage...We regain the world by withdrawing from it just a little...."

Pretty heady stuff, and all of it a hard sell for my fifth graders. I have one foot back in the world of no Internet; they have both feet fully planted in the world of distraction. Luckily, at the same time I started reading The Lost Art of Reading, a book I had on reserve at the library came in.

This gorgeously illustrated book is filled with over 100 letters to young readers describing the joys of books and reading. Perhaps a couple of these read each day to my students will help them to see the breadth and depths of what books and story can mean to a person.

The Universe didn't decide to stop there in making me think hard about the meaning of reading and books in this time of distraction. When I finished Ulin's book, I picked up the January/February Horn Book Magazine and found Uma Krishnaswami's article, "Why Stop at Windows and Mirrors?: Children's Book Prisms."
"A prism can slow and bend the light that passes through it, splitting that light into its component colors. It can refract light in as many directions as the prism’s shape and surface planes allow. Similarly, books can disrupt and challenge ideas about diversity through multifaceted and intersecting identities, settings, cultural contexts, and histories. They can place diverse characters at these crucial intersections and give them the power to reframe their stories. Through the fictional world, they can make us question the assumptions and practices of our own real world."
Then, just a few more pages into the Horn Book issue, I found Grace Lin's article, "Speak with Us, Not for Us."
"What diversity needs is not white authors to write heroes of a minority race, but rather for them to redefine the white hero. We need authors to create white characters who are (or are learning to become) socially aware and who fight alongside people of color, without being saviors, and we need authors who know how to do the same."
Okay, Universe. I hear you loud and clear. It's worth it to keep trying to fall my students in love with books and reading, even though it feels like I am swimming against an impossible tide of technology and distraction. A Velocity of Being will help me with this. It is still worth it to provide books that are windows and mirrors and sliding glass doors, but I will also look for more prisms. And I'll cheer on not just the #ownvoices authors, but also the white authors who are working to redefine the white hero.


  1. I am concerned about the distraction of technology and vow to keep reading from real books a major part of my classroom.

  2. I am saddened when I talk with young people who can't tell me about a book they loved. You keep trying, we need people like you in our classrooms. And I'll keep trying with my lunchtime book club group.

  3. Oh, and now I'm off to request the books you mentioned and to read the articles too.

  4. I'm making this my new motto: an act of resistance in a landscape of distraction, a matter of engagement in a society that seems to want nothing more than for us to disengage...We regain the world by withdrawing from it just a little...."
    Thank you for this rich and beautiful post.

  5. In a way, I am relieved to know that I am not the only one fighting the battle to encourage students to read. However, it is heartbreaking to hear that the struggle to get students to read is not reserved for high school teachers only. I hear my high school students often bragging about how long it has been since they have read a book. They see it as an admirable skill when they find a way to pass an assignment without reading a required text.
    I feel that the reading issue is part of a larger cultural phenomenon. In a society that values instant gratification above all, cutting corners is seen as a more important skill than working hard and remaining focused. Reading takes time, so many students feel it is unworthy. How can we as teachers encourage students that reading is worth the time? I so often am encouraged by colleagues to replace novel reading with short stories since some reading is better than none at all, but I worry that this action simply feeds into the problem. I have tried choice books and lit circles, but students will only read when in class. Still, many simply pretend to read. When they are given choices and time but refuse to read, what else can we do?
    I love the idea of the letters to readers. I wonder, do you think this would work in a high school classroom? What else can I do to encourage students to read while still meeting curriculum needs and preparing them for the end of course exam?

    1. I wish I knew the answer to your questions. Katherine Sokolowski's post today about smart phone use and what it's doing to our brains makes me think that perhaps helping children of all ages to be aware of what they are LOSING when they choose to spend all their time with technology might be part of the answer. We get only so much time on this planet. We choose how we spend it. We can choose to be more present and intentional. Follow the links in Katherine's post. Maybe they can help you start conversations with your high schoolers. Report back! (http://readwriteandreflect.blogspot.com/2019/03/thinking-about-smartphone-and-how-we.html)

  6. I’m a traditionalist…there I admitted it. However, I know that most kids today are not going to adhere to these “traditionalist” ideals that I have for them. Although I’d characterize myself as technologically literate, I am not by any means, tech-savy. I am open to new technology, and with a little guidance and practice, sometimes I even like it. Yet, I cannot emphasize enough to my own children, much less to many of the students I teach in 6th grade ELA, the power of a book, “a real book”.
    Possibly, it could be due in part to the sad truth that I was NOT a reader as a young child. Both my parents worked, a lot, and I stayed with my grandmother during the days before heading out to kindergarten. Although much practical literacy exposure was rampant…actual reading, as a practice, just wasn’t done nearly enough. Therefore, when I entered middle school, and started actually reading great books, got put in an advanced group, and landed into AP English in high school…I had discovered reading! Today, it almost seems a guilty pleasure to just “sit and read a book.”
    With so many pressures on time, and parenting responsibilities, and teaching…reading takes a back seat. I really do appreciate technology. But, the quote cited from the blog by Ulin in that reading is “an act of creativity that requires sustained concentration…[and]…has become harder and harder to maintain,” rings true with me, causing much distress. Currently, out of 30 students, I estimate that only six of them read regularly “for pleasure”. I can only hope that exposure to truly great literature will help us to save this lost art!
    But…just in case…I do use audio-books, digital books, and online articles to hook them in with reading exposure.


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