Recently I came across this article by Anthony Esolen in Crisis magazine. I was impressed with the author’s impassioned explanation of why we read to children. He shares with us a letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Kenneth Grahame, author of The Wind in the Willows, in which Roosevelt thanks Grahame for his delightful book. And that is the point. The book is a delight to the Roosevelt children and even to the president himself – which is, of course, exactly what a book should be. When my children were small, I sought out books that would be a pleasure to read, not only for them, but for me as well. That weeded out a lot of what early 20th century educator, Charlotte Mason called twaddle. However, we were left with a treasury of wonderful works of beautiful literature. Fortunately, the list of Common Core Exemplar Texts contains some of these great works (for the paltry 30% of fictional reading the standard allows).
Unfortunately, the CC approach to reading will likely make reading these great literary works a soul-sucking drudgery. Take for example the 3rd grade standards. They seem fairly simple and age-appropriate. Children are expected to recount stories and key detail of stories from a variety of genres and cultures. Among other things, they are expected to articulate the central idea or moral of a work and to describe characters and their actions. All of this sounds like it could be achieved by an engaging reading followed by a lively discussion and maybe some fun activities. But nooooooo. Here’s an exerpt from the website Achieve the Core. This is the objective for a 3rd grade (3rd grade!!!) lesson on Grimm’s The Fisherman and his Wife.
Learning Objective: The goal of this five-day exemplar is to explicitly model the process of searching for and interpreting intra-textual connections. In this lesson sequence, the teacher poses an analytic focusing question and then guides students in gathering and interpreting evidence from the text in order to come to a deeper understanding of the story. Simple word play and art activities give students practice in closely attending to language and word choice, and in visualizing and recording their interpretations. Discussion and a short writing exercise help students to synthesize what they have learned.
How’s that for psuedo-sophisticated language! But wait! There’s more! After five days of reading and re-reading the story and picking it apart to make intra-textual connections, students are asked to complete a writing assignment.
Writing Task: As a culminating activity, students synthesize their findings in an opinion paragraph, using specific references to the text. In this lesson, writing helps the children to organize and make sense of their thinking. For most third graders, writing is a relatively new tool for processing thought and one they will need to learn to use. Therefore, this task is highly guided and instructional, providing a model that can be used more independently on subsequent writing tasks.
Fun huh? I’m not suggesting that school children not be held in some way accountable for what they’ve read. But since 70% of their reading is what the CC calls “informational texts,” one would hope that what little fiction they are allowed not be ruined over-intellectualization and joy-killing assignments.
As Esolen so brilliantly points out, the whole point of reading should be for pleasure. When we rob children of that pleasure, we kill their love of reading. And when we kill their love of reading, any further attempts to encourage what Common Core calls a “close reading” will be fruitless. By high school, their eyes will glaze over, and they will see very little point in Shakespeare, Austen, Keats, or any of it. I know this because I see it now. Of course the current group of high school students wasn’t raised on Common Core, but they were No Child Left Behind kids. And where NCLB perhaps watered down their readings, the CCS hyper-intelleculizes them. Different standards, different vocabulary, different texts, but in the end, both NCLB and the CCS have the same goal – to create good test takers. The best way to insure children will score well on the test is to train them to get the right answer. Sadly, this training often comes at the expense of a greater outcome – a love of stories.
So in a perfect, untested, non data-driven world, what would else could children gain from stories besides pleasure? Well, nothing if pleasure is lost, but children, and people in general, who love books are graced with a world of gifts.
A LOVE OF LANGUAGE
Children who read The Jabberwocky or hear a heartfelt reading of it might not be able to tell you what a stanza is or identify the rhyme scheme, but they know that it is fun to say jubjub bird. They will shout, “Calhooh Callay Frabjous the day!” They will experience the joy of nonsense and the fun of things that mean nothing but sound funny. In time, when they write they will naturally want to use language that captures the imagination and delights the senses. And they will know how.
On the other hand children who study The Jabberwocky are apt to say things like, “This is stupid.” “This doesn’t even make sense.” “What’s the point of this, anyway?” How sad.
I never set out to teach my children about bull fighting in Madrid or about the life on the Yangtze River, but thanks to Ferdinand and Ping, they not only learned about these things, they wanted to know more about them. Johnny Tremain introduced them to our founding fathers, and Laura and Mary showed them what it was like to live off the land. Funny, we never did a single worksheet or critiqued a single passage.
Fairies. Knights. Dragon. Talking pigs. Little boys who never grow up. Little girls who grow to be the size of a house. Flying monkeys. Giants. Castles. Worlds of Ice. Wicked queens. Christmas Ghosts. Is there really anything Common Core could or should add to these wonders to make books any sweeter? Of course not.
I haven’t gathered any data to prove it, but I think I could walk into any 1st grade classroom at story time, and tell you, with a startling degree of accuracy, which children have been read to since birth and which have not. I could do it again in 10th grade.
Anyone who has ever been sucked into a story knows what it is to cheer with our heroes’ victories and cry at their defeats. I earnestly hope our school children aren’t so busy picking apart the “texts” that they don’t have time to make friends with the characters.
I have always read to my children and will continue to do so as long as they’ll let me. I won’t test them or require them to defend their opinions of a story in writing (although there is certainly a place for that in the upper grades). I will simply laugh with them and cry with them and wonder with them and pray that all children are given this same great pleasure in life – the pleasure of reading for the sheer joy of it.
I downloaded the audio of The One and Only Ivan after reading about it in my Chinaberry Books catalog. It looked like a cute story and the right length for a three hour drive alone. Perfect. I plugged in my iPhone and took off. It was a lovely, heart-warming way to spend my time in the car.
The One and Only Ivan is the story of as silverback gorilla who spends most of his life alone in a cage as a shopping mall attraction. His only companions are an elephant, a stray dog, and the daughter of the mall janitor. His only entertainment is a television (when his owner remembers to turn it on), and his art supplies (crayons and paper). Ivan is an artist. His owner provides Ivan with crayons and paper, not because he recognizes Ivan’s gift, but because he can sell Ivan’s drawings for twenty a bucks a piece in the mall gift shop.
Fortunately for Ivan, Julia, the janitor’s daughter, does recognize his gift, and she sneaks him paints. Little does Julia know, however, that Ivan will use the paints to help help Ruby, a baby elephant and the mall’s newest attraction. Ivan has become used to life in his lonely “habitat.” It’s not in his nature, nor in the nature of gorillas in general, to complain. But he does know that Ruby deserves better – the chance at a life with other elephants. He also made a promise to a special friend that he would save Ruby.
I tend to be skeptical of animal stories that garner sympathy for the animals by making all the humans look cruel and greedy or stupid and insensitive. This novel doesn’t fall into that trap. Even Ivan’s owner is more pathetic than cruel, and most of the humans he encounters are kind.
The One and Only Ivan is a beautiful, touching story, about friendship, determination, and kindness. And that alone would make it a wonderful book, but it is actually based (although loosely) on the story of the real Ivan – a gorilla who really did live most of his life alone in a mall cage.
The real Ivan’s story did have a happy ending. You can read about his life on the Atlanta Zoo page.
The story of Ivan’s capture and the deaths of his parents and sister might be upsetting for some younger readers.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
– Do animal have feelings?
-As humans what is our responsibility to animals?
-Are zoos a good thing or are they cruel? How about circuses?