How did you develop a love for reading?
Ask George Saunders, Barry Hannah, or Andrea Barrett. For each of these writers, their love for reading was realized in a K-12 classroom. For Maya Angelou, it’s thanks in part to Miss Kirwin, a “brilliant teacher” at the George Washington High School in San Francisco. For John McPhee, it’s thanks in part to Olive McKee, an English teacher he had for three years. Of course, you don’t have to look to lauded authors. Most readers, writers, and book-lovers can point you to a moment in their educational journeys where a love for reading was inspired in them by a passionate K-12 teacher.
However, the ability of schools and teachers to foster a love for reading in students is under assault in today’s educational climate. We live in a time of high-stakes accountability, where quantifiable metrics, namely standardized test scores, are used to judge students, teachers, and schools. Now, we are faced with the Common Core, new standards in Math and English Language Arts that are sweeping the nation. Incentivized by billions in federal grant dollars, 45 states are adopting the Common Core, with some states rolling out their implementations over the last two school years and other states waiting until next school year.
With these new standards come new tests, namely the Smarter Balanced assessment and PARCC, which are expected to take up to 10 hours for students to complete every year, starting in third grade. These tests will dominate students and teachers’ lives and turn many engaging classrooms into test prep zones. This myopic focus on testing places an extraordinary burden on students and teachers — such an extreme focus detracts from students’ educational experiences and greatly impedes schools and teachers’ ability to foster a love for reading in all students.
This should matter not only to students, parents, and teachers, but to publishers, writers, readers, and booksellers across America. If we want reading to flourish as a pastime and a serious pursuit, schools must be able to devote the necessary time and resources toward reading for pleasure.
You can probably think back to a time in school when you were introduced to something new. Maybe it was a concept in science class or a way of solving problems in math. With this new knowledge came a mix of recognition and surprise, the delight of learning. For many readers, a book passed along by a kind English teacher or eccentric history teacher carried with it this delight. In this sense, K-12 teachers are agents of intellectual excitement. A vibrant teacher can ignite students’ curiosity and enthusiasm in immeasurable ways. Especially for students who don’t have access to many literary resources at home, the classroom is the place where the world of books is brought to life. Educators can pass along their love for reading by introducing students to great books and by being sources of passion, creativity, and spunk.
In her Paris Review interview, novelist Andrea Barrett talks about her difficulties in high school, how she used to skip class and was a “horrible student.” Yet there was one person who stood out, a 10th-grade English teacher named Mrs. Williams. Mrs. Williams gave students “an extensive list of really good books to read” and then asked them to journal about their reading experiences. Soon, Barrett was reading more than she ever had before. “Mrs. Williams,” Barrett says, looking back, “was important to me in ways I didn’t understand for years.”
This is a relatable feeling. The lasting ramifications and reverberations that result from the guidance of our teachers — these people who, at the time, may have seemed silly, ridiculously strict, overly enthusiastic, and unbearably old — are hard to quantify. Yet many of us have been shaped in tremendous ways by these teachers who took the time and extended themselves, these teachers, like Mrs. Williams, Miss Kirwin, and Mrs. McKee, who went above and beyond and brought reading into our lives. Booksellers everywhere should be sending these teachers thank-you cards. These are the people who are inspiring the next generation of readers and book-buyers in America.
It’s worth thinking about what a young Andrea Barrett would have made of an English classroom that was strictly aligned with the Common Core and geared solely toward preparing students to get high scores on standardized tests. Instead of reading novels hand selected by her teacher, Barrett would read the same informational texts as every other student. Instead of being able to journal about her own ideas, Barrett would complete multiple-choice questions, each of which related directly to a Common Core standard. This is not the kind of environment that can foster a love for much of anything.
While we do not know what the full effects of these new efforts to standardize education will be, it’s clear that success on these Common Core-aligned tests will shape learning and teaching in many districts, because these tests will be a primary metric by which districts are judged. This will greatly influence what’s happening in our classrooms. Simply put, the more instructional time K-12 teachers have to spend preparing students for high-stakes tests, the less time teachers have to foster a love for reading in students.
This is not only a question of classroom time, but also of students’ perspectives. When books are seen through the lens of test prep, they lose value. Texts are turned into word searches, where students’ singular goal is to find the correct answer. If reading is treated merely as a way to extract the necessary information — rather then as an activity worthy in and of itself — our literary culture will be greatly diminished. “The most significant kind of learning in virtually any field,” writes visual arts teacher and Stanford professor Elliot Eisner, “creates a desire to pursue learning in that field when one doesn’t have to.” This definition of learning — of learning that is transformative, of learning that galvanizes our minds for a lifetime — is what should be driving our discussions, instead of the current focus on more and more high-stakes tests, where standards are geared toward establishing uniformity of thought among students and where creativity and individuality are neither valued nor encouraged.
If this current trajectory continues, the next generation of Americans will spend more time in school prepping for high-stakes tests than they will reading books or engaging in lab work or doing much of anything else. It seems likely that this, in turn, will have an impact on the number of active readers in America, a number that is already in noticeable decline. If we want our schools to be transformative places, if we want students to develop a deep love for reading, then we must understand that the most fundamental parts of an education are those that cannot be easily quantified through standardized tests.
At a time when so many external groups and special interest forces are involved in education, it’s important that the voices of book-lovers echo in our classrooms. Publishing houses should provide more free resources to students and schools. Local writers should find ways to collaborate with K-12 teachers. We should all advocate for a public education that engenders a love for reading in students.
Thinking of writers — George Saunders, Maya Angelou, and Andrea Barrett, just to name a famous few — who have been influenced by their K-12 teachers, it’s worthwhile to contemplate how they would have experienced today’s high-stakes testing climate. Would they still have developed a rich love of literature? Can such a love flourish in an environment where student achievement is reduced to standardized test scores? What is at stake, in this debate over education, are the lives and minds of the next generation of readers, writers, thinkers, activists, and academics in America. At some point, we have to ask how many students have already been turned off by today’s educational priorities? We have to wonder how many stories have already been lost.
Bonus Link: The Problem With Summer Reading
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