If Books Read Themselves

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We were driving home one evening a few weeks back when my 9-year old nephew and my daughters were talking about things they disliked. It included everything from bathing to chores and homework to flu shots.

When I thought they had surely exhausted their list of troubles, my nephew said, “I wish teeth cleaned themselves.”

Isn’t that the truth? There are evenings I am so tired I just want to crawl into bed and live with the consequences of abandoning all the pre-bedtime rituals…but then I remember that teeth do not clean themselves nor do spouses appreciate bad breath (especially in the close proximity of a bed).

It makes me think of another nightly ritual that I too often do abandon (and I write a website called “Father Knows Books!”) – reading with my kids.  I can’t believe the evenings I’ve wasted not reading with them.  My oldest daughter is 19, so I have been reading off and on with daughters just before bedtime for about 18 and half years (that’s 6,756 nights of possible reading opportunities).  If I read just 20 minutes an evening during those years, that equals 135,120 minutes!

A recent fact sheet by Scholastic and entitled Read Every Day/Lead a Better Life reveals that “children learn an average of 4,000 to 12,000 new words each year as a result of book reading;” and that “if a child reads as much as one million words per year, they will be in top 2% of all children on standardized reading tests. If a child reads as little as 8,000 words per year, they will be in bottom 2% of all children on standardized reading tests. Therefore, if you read 3,000 words every day you will be in the top 2%. If you read 20 words every day, you will be in the bottom 2%.”

Reading is Fundamental (RIF), the largest children’s literacy nonprofit in the United States, wrote in a recent article, “Even after children learn to read by themselves, it’s still important for you to read aloud together. By reading stories that are on their interest level, but beyond their reading level, you can stretch young readers’ understanding and motivate them to improve their skills.”

When my daughters and I have read together, we have also lived a dozen lives together. We have been the beasts of Oz and the wild children of Neverland, the ferocious pirates of Treasure Island and the ogres of Frell, the brave animals of Narnia and the mysterious dragons of Tangerine.

No matter what we wish, books do not read themselves. They require a voice, a narrator, a reader…they require us.

The Book of Equilibrium

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In a course on family and teacher relationships that I am teaching at our local university this semester, we spend a lot of time talking about the need for equilibrium in the children’s classroom. I often think to myself, if one word could sum up a particular course, what would it be? For this course, the word is equilibrium.

There are too many children living in turmoil – disequilibrium – for all kinds of reasons and in all kinds of ways.

One out of 50—or about 1.5 million—American children are homeless each year, according to a 2009 study by the National Center on Family Homelessness.

On any given day – I said day – there are approximately 400,000 children in out-of-home foster care in the United States; annually about 650,000 children spent some time in out-of-home foster care in the United States. Children entering foster care remain there on average for nearly two years.

It is reported that more than 6 million children in the U.S. are referred annually to Child Protective Services, while some 3 million children are investigated for maltreatment and more than a half million of those children…I said children.. are determined to be victims of abuse or neglect.

Most all of these children in these and other stressful situations also go…to school.

Very often, the one and only place of peace is in the classroom of these children’s schools. That is why teachers can and should provide this priceless commodity – equilibrium – in a world so often full of disequilibrium. We often talk in my classroom about the fact that we can change very little in a child’s home and world and television screen outside the walls of their schools, but we can control the world that exists inside their classroom.

I am so proud to see so many young educators entering the field today who truly see that the needs of young students and their families are more profound than ever before…and that they find that challenge so compelling and important. Neither money or fame mean a thing to many of them. They just want to know one thing, “How can I help them?”

Education in America simply is more than high scores and a catering to reach only a certain population of students. We are not teaching robots nor are we teaching people to be robots. We must teach to reach them all. Every student and every family – and every teacher – deserves no less.

P.S. A few great books on the subject of teaching that will make you want to teach: The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer, The Hurried Child by David Elkind, and Once Upon An Ordinary School Day by Colin McNaughton.

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