Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Joy of Reading

My book club is meeting tonight. We are discussing To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris. I will admit to quitting after 100 pages of this one, for the simple reason that it did not give me any joy. I can often find joy in an unpleasant book, especially if I’m going to get the opportunity to whine about it in community. But the labor of getting through this one was greater than the thrill I’d get from dissecting it later.

Joy is really at the heart of it for me. I felt joy as a kid when my mother read to me at night. I feel joy when I find an un-put-downable book. I feel joy when I read something outside of my usual zone and find that it's amazing. I feel joy when a favorite author comes out with a new title. If I didn’t feel joy when I read, I probably wouldn’t do it.

That brings me to an ongoing concern: I worry that my kids, or any kids, will not find that kind of joy. In particular, I worry that school might rip the joyful potential of reading right out of them.

I’m sure I’ll be writing more about this topic as the months go on, but I thought I’d share a story about my kids’ experience in middle school Language Arts. Last year my boys were in sixth grade and encountered the Common Core for the first time. As you probably have heard, the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts bring an increasing emphasis on nonfiction reading as well as on real-world literacy skills.  One of these real-world skills, it turns out, is book clubbing! Woo! Well, more specifically, the skill is “engaging effectively in a range of collaborative discussions with diverse partners on grade level topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing your own clearly.”

The class activity to address this standard was participating in a “Nonfiction Book Club.” The only requirement was that the book be rooted in truth and that all members had to agree on the selection. One of my kids was in a group of four boys, and they chose a book on explosions. I’m not sure, but I think the title was simply Explosions! (with exclamation point).  It concerned things that explode, the processes of explosions, and the noises that explosions make (Kaboom!).  So the group was successful at finding a mutually satisfying “informational text” to anchor the conversation.

But wait, this is school, and everything must be assessed. And I’m a little bit of a perfectionist, so the first question in my mind was, “How do you get an "A" in book club?”

I got my answer:

The column in the middle indicates the characteristics of a book club discussion that would yield its members a grade of “meeting standard.” To you and me, that means the student would get a "B." The column on the right indicates the characteristics of a book club discussion that would yield its members a grade of “exceeding standard.” And that, my friends, means “A.”

Since getting an A required using 2 of 3 of the “listening strategies” on the list, the boys decided to focus on “courteous attention” and “pausing for at least five seconds” between comments. Here’s how the conversation went:

Boy #1: I really liked it when that building exploded.

(Boys #2, #3, and #4 staring, immobile, with eyes open wide to maintain eye contact and stillness)

Boy #2 (counting): One, two, three, four, five.

Boy #3: Yeah. Me, too.

Boy #2 (counting): One, two, three, four, five

Boy #4: Dude, that must have been amazing.

Boy #2 (counting): One, two, three, four, five.

Boy #3: Dude, yeah.

Boy  #2 (counting): One, two, three, four, five.

Boy #1: My eyes hurt. Can I blink now?

 The good news is that my kid got a shiny "A" in nonfiction book club. He promised to work on “asking meaningful questions” at the next opportunity in order to further develop his skills (e.g. Are explosions still cool if people get hurt?).  I’m not so sure he experienced the joy of reading, but I’m pretty sure he racked up more evidence that adults and their expectations are ridiculous.

I, meanwhile, will be practicing “pausing for five seconds” tonight at my own book club. That will probably happen as I’m stuffing food in my face, joyfully. I’ll let you know if I meet standard.

No comments: