Monday, August 12, 2013

Preserving a Tradition

Over at the MindShift blog, Annie Murphy Paul has written a fantastic post on the importance of teaching today's students how to read deeply. Arguing that this skill has been threatened by an increasingly utilitarian approach to reading, Paul makes a convincing argument that in losing the ability to read in such a way that it becomes a sort of spiritual experience, we are at risk of losing our cultural heritage and identity.

I found her article fascinating and am in perfect agreement with her as I have seen the effect that utilitarian reading has on students when it comes to studying history. More often than not students who are taught history using textbooks written in technical "informative" language fail to develop an interest in the subject. History becomes reduced to names and dates and other "facts" and loses its human element. Reading about racial segregation becomes nothing more than a few paragraphs of facts and students may think "Well, that sounds awful" but fail to truly comprehend what it was like to live under Jim Crow legislation. Give them a book like Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and their experience is transformed. Their brain engages in an entirely different way and they are drawn in to a story of deep human suffering allowing them to develop a sense of justice, empathy, and emotional engagement. It is for this reason that we at BFB are passionate about teaching history using literature. If a student's education fails to teach him to read on a deeply human level, it has failed him. And, unfortunately, most students are not reading in this way. As Paul states in her post: "This is not reading as many young people are coming to know it. Their reading is pragmatic and instrumental: the difference between what literary critic Frank Kermode calls “carnal reading” and “spiritual reading.” 

Paul goes on to state: 
"If we allow our offspring to believe that carnal reading is all there is—if we don’t open the door to spiritual reading, through an early insistence on discipline and practice—we will have cheated them of an enjoyable, even ecstatic experience they would not otherwise encounter. And we will have deprived them of an elevating and enlightening experience that will enlarge them as people. Observing young people’s attachment to digital devices, some progressive educators and permissive parents talk about needing to “meet kids where they are,” molding instruction around their onscreen habits. This is mistaken. We need, rather, to show them someplace they’ve never been, a place only deep reading can take them."
She is so right! And anyone who has traded in the history textbooks for great literature knows exactly what she's talking about. The initial transition may be difficult as this sort of reading is a skill that is developed over time, but it will completely transform a child's understanding and experience of history. There is light that is suddenly lit in a student's mind and his imagination is engaged in ways it never was before. We've seen it happen time and time again and it's a wonderful thing to witness. 

Most teachers, stressed by an overwhelming amount of paperwork and testing standards do not have the time to devote to teaching their students how to read deeply. For those of you who have made the choice to educate your children at home, you have a unique opportunity to impart the gift of "deep reading" to your students and children. And while it will be a gift that they will come to cherish, it will also be a skill that helps preserve our very heritage. The ability to read helps us to understand who we are and where we have come from. Paul sees this as essential to preserving our history and our literary traditions: 

"There’s another reason to work to save deep reading: the preservation of a cultural treasure. Like information on floppy disks and cassette tapes that may soon be lost because the equipment to play it no longer exists, properly-educated people are the only “equipment,” the only beings, who can unlock the wealth of insight and wisdom that lie in our culture’s novels and poems. When the library of Alexandria was lost to fire, the scarce resource was books themselves. Today, with billions of books in print and stored online, the endangered breed is not books but readers. Unless we train the younger generation to engage in deep reading, we will find ourselves with our culture’s riches locked away in a vault: books everywhere and no one truly able to read them."
 As you prepare for this coming school year and are looking forward to all those wonderful books you'll be reading, take a minute to read Paul's article. You will, undoubtedly feel inspired to challenge your students in their reading, to impart to them the wonderful experiences found in the pages of great literature. All the best to you and your family as you begin this school year - may it be full of adventures, literary and otherwise.

If you feel you need some direction in choosing great historical literature, check out our study guides and book packs! We've assembled some of the best literature for teaching history and have produced lesson plans to help you work through the ins and outs of teaching history using great books!

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  1. Great blog Becca!

    I forwarded it to my siblings and friends who have children still at home. Fabulous articles and loved your comments, home run again!

  2. I have a strange question. Is this boy in the picture reading a book someone you know? Or just a random picture online? He is IDENTICAL to my son. I pulled the picture up on my computer and randomly showed it to my husband and other children. They all thought it was our "Eli". Only we struggle to get him to read:) The feet, clothing, longer hair, even the expression on his face are exactly like him. I just think it is amazing because "they" say we all have a twin! I did find great encouragement in seeing the picture. I have been praying for my Eli, he is a struggling reader, to fall in love with reading. This sweet picture was a visual confirmation to me of that answer to a prayer. Believing for it! Thank you for such a wonderful post.

    1. Hi Tracy, What a small world! The picture was one I bought from a stock photo website. I really liked it and it's not so easy to find great pictures of boys reading - pictures of girls are much more common so I specifically chose it for this post. Keep encouraging your son to read with books he finds interesting. You never know when everything will "click" and he'll look at reading in a more positive light. I'm sure you've already tried this but in case not, does he have any specific interests? If he's really interested in that, make books on the topic available to him. Don't assign them, just make them available and then limit screen time so that when he's "bored" he may pick them up on his own. Sometime kids need to feel like they have ownership over their reading. Just a thought. Thanks for your comment!