In elementary school, I loved reading. I absolutely loved it. . I loved the ability to make sense out of the lines on the page and to be transported into other places. I learned about other places, strange and wonderful people. I was inseparable from books. This love of reading was instilled in me at a young age. My mom would take my brother and I to the library every week to let us meander the shelves with bright covers and pick out books we wanted to read the next week. As I moved from picture books like “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus” to The Bailey School Kids Series to Nancy Drew, I began to understand the world around me better and to understand myself better. Nancy Drew and the Boxcar Children taught me how to be resources and to think beyond the standard use of the things and world around me. My parents would read with me and we would make connections to the books we read as we went throughout our days. Reading was powerful.
However, in middle school and high school I began to read less until I didn’t read for fun anymore. And, in case I haven’t made it clear, loved to read. I would sit in the yard for hours with a book. I knew how long car rides were based on how much I could read from when we left to when we got there (the mountains were exactly one Mary Kate and Ashley book away from my house). So what changed? Was it me? Did I just “grow out” of reading?
No, it wasn’t me and I didn’t “grow out” of it. For starters, I had less time. High school and middle school are where sports and after school activities begin to emerge, decreasing completely “free” time. Most kids go to school for eight hours a day, have a practice after school, come home, eat, shower, do homework and go to bed. This definitely decreases time to read for fun. However, it doesn’t eliminate it. Before I make it sound like I had a negative school experience and my teachers weren’t good, I had a great school experience and some really great teachers. That being said, there are pressures and expectations placed on teachers that limit their autonomy.
What I believe zapped my love of reading was the type of texts, lack of choice in texts, analysis of texts and testing on interpreting texts. When I was in elementary, middle and high school (I graduated in 2015), reading analysis started in middle school and kicked into high gear in high school. Reading went from being pleasurable to scrutinizing each word for the purpose, definition and various other qualities. The focus was not on what we actually thought about a book, but on what the test makers wanted us to think when we read a test. I no longer had the freedom to imagine the world and characters the way that I saw them. My imagination was being forced to fit in a cage.
I stopped reading for fun in high school. It was too much like a chore. Trying to read for fun was like going to a graveyard for the imagination. I had a trained negative reaction to reading. Reading meant questions with right answers and that meant a test or worse, a timed writing. As a freshman in college, I had the courage to try to start reading for fun again. I was apprehensive at first. How could reading be fun? The life had been analyzed out of it. However, over time, I began to enjoy reading a few pages every now and then. Then, I began to look forward to it. Now, I have a drawer in my small dorm room (space is a precious and limited commodity) dedicated to books so I never have to be without one.
I tell you about my experience to show that in the pre-common core age (minus my last two years in high school) to show how the analysis that was done in English Language Arts before Common Core had serious effects on even students who enjoyed reading.
Last week in class we watched a video about the ideal read-aloud as prescribed by the common core. This video chronicles one of the five days spent on a single text walking kids through each paragraph with questions so simple that it makes you question how smart you appear. These are questions that kids infer the answers to without knowing that they’ve inferred it. Questions resemble the following:
Jimmy wanted to eat an apple so he went home and ate one. Who is ‘he’ referring to?
The class spent five days answering questions like this from the text. Common Core stresses that 80-90% of questions should be text-dependent. This means that no outside information can be used or is needed to be used to answer the questions. So, if you are reading a poem about Jackie Robinson and have outside information about discrimination or baseball, forget it. You can’t use it. It won’t count as a justification for why Jackie had a more difficult time than other baseball players in the league at the time.
So, if I experienced reading burnout from over-analysis when the way I was interpreting information was limited (but still permitted outside knowledge use), what will happen to these kids who are confined to the black and white letters on the page? Will reading be a pleasure? Will kids still be creative and able to read between the lines if they are discouraged from doing so? They’re told this thinking is wrong. It won’t answer test questions right. Why are we stressing test taking if you aren’t asked to take a test at a job interview or analyze a text to get a promotion? If reading is so important, why limit it? It is our differences that make us strong, not our similarities. Thinking within the box doesn’t lead to revolutionary ideas. It’s time that we encourage kids in their passions and explorations. Let them learn from books.