Monday, December 7, 2009

Killing The Love Of Reading

As I mentioned in a previous post I despise censorship. I have spoken against restricting free speech for years. The hard censorship of White House staff attempting to marginalize a news network or the soft censorship of librarians and teachers who don't order books that they find personally objectionable, regardless of the merit of the work.

Often this soft censorship masquerades as academic rigor. In the name of wanting to challenge students schools and school systems will remove books or restrict books that they deem not worthy of students. Yet, often teachers and administrators kill the love of reading. I speak to adults each day that tell me how a teacher made them hate reading. How does this happen?

One way is this insistence that students read "the classics." Donald R. Gallo addresses this issue in his article How Classics Create An Aliterate Society. He relates the trouble he had struggling with the assigned readings that were alleged to be good for him. "Why was I supposed to care about a Puritan woman who got pregnant from having sex with a minister?....One of my former college students defined a classic this way: a classic is a book that 'requires a teacher figure out a glimmer of what it says.'" Is that what we want? Students who need to rely on a teacher to engage with literature?

Gallo isn't alone. Kelly Gallagher documents how teachers are murdering the love of reading in Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It. Read-i-cide n: The systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools.

Before you despair, there are teachers that are trying to actively engage their students in books that present important concepts and will capture their interest. The problem is that parents and administrators often prevent these teachers from reaching this goal. They will challenge the books teachers select. This has recently happened in Montgomery County, Kentucky. The Lexington-Herald Reader reports:

In the Montgomery County school system some contemporary, young-adult novels have been used in conjunction with classical works like The Canterbury Tales and Beowulf in some sophomore and senior accelerated English classes. Some parents don't like it. The school superintendent has had the books removed from the classroom, although they are available in the library.

Let me reiterate a point made in the article. The YA books are being taught in conjunction with the classics. Some parents are shocked at the language and situations in the YA books. These parents obviously haven't read either The Canterbury Tales or Beowulf or only read enough to pass their own class assignments. These classics are full of sex and violence. One blogger commented that students shouldn't be exposed to such topics as rape. Well, that definitely leaves out The Canterbury Tales. The YA books in question went before a review committee that recommended the books remain as part of the class readings. Superintendent Freeman removed them anyway.

Some have argued that the Lexile level isn't high enough for these YA books to be included in a college prepatory class. Lexile levels are not the holy grail of reading. The daunting classic Crime and Punishment has a Lexile level of 850. One of the removed books, Chris Crutcher's Deadline, has a Lexile level of 880. Hmmmm, that argument doesn't seem to have merit.

What about literary themes? In Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson students read about personal identity, suicide, overcoming social adversity, and conquering obstacles through perseverance. It's not just a feel good read. Anderson's character Tyler Miller faces the not just choices about becoming a better person, but what he has to leave behind to become that person. Tyler is on a quest that teens can relate to personally and relate to other literature.

The question is ultimately, 'Why were these books removed from the classroom?' When students are lucky enough to have a teacher that is intelligent enough to connect contemporary YA literature with classics society wins. Dr. Freeman, please return the books.