Friday, January 25, 2008

Why Johnny and Joanie Can't Be Bothered to Read by Robert W. Walker

Why Johnny and Joanie Can't be bothered to read

A chat friend asked today, "How do our kids build their
vocabulary today?"

How do kids build their vocabulary today? Short answer RAP...
pop culture and anything off a screen, and if it isn't visual (on
one or more of their screens), it isn't in the frame, so to
speak. Not on their radar, not going to get their attention.
That's true of a lot of kids today, certainly not all but far too

TV used to claim our attention as kids, remember? And a single
screen it was that did not travel with us. For travel we had the
amazing transistor radio to pull us away from school work;
imagine today how "wired" kids are with the proliferation of
devices, widgets, and necessary equipment, including the
telephone with IPOD and picture send features, Myspace social
networking, Facebook, Wii's, etc. The language of the young is,
for many, abbreviated OMG and even the abbreviations are
misspelled. Shame of it all is that when we in Education find
something that actually works, like separate classrooms for boys
and girls, or say Dance in Detention, we can't implement it for
the hue and cry that revolves around doing anything that WORKS or
has educational value.

Kids eagerly learn so very much, eagerly and hungrily, from
Kindergarten to about sixth grade and are "lovin it" because it
is all a fresh adventure and it is remarkable how their minds
grow along with their vocabulary, but once puberty kicks in
National scores plummet like a stone, around 7th and 8th grade
for most kids, and through high school there is a "hate school,
hate reading, hate writing, hate math" attitude that our schools
have been "designed" to foster even in the architecture and size
of these places. We think bigger is better but not so in social
situations and learning environments. We create havoc in
Wal-Mart sized facilities housing not hundreds but thousands of
kids, places that act as holding pens and warehouses in which
eveyone, from student to administration and many teachers just
struggle through each day looking at the clock, and kids of the
sort that I was in Chicago in the sixties, we find our own path
generally through reading, setting our own goals due to the
destructive nature of the assembly line system that was bad when
I was a kid and has only gotten worse each year since the
sixties. How do kids learn anything under the circumstances we
place them in?

In the end, real learning in the upper grades takes individuals
getting passionate about some area of learning. A kid's
fascination say with Oceanography might pull him or her out of
the mire of what goes on in high schools daily in this nation.
This is when a teacher can inspire, (When the student is ready,
the master appears). But the system is dead set against teachers
taking time to inspire anyone these days. When do editors edit
nowadays is a question in the publishing industry, and in
education it is when do teachers get a chance to teach? Sadly,
with all the nonsense, paperwork, hand-tying that goes on and is
piled on for teachers to do, there is little time for real
teaching to occur. Teaching to the test has become the reason
for being on hand. That and babysitting duties.

At a school I recently taught at every teacher I spoke to ended
our conversation with such lines as, "Well ... I only have one
more year and I'm outta here." Sad reasoning and no passion in
that, just waiting for the pension. It is like watching the
burnt out cops on David Simon's The Wire.

What can we do about it? We can only encourage a kid when we
find his or her passion, and we can only hope to lead other kids
without a passion for some aspect of life or career to find that
passion. For without a passion, there is nowhere for a young
person to go but down. As a writer, when I get a letter or a
note from a young reader, I do all I can to encourage their hopes
and dreams. As a teacher, I do all I can to do the same. Our
educational system is so rigid that passion about one area of
learning is beaten back by the necessities of SATs and PSATs and
all the nonsense of No Child Left Behind funding, and monies
based on attendence policies that true learning takes a back
seat, and sadly many a fired up teacher is faced with a dousing
from the very system he or she works under. To end on an up
note, there are always kids who somehow do both--fulfill the
requirements (often rudimentary) and find their own goals, make
their own reading lists, complete their own self-appointed tasks.
I know a few.

Rob Walker
City of the Absent -- vote for it at Love is Murder for best
historical fiction 2007


That Author Guy said...

I hear what you are saying Rob, but what has changed in the last forty plus years since I'd attended high school? In my day we listened to rock 'n roll, much to the chagrin of our parents, and God forbid, we also tuned into the black, low watt stations, like KFOX in Southern California, where they played Rhythm and Blues by such artists as Etta James, Little Richard, and others. Our lexicon included such dandies as "Hey daddy-o," "Jiving" and "Cool, man, Cool." Can ya dig it, Rob?

Hey maybe that's why I ended up a writer, warped mind from all of that Doo-wop.

Don't fret about today's crop of kids. When they get out of high school and away from their soccer moms, and hard-driving fathers, bent on pushing their kids into high-profile positions, they'll start to think for themselves and that's when their real education will begin.

Jeff Sherratt
Now on Amazon.

Jonathan E. Quist said...

Jeff, I disagree. While there were certainly adequate distractions in the 20th century, the class of 2008 is not the class of 1978, 1968, or 1958. Kids are different, because our society is different, and the pervasiveness of outside influences today means more distractions for more of the day.

A recent NY Times column (
quotes Apple Computer CEO Steve Jobs, commenting on Amazon's Kindle e-book reader:
“It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore,” he said. “Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”

Whether the statistic is real or not is perhaps less important then the fact of Steve Jobs saying it. He may not even believe it, but he wants us to think he does. He sits in one of the drivers seats of the juggernaut of pervasive computing, pervasive media, pervasive, er... what's the opposite of individualism? His statement represents one of the piles of chips he has pushed out onto the table.

Do I think Jobs is evil personified? No. I think he's one of many people of business, who are making business decisions, based on business criteria. Decisions which have the potential to change our society, if we let them. Heck, they already have.

Are the changes necessarily bad? Not necessarily. But where your kids are concerned, do you want a number on a corporate balance sheet to have more power to influence them than you or their teachers have?

The administrators of my kids' high school have instituted an unpopular policy. They had an "open lunch" before. Pick up food at the cafeteria, and wander about the halls until you find a place to sit and eat. Or, in some cases, do other things. iPods were allowed as long as they were off during class. Cell phones were allowed, but could only be used during passing periods, and then with restrictions. The school has restructured the lunch period, banned phones and iPods from first bell to last, and eliminated most unstructured time. The stated goal is to improve the educational environment. These are unpopular changes. The kids hate them, many parents hate them. I find them annoying, in that they impact the music classes my kids are in. But I firmly believe that, once the initial annoyance has worn off, they will have achieved the goal. Will the change produce more/better readers? High school is probably too late. But some of the distractions will be removed from those kids who really want to learn.

Our educational system needs our help. Helping your local schools is a start, but keep in mind that the kids attending the underfunded school on the figurative other side of the tracks are growing up to be your kids' coworkers. They need it even more.

In Beijing, it took one student with grocery bags to stop a tank.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is much larger than a tank. We all need to stand out in the square.

Better double-bag your groceries.

This may take a while.