Read, Dammit!

Everybody believes that teens should be reading. The kids have other ideas.


Brad Thompson: As a middle-school teacher in the inner city, where we have a large ELL [English language learning] population, my question is not so much "Do they read?" as "Can they read?" I can hand them To Kill a Mockingbird or Grapes of Wrath, and some kids can read it, but they just can't understand it. And then I've got kids who've been in the country for nine months, and they're expected to reach an eighth-grade reading proficiency right now. I'd challenge anyone to go to a country where they don't speak your native language and in nine months' time reach an eighth-grade literacy level.

Kids will seek out things that interest them, but they have to have some basic foundation of ability, and they may not have gotten that in elementary school, because they weren't even in the country for elementary school. But eventually they'll get to the point where they can understand and appreciate that these are skills they need to have.

Terry Colon

You'll see kids who'll spend two hours reading Game Pro on how to get to the next step on some video game, and they'll struggle and they'll sweat blood to figure out what's going on. They'll talk to each other, and cooperate and work through those instructions because it means something to them.


Sarajo Wentling: So we all agree that kids are reading a lot of different things that are traditionally discounted as reading. The magazines, the Internet, the back of the cereal box, things that some adults may not approve of as quality literature, and therefore we might think that's not really reading sometimes.

Ann Melrose: I also think that teens are burgeoning adults, and we don't make dramatic one-size-fits-all statements about what adults should and shouldn't read.


Susan Marie Swanson: It's not the same for everyone, certainly. It really breaks my heart when we look at how many books a child is reading as a barometer for how our kids are doing with reading. It matters a lot more to me if a child wouldn't think of going on a trip without taking something along to read, that they have books that they spill pop on and that are essential to their lives.


Michelle Mlsna: In the short experience I've had in teaching in the inner city of Minneapolis, there hasn't been so much the question of "Are they reading?" as "How is that occurring?" I'm figuring out pretty quickly that if you give kids an assignment and tell them, "Here, take this home and read it," you know what? They're so busy with so much stuff that most of us never had to deal with. Most of my 16-year-olds, they've all got jobs, they're helping out their families, they've all got other stuff going on. But they love reading out loud in class, even the kids that I have that are reading at a third- or fourth-grade level are more than willing to stick their neck out on the guillotine and read Solzhenitsyn. They love to do it.

And that's the thing that I've found really exciting. The intrinsic motivation for a lot of them is just not there, and it needs to be constantly refostered. Yet when they realize that what they're reading and how they're reading it is such a vehicle for radical social change, when they realize that One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was all about busting out of a system of thought, their acceptance of it is just voracious. I have a lot of Asian and African-American kids, and they loved that book. They didn't give a crap who it was, they were just like, "Wow, that is revolutionary. He was really bucking it. That's cool." And we read that out loud.


Thompson: We have a large Somali population, and the storytelling tradition in that culture is phenomenal. You watch some of these kids verbally telling their stories, and you have the most hyperactive kids just hanging on every single word. There's an energy behind it, and that may be the energy that's missing when you ask a kid to read 115 pages and supply that energy. In my class we'll sometimes have them act out a story that they've just read, and that brings it to life for them.


CP: Is there something inherently class-stratified in the notion that kids should read in the way that we're talking about it? This "hunger for reading" keeps coming up. Should we be concerned if kids are getting their imaginations fired by other forms of entertainment and culture as opposed to books?


Morgan: I think it's all part of the creative process. In the same way that every kid learns differently, every kid responds to words differently. And whether they're reading them, singing them, screaming them, it doesn't matter. In our society you have to have some facility with words in order to make it. A lot of the kids that I see in our field trips to the city schools have never owned a book in their lives, but when we have an author or an illustrator talking to them, the questions that they ask about the creative process are 10 times more important than whether they've read the book or not.

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