The Common Core, No Child Left Behind, school of choice, online classes, John Dewey, who or what hasn’t tried to reform and transform education the past 100 years? It seems the more things change in education, the more things stay the same. Don’t be confused. Change isn’t bad. Do we really want to go back to the days of one room school houses, chalkboards, and big wooden rulers that weren’t meant for measuring? Despite all the changes, there has been one indestructible constant in education that has endured. Books. Books, the printed word, where would we be in education without books? It seems we’re about to find out. Many longtime educators are starting to question whether or not children need to read books in school in order to learn. No I’m not kidding. Wish I was. Leading educational reformers are running around the country telling teachers they don’t need to teach whole works of literature anymore, “Children only need the important information, not the whole thing. Children get bored reading novels.” Someway, somehow these words make their way into teachers’ ears and stay in their heads! Teachers need help. Students need books. Adults need books. Great works of literature create deep thinking, provide windows to another culture, bring about deep discussion, and change their reader’s very ways of being.
Skills, that’s what the reformers say the “new” educational focus is. Okay, I can buy the fact that our children need skills to succeed in life. Thinking skills! Reading a couple passages from To Kill a Mocking Bird and reading the whole book, take the same decoding skills. However, the thinking skills that come from reading a couple passages and the thinking skills that develop from reading the whole book are completely different. Segmented reading creates segmented thinking. A whole reading of a deep rich text such as To Kill a Mocking Bird creates deep rich thinking about race, gender roles, class, and provides readers with a perspective of the deep south in the 1930s. It’s absolutely impossible to create deep thinking about real human issues if great novels are taught in segments. Skills are useless without thinking to put them into action.
Culture, different cultures encompass and fill our world with unique ways of living. No one person has the ability to live in and experience all the different cultures in the world, yet we can read about them, and I don’t mean National Geographic, or some other informational text. The only way to truly begin to understand another culture is to either experience it first hand or read about it from the life of someone who lived in it. Novels are the vehicle in which people of different races, ethnicities, cultures, ages, genders, and time periods are able to experience life from someone else’s point of view. No segment, passage, or even short story can encompass the human experience the way a great novel can. School aged children are at the most impressionable, fragile, and open-minded stage they will ever be in their lives. Most of them won’t pick up a book from another time period or about a culture they’re not familiar with, and that’s precisely why teachers should do it for them. Students need to step into worlds they’ve experienced. They need to develop empathy. They need to see and feel what others who are different from them feel. Otherwise they’ll grow up narrow-minded, shallow-thinking, and ignorant of other lives different from their own. Skill centered segmented reading of novels falls short in teaching children what they need most: the ability to think, live, empathize, and grow in a global world.
I can see it now, teachers everywhere saying: “Class let’s read this passage from Night and examine the author’s purpose.” “Class today we’re going to read a section of The Glass Castle and search for themes.” “Class today you’re going to be learning about situational irony and reading a section of My Brother Sam is Dead.” I’m not saying those aren’t worthwhile activities or that they should never happen in the classroom. Imagine having discussions around those very activities, one after reading the whole book verses the other just a couple passages. Which one would influence your life more? Which one would help change you as a person? Which one would help you understand what it must be like to be an imprisoned Jew during WWII, the daughter of emotionally impaired irresponsible parents, or to be a child caught in the middle of The American Revolution and caught between his brother’s and father’s allegiances at the same time? My guess is a majority of us can agree on the answer.
Thinking, culture, rich discussions about other peoples’ lives, readers internalize it all when they immerse themselves in a whole novel. I know this isn’t scientific evidence based, but think of someone you’ve known for many years. Are they a reader? If they are, my guess is they’ve changed over the years. Grown up, become more mature, more sophisticated in their thinking about life and the world. Now think of someone you’ve known for many years that’s not a reader. Have they changed? Are they still the same person you knew many years ago? Still stuck in their old ways of thinking? Of course there are outliers, exceptions, but over the course of human evolution, we grew smarter each time the printed word became easier to get. The more we read about others and their experiences the more we think about ourselves, and how we can become better people.
Novels, books, stories, almost every reader I know can point to at least one book that changed them. One book, one story they read cover to cover, never skipping one word. Part of me dies inside when I hear educators, the people I admire the most in life, talk of not teaching whole novels in classrooms in favor of segmented skill teaching. The reading skills may get taught that way, but the life skills, thinking skills, cultural awareness, and the life-long love of reading habits our young people so desperately need is lost. So even if you’re not an educator and don’t have an active stake in the education of our children, speak out, don’t let the novel die. Read, learn, think, and if you can or if you want to, get on your own soap box and stand up for America’s youth.