A Sharp View – In general, Cal kids are reading less than they ever did

Posted on: 01/09/2018 00:00

To simplify the problems of California learning, all you need do is look at the Californian students who cannot – and will not -- read.

My own experience tells me that a major reason for all the malfunctioning in all of our schools is that so many children hate to read.  It is true that many of them “cannot read,” but I find even here that their problem is that they hate to learn to read.   People who “cannot read” literally means they can never read, but that is not the case.

Many so-called illiterate students are intelligent enough to learn to read, but they are not motivated to do so.  If I were able to give them a salary of two thousand dollars a month as an incentive for them to learn how to read, most of them would be doing hardly anything else but reading next month.

Other students can read, but they do not do so unless under some kind of pressure.  They may even render a decent English score on a STAR test, but they perceive any kind of reading as so unpleasant they will use any ruse to escape from the terrible “punishing” exercise of reading.       

So the biggest surprise to me is to find how many students on a range of literary ability can find no pleasure in reading.  For them becoming introduced to even great literature can be as painful as getting into something that is very poorly written, like the notes they will pass to each other in class or in perennial texting.           

Since reading is the bridge to all knowledge – even math requires literacy – I can see how this unhappy relationship with words can lead to a collapse of general learning and why people in the federal government have said a third of California’s school districts may be failing minimum national standards.

Who are all these students who just don’t like to read?  Generally, they have been raised as visual learners whose reading experience is increasingly accompanying the picture messages of screens.  These include watching game screens, computer screens, telephone screens and TV screens. But a show of hands in my most difficult classes give evidence that book learning and community newspapers are rare in their homes.  The children resemble young fish that trust only their eyes on screens instead of that inner intuitive gift that traditionally has warned us of subtle baits and the nuances of natural and historical currents. 

Here are seven reasons why at least a third of California students are now -- every day -- battling so hard with their reading.

Because their reading assignments have nothing to do with their lives

Back in the early 1960’s, when I was a high school sophomore and before the cultural revolution set off by the Beatles permeated the arts, I was assigned to read John Steinbeck’s “The Pearl.”  Although Steinbeck won a Nobel Prize in literature, “The Pearl” has never been considered one of America’s masterpiece books.  But it did reflect the culture of that time when people treated each other more properly and with an expected deference.

Today – because of educrat (sic)  inertia – students of that age group are still being assigned “The Pearl.”  But it makes no sense to students who now see the common lot of their parents and their neighbors being treated manipulatively and unscrupulously.  The students are instead more culturally prepared to read books like Franz Kafka’s “The Trial,” or Zora Neale Hurston’s “Collected Short Stories” or Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” – books where people are treated worse than dogs, as in more like the impressions of our present age.

Because their reading assignments are for the wrong people

There are too many teachers today who are keeping more of an eye on their district supervisors instead of keeping an eye on their students.  For example, they may want to impress the principal or the superintendent that their young sophomores are already reading Anton Chekhov.

The problem is that probably not a sophomore in the classrooms understands Chekhov as only a mature reader could understand him. That “mature reader” may be only a senior, and for that  reason I recommend Chekhov here for more mature high school students.  But younger students are only going on with the reading assignment because they have no choice.  They would in fact be rewarded much more by being assigned something they might enjoy – like a Sherlock Holmes story or novel – which has at least a chance of turning a young student into a true life-long reader.

Because their school reading assignments can be pure torture

In the past, Shakespeare has served as a starting point for the serious reader. This is also true in other countries where Shakespeare is translated for students by the top national poets.  But there is virtually no modern translation of Shakespeare for American students.  American students instead are introduced to the Bard under the torture of looking up practically every fifth Elizabethan word in a glossary.

In the end, the students are often told that Shakespeare was the world’s greatest writer.  The conclusion of most students is that if this misery is caused by the world’s greatest writing, now they want to be protected from all the other writings in the world.

Because Cal kids may live in an anti-reading home

A reader can alienate everyone in his or her own family if he or she is the only reader in the home.  Often children prefer not to become readers if that were to create a culture clash with any parent.  This is particularly true in California, where so many parents cannot read English.

One antidote to all this comes out the Rob Reiner Reading Program, whose agenda includes keep school reading rooms open a little longer at school so that children can have an after-school atmosphere that encourages and nurtures reading.

Because most Cal kids feel no ownership in their books

When students chose their own books to read, they read more enthusiastically -- just as they will eat restaurant food with readily when they choose their own lunches.  It is not practical to expect that they choose all of their reading materials for a school year, or even most of it.  But the more choices a student has to pick his or her reading, the more the student is picking up the literary ball and running with it.

Because Cal kids are not given a practical working vocabulary

My own experience in California public schools is that the present educrat (again, sic) agenda mandates using big words to make people think you are educated. Many of these words are simply big but are not necessary.  They sabotage teamwork because most potential teammates never use these words and they keep forgetting what they mean.

I remember interviewing the late William F. Buckley in 1972 in his book-filled National Review Office in response to the publishing of his collecting of essays, “Inveighing We Will Go.”  As a 23-year-old cub reporter just out of Coos Bay Oregon and suddenly in New York City, I felt very intimidated because Buckley was known to be a master of an extremely expansive vocabulary.  Yet nothing he told me over an hour was misunderstood in a fog of big words.  In fact Buckley insisted that he never used a bigger word when it could be logically replaced by one or two smaller words.  Instead, he said he chose to use some arcane terms only when their exact meaning simply couldn’t be replaced by smaller words.

That exactitude might be a good lesson in our schools.

Meanwhile, instead of concentrating on learning big words that few people understand or remember, reading in California would be greatly enhanced by students mastering the many uses of the everyday words that are used in effective literature.  For example, I have just used the small word “fog” in an uncommon but descriptive way by describing how William F. Buckley in his interview with me avoided a “fog of big words.” That was fun, wasn’t it?  That “fog” was a bit entertaining, wasn’t it?

Because very few Cal kid high schools have literary magazines.

One of the four high schools I attended when I was a peripatetic member of a very military family that traveled everywhere was Princeton High School in New Jersey, which was just off the campus of Princeton University.  A highlight of my junior year was the spring launch of the school’s literary magazine.  The magazine was impressive even by professional standards, and some of the student writers have gone on to become some of the savviest cultural movers and shakers of America.

The literary star of this 1966 Princeton high review was a Harvard-bound senior named Arthur Kempton.  Kempton was white but he had an avid interest in the African-American culture of Princeton’s Witherspoon Street and in the various black churches that he and his father attended throughout New Jersey.  His passion for this culture was reflected in the original syntax with which he wrote his outstanding short fiction for the literary review, led by an outstanding short story he wrote for the Princeton High School literary magazine set at a dialect-rich construction-site quarry.

Kempton now lives with his wife in North Carolina after a career as a senior administrator and consultant in the Boston Public School system while authoring the Random House/Pantheon Press book earlier this decade, “Boogaloo: The Quintessence of American Popular Music.”  In his contemporary writing, a reader can see the links that were started with his writing for his high school literary magazine and his interest in African-American music.

Today Princeton High School is about the same as when I started attending 45 years ago, with about 1,000 students and 80 teachers.  Its famous literary magazine has coincided with developing a reading culture and creating campus heroes of its published writers.  In 2007, the Wall Street Journal rated Princeton High School 27th of all schools in the nation in preparing students for attending outstanding universities.

My own experience is that the high schools with the lowest scholastic achievement have nothing like a literary magazine, but the best high schools always have a good one.

Wouldn’t it be wise to do the things that the wise do?

Chris Sharp- Commentary

Chris Sharp is an Educator and a prize-winning professional writer. He has recently published a new book titled How to Like a Human Being . Sharp's latest book is an Amazon Kindle collection of his published short stories, Every Kind of Angel . His commentaries represent his own opinions and not necessarily the views of any organization he may be affiliated with or those of The SCV Beacon.


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