Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Joy of Reading: is it really such a hard sell?

 “We shouldn’t teach great books; we should teach a love of reading.” - B.F. Skinner

Last week, in the Chronicle of Higher Education Alan Jacobs raises the old "nature versus nuture" chestnut by stating that it's impossible to teach children to love reading.  Taken at face value, Jacobs may have a point.  After all, by the time a student reaches university, they've already decided what kind of person they are and attempting to "inculcate the practices of deeply attentive reading" or instill a 'love' is no easy task for a teacher, and may be outside the scope of a class built around a specific text or era.  But I have to say that I strongly disagree that genetics are the only indicator of a love of reading and that one either has the reading gene or they don't. Surely if a sense of humour is a learned trait, influenced by family and cultural environment, then a love of reading must also, at least partly, be learned. 

Deep love comes, not only with a natural inclination and innate capability for sustained attention to story, but also with positive experiences, ideally those that happen early.  I doubt that even the most dedicated genetic ("nature") proponent would argue against the notion that parents can influence a child's feelings towards reading.  Reading outloud, early, and with enthusiasm has got to have an impact on how children feel about reading.  Living in a household filled with books, enriched with off the cuff quotations, and where the pre-bedtime read-outloud moments are among the most enjoyable times in the day would have to make a huge difference over one where books are considered solely the province of academia - to be used for learning and not entertainment.  Once children make that all-important connection between 'story' - the magic of narrative and discovery, and texts, then the move to reading becomes a natural one.   

Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to Our Children Will Change Their Lives ForeverOf course reading will be easier for some children than others, and that may well be genetically determined.  As Mem Fox argues beautifully in her book Reading Magic, it is incumbant on parents first, and then teachers, to share their own passions and help children and students make the link between those moments of joy when you immerse into story, and the 'book'.  Teaching of literacy has to be infused with love - love for the children and love for the books.  Inbue your teaching with meaning, reality, vitality and passion as Fox puts it and children will get it.

I personally started school with an innate great love of reading that was encourage and strengthened by my parents and their early praise of my reading and their own joy of the written text (and I still get that little frisson of pleasure when I read a book like Little Bear, Where the Wild Things Are, or Ping -- books that my parents read to me often when I was very young), but a few great teachers who shared my joy in books strengthened that love considerably.  The opposite also might have happened if I had been thrown into classes with bored teachers who passed on their dislike for what they were teaching.  Fortunately that didn't happen. To suggest that teachers don't have a truly powerful potential impact on children's love of reading is to severely and incorrectly I think, downplay the value of our teachers.  When my sons, both great book lovers, come home from school and tell me that English is boring, it makes steam come out of my ears and a tendency to reach for the phone to call the school.  Sustained dullness in a lesson that should be filled with drama, enthusiam and moments of self-recognition, self-expression and greater understanding (and of course laughter) will dampen and put back many a child's love of reading.  

By the same token, a wonderful teacher can change the way a child (or student) looks at books - enabling a connection between other forms of entertainment (after all, films and television are often based on stories; popular music is often built on poetry), and awakening a desire for more.  So let's not overplay the limitations of genetics and underplay the value of teaching.  A good teacher can indeed teach students to love reading, not by having "reading loving lessons", but rather by sharing their own enthusiasm for books, encouraging children in their attempts, and finding existing loves and linking those to the written text. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Full Writer's Sanctuary show

Following is the fully embedded Writer's Sanctuary Show in which Carolyn Howard-Johnson and I read lots of work from our new book Deeper Into the Pond and one each from Blooming Red. This includes the previous guest, author Tony Rodriguez.  The text for the longish poem I read - the one dedicated to David Foster-Wallace, "Coming Back" is below the show widget. Hope you enjoy listening as much as we enjoyed chatting.

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Coming Back

i.       She sat straight on the bar stool legs crossed tightly
stared abstractly through the buzz surrounding her in the stillness she created within that spot
a magic trick you couldn’t create if you tried
opened owl eyes into grief creating emptiness inside the rowdiest bar in the neighbourhood.

No one dared point a finger.

We tried not to look at her but it was hard.

      So we looked out of the corner of our eye when we walked past, our heads thrown back fake laughter all the while drawn towards the silence of that pain the peripheral gravity that wouldn’t let us settle into our evening of forgetting.

      The louder the laughter the deeper her pull.
      Still she sat against the clinking glass ice cube slide and when it was too much truth we linked arms and left her there alone.
      When we returned, she was gone.

 ii.  I thought about him all day
      immersed in his voice, the knock-knocking intensity that gripped the inside of my head. 
I understood (almost, really just almost) after staying in that horrible wave of truth and power and no stillness whatsoever where the words move around your body in tightening magnetic fields that won’t let up 
not even for a breath
no breaths.
He strangled for a simple breath, begging in his very last line, for someone to tell him how
I wanted to tell him
speaking calmly
in and out that’s all but he was already breathless
off the page
to a place (no place)
with no fear no more sound.

iii. This is the last one
no cause for celebration no rockstardom
because what you’ve made won’t last
the eternity sleep
nothing profound
in ice
the crystalline inorganic solidity of it
your life stopped
at its most fragile, beautiful point
poised for so much more
than just success
that relative, reprehensible word that masks and tears your life into diamond dust needles.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Upcoming Radio Show (come and join us)

Writers’ Sanctuary
Celebrates the Divine Feminine
Authors Magdalena Ball and
Carolyn Howard-Johnson

Hosted by  Kim McMillon
Tuesday, August 9, 2011, 4:00 PM – 5:00 PM, PST
(San Francisco, CA),  August 1,  2011  --- Tune into Writers’ Sanctuary on Tuesday, August 9th at 4 PM as host Kim McMillon interviews authors Magdalena Ball and Carolyn Howard-Johnson on the power of the divine feminine in poetry and prose.  Magdalena and Carolyn will read from their latest collaboration from the award winning Celebration Series, Deeper into the Pond. This book celebrates, supports, and inspires women.

The divine feminine is conjured with, “the glass wing butterfly reveals only flowers beneath her wings. You, my dear, the one who lives in my own domainopague.”  The reader is brought into a world that is vivid, and alive with emotions and feelings, that speak to the mystery that is woman.
To ask a question of the guests during the show, please call (718) 508-9717.  To learn more about the program, go to