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Some Are More Equal Than Others

Publication Date: 2005-08-26

This essay, written nearly a decade ago, seems to speak to our current woes.

We could revolutionize education if we asked every prospective educator at every level just one simple question: Read any good books lately?

Phi Delta Kappan February 1997

I DIDN'T really expect to be asked to join my hometown superintendent search committee. But when the school board put out a call for "community input," I wrote a column for the Sunday paper, offering my adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's school board test. Vonnegut once suggested that every candidate for school board should be hooked up to a lie detector and asked if he's read a book from start to finish since graduating from high school. So why not hook up prospective superintendents to that same lie detector? And curriculum supervisors and teachers, too? We could revolutionize education if we asked every person connected with the education of children, "Read any good books lately?"

First the schools; then the nation. We could extend Vonnegut's test to all candidates for public office. Probably too radical an idea, that. We've always demanded more from our school personnel than from our politicians. Still, I like to think about how the political process in this country might change overnight if we applied a literacy litmus test.

I want to know that the people in charge are literate. I'm not looking for textual deconstruction or even a plot summary; I just want to know that the people in charge can talk enthusiastically about something they've read recently. Although book lists go against my teacherly instincts, I think we could come up with some sort of point system for renewing educators' contracts and certifying congressmen as eligible to stand for reelection: one point, say, for Steve Garvey's autobiography or for books by Dick Francis, John Grisham, and Erma Bombeck; five points for Anne Tyler, Tobias Wolff, and Edward Hoagland; 10 points for Stephen Jay Gould, David Halberstam, Gore Vidal, and Calvin Trillin; 15 points for books in a foreign language, books on modern physics and mathematics, poetry books, and Edward Abbey.

We could argue about how many points dead authors are worth. I worry about people who scream for something they call standards in the schools and then try to convince kids that the only good author is one who's been dead at least 100 years. I'd also award bonus points for familiarity with Squirrel Nutkin, Miss Nelson, Max, the Scroobius Pip, Henry and Mudge, the Stupids, Ramona, Madeline, Eloise, Amelia Bedelia, the Cat in the Hat, the Pinballs, Anastasia, and the hundreds of their literary fellows.

A school superintendent or a member of Congress who reads poetry? Knows children's books? What a thought! But reading Squirrel Nutkin or Ramona the Brave into the Congressional Record would set a higher moral tone than much of what gets in there now. And you can't offer to others what you don't know intimately yourself. If we want and expect literacy for our children, we cannot continue to muddle along with aliterate leaders, people who are indifferent to books.

Mine was a modest proposal. I expressed the hope that my local school board would look for a leader who wouldn't take the Fifth Amendment when asked, "Read any good books lately?"

I didn't really expect to be invited to join Schenectady's superintendent search committee -- and I wasn't. Nor did I really expect people to take my point system literally. As a gadfly, I was hoping to stir readers to think about what books they value and what books they hope their children's teachers value. I hoped people in a few faculty rooms might even argue about my selections -- and propose better choices of their own. I know that the level of faculty room discourse would be improved immensely by a discussion of books rather than the usual topics.

NAIVE ME. I was unprepared for the barrage of accusatory letters from teachers. One correspondent stopped just short of calling me a Nazi. If you lack an argument, just cry "Fascist Nazi (Chauvinist/Feminist/Whateverist) Pig!" Or how about "Cultural Elitist!" Or maybe "Vegetarian Anarchist!"

There is an insidious rumor running amok in educational circles today. In literature-based, whole-languaged, and otherwise book-dedicated circles, it's become more than a rumor; it's risen to the status of manifesto. Otherwise reasonable people are insisting that all books are equal.

It's a free country. Let a teacher read anything she wants. But if she is to make smart decisions in guiding the intellectual and social development of the children in her care, then we'd better hope she is acquainted with something besides Danielle Steele or Stephen King. Why would I give bonus points on a salary scale to people in our schools who read modern physics or contemporary poetry? Because 20 years of hanging around schools has shown me that we don't have many people in our schools who are familiar with either poetry or physics, ancient or modern.

One letter writer established her credentials as a "certified English teacher" before proclaiming that "people learn from all media." She said if we're going to inquire about people's reading habits, then we'd better inquire into their last arithmetic transaction. And then we're one step away from checking their I.Q. scores. Indeed.

Another teacher insisted, "Under no circumstances should [children] be taught that there are different quality grades which should be assigned to books." She decried me for implying that Anna Karenina is worth more than one of the Nancy Drew mysteries. Indeed.

I confess that I'm deeply troubled that English teachers could be so opposed to anything that smacks of respect for intellectual pursuit. Granted, we live in an anti-cerebral country -- a country that erects shrines to people who hit and chase balls but one in which not one person in 100 can name a living poet or historian, let alone quote anything either has written. It seems a pity that we guarantee that schools reflect the worst parts of our society by insisting that schools, too, be anti-intellectual. Businesses and industries invest heavily in trying to select applicants who best fit their needs. But the schools regard it as elitist to question the reading habits of those who seek employment. Schools consider it beside the point whether one teacher in 100 can quote a living poet or historian.

Many teachers insist that all books are equal. Some say that all media are equal.

I disagree. I have spent the past couple of decades trying to get books into the hands of students, and they know and I know that some books are more equal than others.

More than 20 years ago, when I was a fledgling English teacher in New York City, I learned that you can't inspire in others what you haven't experienced yourself. I signed up for after-school sessions designed to increase the poetry savvy of teachers. I remember the disgruntled rumble in the hall when W. H. Auden pleaded with us to put "To a Daffodil" in mothballs. He made a moving case for our obligation to teach contemporary poetry -- but not too contemporary. Auden said he doubted that any good poetry was being written about the Vietnam War. "It's too close," he said, cautioning us against substituting yowling for poetry.

When an English teacher doesn't read poetry, she doesn't know anything besides what she herself was taught. When she sticks to "To a Daffodil," her students never know that poetry remains alive. Likewise, the science teacher who is really the football coach and who doesn't know quark from quartz is cheating his students. You can't inspire others to know what you don't know yourself.

As a longtime teacher I reject both the position of the cultural absolutists, who think every ninth-grader should read Great Expectations, and that of the laissez-faireists, who pretend that reading about Nancy Drew has the same value as reading about Anna Karenina. Chanting the mantra "It doesn't matter what they read, just so long as they read" works only in the very short term. It works only to hook reluctant readers on books. Once a teacher has set her hook, then she must nudge, prod, and entice readers into meatier fare. To pretend that it doesn't matter what people read is to say that they are not capable of growth, that they aren't worthy of intellectual challenge and discovery.

Twenty years of working with "reluctant readers" -- a term I dislike but use because it is a convenient code -- of all ages has convinced me that a teacher's own literateness is her best resource, her best strategy, and probably her only hope. When a teacher acts on the knowledge that she likes Dick Francis as well as Donald Hall, she fills her classroom with a variety of books. She honors what children choose to read and watches for the moment when she can nudge them to try new authors, more challenging books. To encourage a child to read Nancy Drew stories without ever pushing her to Madeleine L'Engle or John Bellairs is criminal. Hey, I've read every Dick Francis -- and I have such a hard time with delayed gratification that I read them in hardback. I like to think that's balanced by my reading of Wendell Berry and Donald Hall in hardback too. The sad fact of the matter is that faculty room evidence shows us that even Dick Francis would be a stretch for too many of our colleagues. I know this is not a nice thing to say, but filling your classroom with beautiful picture books is not enough. We must face the fact that a teacher who does not nourish her own spirit with adult words severely limits her own professional options.

Yes, there is a certain stage in a reader's development when we can say, "It doesn't matter what he reads, just so long as he reads." But this platitude quickly turns sour. It is professionally indefensible for a teacher to pretend that it doesn't matter what students read.

For a school community -- and for the larger community surrounding it -- to pretend that it doesn't matter what the teacher herself reads is more than slothful; it is dishonest and ruinous. The school that ignores the literacy of its teachers is a school that doesn't care about its students. Likewise, the community that ignores the literacy of its teachers is a community that doesn't care about its schools.

I ONCE TAUGHT at an alternative high school where I was responsible for 40 disaffected students who can best be labeled "none of the above." I filled our classroom with copies of the local paper, the New York Times, the Daily News, and paperbacks of every type -- best sellers, thrillers, mysteries, romances, joke books, science fiction, sports, biographies, essays, how-to books, cookbooks, poetry, and classics. I discovered early on that an alternative program needs to look like a real school. Even if students never read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, A Tale of Two Cities, or Romeo and Juliet, they like knowing that these books are there. They will occasionally pick up one of these chestnuts and say, "Yeah, I've heard of this." Students, especially students who are not in the mainstream, need the security of knowing that their school has all the things a school is supposed to have.

So I stocked the shelves with a smattering of the classics, and every few weeks I took a few students to the local bookstore to help choose more books. I required my 40 students to read for half an hour a day -- a rather minimal amount of time, I thought.

They were amazed. They said they read more in one month in our school than they had read in their entire school careers, a sad commentary on the state of reading in our schools. They were amazed to see me read half an hour a day and during my lunch break. They asked me about my books; some of them borrowed my books. Truants from Life by Bruno Bettelheim was a favorite. Students liked reading about kids who were worse than they were. Those malcontent high schoolers were astounded to discover books they liked to read. They wondered why they'd never discovered this before. So did I. For me, being a teacher who encourages reading has always meant walking a narrow line between ignoring students' interests and pandering to them. For me, it's a line that avoids both Stephen King and Great Expectations, a line that forced me to say to third-graders, "No, I'm not going to read the Little Pony book you got for Christmas to the class."

My high school students enjoyed giving me a hard time, needling me to buy The National Enquirer and horoscope magazines. I told them there were certain levels to which a teacher couldn't stoop. They understood that. Just as my third-graders understood very clearly that Charlotte's Web is meatier and more satisfying than a book of Garfield cartoons.

I never came right out and told them that. I didn't have to. When you immerse children in wonderful words every day, they develop their own high standards, and I can prove it.

Toward the end of the school year, when I won a publisher's grand prize for the best idea for involving parents in school reading, my prize was 100 paperbacks. The publisher expected me to choose a few prepackaged sets. No way. I told my third-graders that they could each choose two books for themselves and two for the classroom. The negotiations for those book choices were as intense as those that led to the end of the baseball strike.

In a school that rigorously sorted students, those third-graders, lumped together as the bottom readers -- kids who from September to December told me every day how much they hated reading -- spent a week arguing and negotiating on how to make good choices. They ended up choosing books "you want to read more than once." I'd put their choices up against those of any selection committee made up of teachers.

A third-grade teacher doesn't get kids relishing books by ordering a class-size set of Heidi any more than a junior high teacher achieves that goal by ordering a class-size set of The Old Man and the Sea or The Red Pony. But settling for Curious George or Where's Waldo? or Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing isn't the answer either.

Before I get lots of angry letters, I'd like to make it clear that Heidi was my favorite book in third grade and that Curious George and books by Judy Blume were on my shelves, readily available to students. I just didn't inflict Heidi on my students, and I didn't read Curious George or Judy Blume aloud. My third-graders knew I didn't care for George, and they liked giving me a hard time about it, waving the book gleefully when they brought it back from the library. And George had a funny way of frequently ending up inserted between the pages of my plan book or stuffed into my briefcase. My students liked to tease me about George, but they knew my saying I didn't like a book gave them the option of voicing their own discontent with a book. How can we pretend that all books are equal when we readers are so diverse?

THE literate teacher finds ways to convince her students that literacy is of value. One day I was helping seventh-graders do a project on good nutrition for their health class. The subject of a healthy breakfast came up, and they started griping about the cereals their parents bought, particularly oatmeal. "Listen to what Edward Abbey has to say about it," I invited, grabbing a book from my desk. I read them a paragraph in which Abbey describes oatmeal cooked over a campfire as "viscous grey slime."

Those seventh-graders were astounded by the nihilism of attacking such a sacred institution as oatmeal. Then they were delighted. They even wanted to know the definition of "viscous." They liked the sound and wanted the sense, too. Finally, David grew thoughtful. "Mrs. O., you believe there's a book for everything," he said.

"Of course I do. Do you doubt it?"

"Nope. You don't let me," he laughed.

If I had a teacher's pet, it was probably David. He was clever at avoiding work. (Who wouldn't be after so many years of suffering because the letters just wouldn't go in the right directions?) And he was totally charming. Not only was David my student in both seventh and eighth grades, but he had a double period of language arts. When he left I was disappointed that he still didn't like reading, but I had the satisfaction of being able to name individual books in which he'd taken delight.

Then, when David was in 10th grade, he appeared at my door, letting me know he'd come for a serious talk. David asked me if he could come back to my class during his study hall. Since the high school adjoined the middle school, it wasn't logistically impossible, but obviously the social and psychological gulf was tremendous.

Why did he want to do this? "Because my English teacher doesn't make us read. She tells us to fill in workbook pages and look at the newspaper once a week. But that's not enough," he protested. "We need real books."

"But you don't like to read," I said.

"No, I don't. But a teacher should make me. It's a teacher's job to have books."

In the end, despite my misgivings, I couldn't refuse David. But in the end, he didn't come. School bureaucracy put up barriers -- how could they possibly deal with a 15-year-old who declares his English class inadequate?

Of course, a teacher who thinks a once-a-week reading of the newspaper is "good enough" for reluctant high school readers is a soul sister of the primary teacher who banishes the bottom reading group to skill sheets or workbooks. Such teachers do not personally know the power of the word. Such teachers have no inkling of a teacher's influence. Even reluctant seventh-grade readers will ask to borrow a book when they see their teacher reading Can You Sue Your Parents for Malpractice? during sustained silent reading. Introduce one Amelia Bedelia book to primary graders, and before the end of the day there are no copies left in the library. And children come in the next day with the Amelias they've found at the public library. And three months later when the book club offers an Amelia, they buy 48 copies.

I like to tell the story of the first book club order I placed for the third-graders in that bottom reading group. In September I had to order seven books myself to make the minimum order of 10, and two of the student orders were for posters. In January the book club offered an Amelia Bedelia book. My students ordered 48 copies. They ordered for themselves, for their cousins, for their neighbors. When Leslie got her copy, she clutched it to her chest and burst into tears. "I'm so happy," she kept blubbering. When Charles got his, this troubled boy, who was mainstreamed into my class from a sheltered setting for the emotionally disturbed, opened it to the title page and stared for a long time. "This is mine, right? That means I can write my name right here -- the way you do in your books."

I found out that, when I read a chapter book aloud to my third-graders, half a dozen parents in the working-class neighborhood got hold of copies of that book and read it to the family at home. Parents told me their 8-year-olds loved hearing the same chapter repeated, and everybody else in the family enjoyed the books, too. As they ended one book, families speculated on what kind of story I'd choose next.

Even though I didn't know until later that these parents were also reading my chosen read-alouds, I knew of my influence with the children; I knew that I didn't dare choose anything second-rate. I always laugh when people say they read to their students each day. With those third-graders, I read about 10 times a day. I read funny stories, sad stories, poems to start the day, poems before lunch, poems after lunch, and poems to end the day. For chapter books that extended a week or more, I read Beverly Cleary, E. B. White, Farley Mowat, Rudyard Kipling, Patricia MacLachlan, and others. In another year the choices would be different, depending both on the children and on my own reading.

All of us, whether we teach high school or first grade, need to grapple with these issues of literary content and merit because we aren't teaching for today. We're teaching for the future. I was Denise's English teacher for a long time. Denise, a student so recalcitrant she failed seventh grade twice, still writes to me. She tells me about taking her own children to the library every week. She says her kids like Flat Stanley almost as much as I do. Denise writes about introducing her children to the Stupids, to Frog and Toad, and to Madeline. She writes, "I can't wait until they're old enough for my favorite book. You know what that is. The Great Gilly Hopkins."

I like to think that Denise's children will be readers because in being a reader myself I was able to help Denise become one. A belligerent, foul-mouthed teenager, Denise found a soul mate in Gilly; Gilly helped her look at the world and at herself in new ways. I have a letter Denise wrote me in October of ninth grade. She reported she was doing pretty well in school; she'd been suspended only twice. Need I add that Denise was innocent of irony? She wrote that she was trying to decide whether to become a teacher or a bartender.

A year later, in 10th grade, she limited her options by dropping out of school. But she left school with something she'd learned in her long stay in seventh grade; she dropped out with the knowledge that books could enrich her life. And so, for the sake of Denise's children and grandchildren, I entreat school interview committees to ask applicants for jobs at any level, "Read any good books lately?"

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