Sunday, May 20, 2007

WTF Moment of the Day: "Why Should Any Kind of Premium Be Placed on an Interest in Reading Novels"

OK, who gave this Ann Althouse woman a podium? Can we somehow wrest it away from her and beat those responsible, roundly, with it? If you're a writer, and certainly if you're a reader of fiction, you must have an opinion about this complete nitwittery. Even her defense of her position to the commenters on it, is a crock.

From her original post:

And why does reading even need to be a separate subject from history in school? Give them history texts and teach reading from them. Science books too. Leave the storybooks for pleasure reading outside of school. They will be easier reading, and with well-developed reading skills, kids should feel pleasure curling up with a novel at home. But even if they don't, why should any kind of a premium be placed on an interest in reading novels? It's not tied to economic success in life and needn't be inculcated any more than an interest in watching movies or listening to popular music. Leave kids alone to find out out what recreational activities enrich and satisfy them. Some may want to dance or play music or paint. Just because teachers tend to be the kind of people who love novels does not mean that this choice ought to be imposed on young people via compulsory education. Teach them about history, science, law, logic -- something academic and substantive -- and leave the fictional material for after hours.

From her defense of the above:

Look, my main point is efficiency. Kids need to learn to read, and they should also be learning science and history too, so why not combine the two tasks? Reading would still be taught and, in the early years, would be the central focus of the lesson, but the texts would have an added benefit of getting started learning other academic subjects.

I'm not saying fiction isn't worth reading. I'm saying that it can be held for after hours pleasure reading. Frankly, I think this would increase the love of fiction. Here's this shelf of books that you can read when you finish your other work. You can take them home if you like. I think this would give them an aura of excitement. There are lots of people who have fiction forced on them and avoid it once they're out of school. My father would get passionate about his hatred of "The Return of the Native," which he was forced to read. Me, I read "The Return of the Native" and all of Thomas Hardy's novels on my own and loved them. Look at how kids read the Harry Potter books on their own. Put them outside of the classroom and let kids see them as a leisure treat.
I know I don't often get riled up like this here (unless it's about some scammer trying to shut down AW) but I've actually calmed down considerably and I'm still fargin' mad. I would truly like to see the writing blogosphere refute this to the heavens.

How on earth does someone acheive a post-graduate degree in any of the humanities (that includes law, don't it?) and also ascend to some kind of public status, holding on to this kind of astonishing conceit?

What has the blogosphere said so far? I've found this at alicublog, which lead me to this on Pandagon, and the comments there are really wonderful. Other bloggers have weighed in - mostly, it appears, from the left. (Somewhere MacAllister is grinning liberally, muttering: "she's one of us, she's one of us") By goodness, there have to be some just marginally right of center folk like myself out here that feel the same. I'm not out here on my own am I?

Teaching reading is hard, hard, woefully underpaid work. I know, I've been an elementary school teacher. Something Althouse has obviously not. The objective of teaching reading through fiction is to give students the tools to understand everything they learn in school as well as just be able to sound out (or memorize) all the words they'll see on a page.

Ann says: "Kids need to learn to read, and they should also be learning science and history too, so why not combine the two tasks?"

You try to engage a room full of antsy first graders with straight history or science facts. I'd much prefer telling them a story. One can argue that learning to read If You Give a Moose a Muffin by Laura Joffe Numeroff , doesn't teach students anything useful about math or science or history, in and of itself - but really, that's the rest of the job of the teacher - to make it relevant. Now, lets get behind that and support the teacher, instead of undercutting his or her efforts even further.

See, this is why teachers come up with thematic units that incorporate what the class is reading in the reading session with what they're learning in the other sessions of the day. For example, the Moose and Muffin story - for math you can bring in muffins and count all the muffins you'd need to feed everyone in the story (I'm not taking this from real life - it's been long ago enough that I don't remember the exact details of the story, nor the lesson plans I used with it, but just go with me here). Then learn subtraction by eating them.

Science - do moose like muffins? Then what do they really eat? Could they eat just muffins?

Nature, geography, ecology: Where can you find moose in the United States? Where do they migrate, what kind of land is best for moose? How does man impact the moose habitat? Trust me, the kids are interested in this. They love the moose - he's the star of that book they had so much fun learning to read. Plus we're coloring maps, building mobiles out of construction paper and yarn, etc.

History - how did the settlers of the west use moose, in trade, as food, as clothing? How about the Native Americans?

See, learning to read from the book is just one tiny part of the curriculum. Now, replace the story with dry factual and age appropriate math, science and history. How excited are the kids about learning to read, now, Ann? You think they'll retain those lessons nearly as long or as well as they did the Moose and muffin related ones? Thousands of teachers will tell you otherwise.

And it just starts there, other longer stories, then "chapter books" and then middle grade novels, are used this way all through elementry school. When the students hit middle school and High School, literature classes are separate, but they're still part of an integrated curriculum that is (hopefully) designed to teach more than just ever more polished reading skills.

Reading Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time gets students exposed to physics and math. Reading Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth teaches logic and number theory (amongst many other things). I didn't know what the Fibbonaci numbers were (or the Golden Spiral and its ubiquousness in nature) before I pre-read that book in order to teach it to my class - so even I learned something that 8 years of post elementary education (High School + college and post college studies) hadn't taught me. I could go on and on. As a substitute teacher for 4 years and a private school teacher for an additional two, I am utterly convinced that teaching fiction to my students was essential to the entire learning experience.

pfft. Ann's a dolt. I'm done - anyone who reads here, gets the point. I doubt she or her supporters ever will.


Jill said...

Hi Dawno - yes, from what I've read, she can be very annoying. I actually emailed with her a few months ago, trying to understand where she was coming from and her response was rather condescending - and she doesn't even know me. It was weird. Oh well - pure inquisitiveness only gets me so far. :)

John Althouse Cohen said...

Wait a minute, I don't even see the disagreement here. Althouse: "Kids need to learn to read, and they should also be learning science and history too, so why not combine the two tasks? ... I'm also not opposed to teaching history and science through the kinds of novels and storybooks that present the information accurately." Isn't that precisely what you're describing with using the moose book to teach math or using A Wrinkle in Time to teach science? Those don't seem markedly different from her example of using 1984 to teach history. If there is any disagreement here, it's much subtler than would justify this kind of "I can't believe anyone with a post-graduate degree...!" attack.

Dawno said...

Thank you for your visit, John and I'll take your point under advisement.

marty said...

Dawno, don't blame Althouse on the left -- she's meant to be a 'moderate', clothed up as a leftist while prancing on behalf of the right. Then again, that's only from reading about her on other sites. From seeing her posts, I don't think I'll waste time over there.

From reading her original post and the follow up, I'm a bit confused about why she thinks "efficiency" is so important in education. Teaching kids isn't making pizzas or painting houses.

Dawno said...

Hi Marty - thanks for dropping by!

As for Althouse, I don't see her as coming from a left/moderate POV - it's just that only liberal blogs are talking about what she said - what about writing blogs? Or teachers?

Cookie said...

Isn't the internet fun? Any jackass with an internet connection can get a blog and yammer whatever nonsense they want. I suppose it's a great way for a certain type of person to get attention, but it really is sad that someone would need to do so.

I wonder if that person has children because getting them to love books and the fun and magic of reading is a huge part of getting them to want to improve their reading skills. I think that is a large part of why children's books are they way they are. ;^)

Peggy said...

It seems like Mr. Cohen didn't read the text you quote in which Ms. Althouse wrote "Give them history texts and teach reading from them. Science books too. Leave the storybooks for pleasure reading outside of school." Sounds to me like she's explicitly against "storybooks," which indeed disagrees with the points you made.

I personally believe that it's important to do all we can to turn kids on to reading - any kind of reading. There are lots of kids who get to high school with poor reading skills and that not only hurts their ability to read novels for pleasure, but also for them to read and comprehend serious texts in history and science. Kids who don't have parents who read for pleasure may not be exposed to "fun" reading anywhere but the classroom. Reading exclusively from textbooks is likely to turn them off from reading for fun. I think that once kids catch the reading bug, education becomes a life-long experience, not just a bunch of facts that they memorize in the short term. (I guess I need to blog about this myself)

Dawno said...

Peggy, thank you for your visit and comment - I completely agree, not only with what you're saying, but that you need to blog about it too! You've got a well reasoned position, I'd love to see more.

I'll be doing a follow up on this in a post later - mostly about the backtracking Ann has taken in her "defense" post. She softens the intent somewhat, but there's still problems to be addressed.

Dawno said...

And Cookie - didn't mean to skip you - you hit it on the nail,"getting them to love books and the fun and magic of reading is a huge part of getting them to want to improve their reading skills" she seems to think that novel and storybook reading should be a "reward" activity and not a requirement at school. I think there's a disconnect there based on possibly not having kids but also on socieoeconomic factors that's important. Middle class and up families have books at home for the most part and can afford to buy more of them - lower class and poor, not so much. If you just have books on a shelf to take home, why would a child do that unless they'd been trained *somewhere* that there's value to it? I think it's an aquired taste, and maybe it won't stick, but if you don't give them a taste in their lessons, they won't know if they want to have more. *shrug* I guess as a fanatical reader and as a former teacher who taught in poor rural schools for the most part, I'm heavily biased.

AstonWest said...

I didn't bother reading her original post...not enough hours in the day.

I personally think that reading for enjoyment should be something that is done outside of school...but merely because it should be something that parents and children should be doing together.

I'd also venture that attempting to get older children to read for enjoyment in a school setting causes more trouble than it's worth. I know that of all the books I ever read in my school years, it was the ones I read outside of school by my own direction that I enjoyed the most. The ones that were read as a result of an assignment were never enjoyed, and I really don't remember much about them...

Synova said...

I'm a writer of speculative fiction and a reader of fiction. Someday I may get something published. :-)

And I'm curious about why you think that writers, particularly, must agree that fiction reading is more valuable than non-fiction reading for children learning to read.

The charter high school that my daughter is attending this fall actually does pretty much what Althouse describes, combining English and Humanities.

Which seems to be pretty much what you describe for elementary.

So I fail to see the uncrossable gulf of doltishness that you do.

Dawno said...

Thank you for dropping in, Synova, and for your comment. I have posted again on this and tempered many of my comments in that post.

As I mention there, I do agree to some extent with what Ann said. It's not non-fiction reading that I'm comparing to fiction, it's Text Book reading completely replacing the use of fiction stories for teaching reading that I object to - and I do go into more detail in my more recent post.