I’ve been doing some substitute teaching the last couple of weeks at a continuation high school (a last chance school for those who don’t find success at the regular high school). I like subbing. It keeps me around teenagers, keeps me in touch with their interests, their language, their problems – all things helpful in my writing for young people. I work at three different schools – the regular high school, a charter school covering 6th through 12th grades, and the continuation high school. Each is a different experience and wonderful in its own way. I had a couple of real surprises while there last week, and not in a good way. Oh, I don’t mean behavior problems. There are always a few of those, but the kids for the most part are nice and very respectful. The principal is one of the best I’ve run across through the years and he runs a very tight ship.
The first surprise came from a very sweet senior girl. She seemed to work hard and behaved well. She asked if she could go to the restroom, and I told her to sign out and take the restroom pass – standard operating procedure at the school. I was busy with some paperwork, so when she asked me what time it was, I just pointed at the clock. She stood there for a few long moments, then said, “I don’t know what that is.”
“What what is?” I asked, baffled.
She pointed to the clock. “The time. I don’t know how to tell time that way.” She smiled sweetly.
She had never learned how to read a clock. Nice girl, seemed bright, used the language well, but at about eighteen years of age, she couldn’t read a clock! I thought a lot about it after the incident and have come to the conclusion that she never needed to learn to read a clock. We live in a digital world. Most clocks display the time digitally. When kids want to know the time, they take out their cell phones and check the digital display. Clocks in cars, outside of banks, on the stove, etc., etc. are digital. Why learn something one doesn’t need? And yet, I do think kids should learn to read a clock. I can't imagine clocks will completely disappear.
The other surprise was a young lady who came into the math class in which I was subbing. I had the workbooks laid out and told her she could get hers. She told me she wouldn’t be working in the workbook – all her work was done. She had completed everything in the book.
“I have a 4.0 GPA. I do all my work,” she said proudly.
“You can do work from another class then."
“I’ve got all my work done in all my classes. That’s why I have a 4.0.”
“That’s great!” It was nice to hear that kind of pride from a student at a continuation school. “I’ll bet you’ve got a book to read then.”
“Oh, no. I don’t read. Reading is boring and it gives me a headache. I hate reading.”
Other students came pouring in, and I couldn’t carry the conversation further, but I spent quite a bit of time pondering it. There have always been kids who don’t like to read; that hasn’t changed. But students with a 4.0 GPA? That has changed. So I have to ask, how can a student reach the level of learning it takes to truly earn a perfect grade without having some love of reading or at least an appreciation of what reading gives? I hope I run into that young lady again this week so I can continue the conversation. I’d like to try to suggest some things that might change her thinking on reading. Maybe no one has ever spent the time to talk to her about what she has read, help her find her way through great literature, and teach her to divine her own maps through her reading.
But on a larger scale, I wonder if kids need reading these days. Just as the girl who can’t read a clock, maybe kids don’t believe they need to read in today’s world. I know the art of writing is rapidly falling by the wayside, and I blame it largely on email and texting. u no wat I meen? y lern wat u don need? (Sorry about that punctuation. I couldn’t help myself.)
Whenever I talk to young people, I ask what they’re studying in English class. Can’t help it. I have to know. So often the answer is something like, “We’re watching The Lord of the Rings.” “Oh,” say I, “so you’re reading Tolkein.” “Who’s Tolkein?” comes the response.
I know a lot of great English teachers who make sure their students read good literature, but time in the classroom is being shortened every year and more and more demands are being put on the teachers – time for test preparation, time for testing, time for parent conferences (or should I say confrontations?), time for tutoring, etc., etc. Some don’t fight the good fight so much. It’s just easier to show the movie or read an excerpt and talk about the story instead of reading it carefully, perhaps aloud, and discussing it, peeling away the layers, and taking the time to consider the power of words on a page.
Every chance I had when I was teaching, I would insert Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 into my curriculum. I told my students I thought it was the most important book of the twentieth century. We read much of it aloud in class and talked of what Bradbury was trying to warn us. Some of the kids really got it. They are the ones, I like to think, who carry books with them and carve out a little time each day to let great authors help them explore the far reaches of their minds, help them find texture in their lives, and enrich their existence. They are the ones who will read to their babies every day of their lives until they, too, become readers and lovers of books.
Readers may be an endangered species. The world is becoming a place where young people don’t NEED to learn to read. I don't mean learning to read words; I mean learning to really read books. We must do what we can to make sure young people need and value reading. We have to continue to share great books, share the love of reading, and continue to write good books that engage children and young people in ways that will help them become readers. Ray Bradbury got it right. His great book is frighteningly close to coming to pass. If you haven’t read it lately, you might want to revisit it. If you’ve never read it, do yourself a favor and give yourself the time to read this fine book and the leisure to think about it, then act on what you learn. Bradbury would want you to.