Why Reading With Kids Matters, At Home And In The Classroom by Annie Thoms
When I was twelve, my father read me Ursula K. LeGuin’s story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” In this fable, LeGuin imagines a utopian society with a dark secret. Every inhabitant of the beautiful city of Omelas is happy, but their happiness is dependent on the existence of one utterly miserable child, who is kept locked in a closet in a state of abject terror. The citizens of Omelas learn of the child when they reach young adulthood. To stay in Omelas, they must accept that the child cannot be released, cannot be made better, or the happiness of the whole society will crumble. Most stay. Some – the ones LeGuin points out in her title – walk away, looking for a different way of life.
I hated that story. I was furious with my father for giving it to me, and for patiently talking it through with me as I made the connections to our own society, which accepts misery for some as the necessary underbelly of happiness for others. I remember storming out of the room, angry because I didn’t want to accept what I felt in it to be true. And, of course, I couldn’t get it out of my head.
About 15 years later, I started teaching “Omelas” in my classroom. With high school juniors and seniors, in the context of a unit asking students to write about their most deeply-held beliefs, I gave them LeGuin and asked them to wrestle with the bargain she laid out. It never failed to provoke intense debate, and often became a touchstone students referred back to later in the year. It stayed with them, too.
This is the power of reading. When we expose children to literature, we ask them to engage with us in making sense of the world. Reading can be an invitation to recognize and begin to understand the complex web of people, history, and ideas that surrounds us.
As a high school English teacher and a mom of three kids under the age of ten, I’ve spent a lot of the last two decades reading with kids, reading to find the books I want to read with kids, thinking about reading with kids, and thinking and writing about why reading with kids matters.
Especially today: in an age of high-stakes testing that threatens to reduce reading to a series of bubbled answers, against a national backdrop of political division, racial tension, and explosive violence – reading matters.
Sometimes reading matters because it makes us uncomfortable. Stories have the power to challenge our opinions and help us redefine our moral compass, to push us to recognize experiences that are not our own, and to push us to recognize what we need and want to change about our lives and our world.
Over the summer, I’m crafting a syllabus for my freshmen and seniors that will expose them to a diverse array of voices and opinions, a syllabus I hope will challenge them both intellectually and emotionally. At home, I’m having conversations with my kids about the real-world violence around us, and how the stereotypes we see in some of the books they bring home from the library help to perpetuate the fear that leads to this violence. After I put my kids to bed, I stay up reading news stories, commentary, novels and essays that challenge me to be a more conscious and active citizen.
But reading matters as well because it is a sanctuary. It is a safe space within which we can find ourselves or escape ourselves. Sometimes it’s a space where we retreat just to laugh or to appreciate moments of beauty; sometimes the safety of that private reading space allows us to confront the things that frighten us most.
At home, I surround my children with books. We read every day, both together and independently. My 9-year old is making her way through Harry Potter; my 6-year old reads and rereads the graphic novel series Princeless; my 3-year old tells me, “I think there’s a new superhero book waiting for me at the library.” On school mornings, I wake my daughters 20 minutes early to read from our current chapter book, often a classic they might not pick up for themselves. References from books become part of our shared language, and offer opportunities to talk about difficult real-world questions as they arise in everyday life.
It’s harder to create this kind of individualized reading environment in the classroom. Over the last two years, working part-time as a teacher consultant with the New York City Writing Project, I’ve seen some brilliant teachers do it, with carefully curated libraries of independent reading books and administration-supported classroom reading time. Happily, the communal experience of the classroom offers other kinds of opportunities. When 34 people are reading the same book at the same time, there is the possibility of learning from other readers, sharing ideas and reactions, responding to others’ arguments and, in so doing, learning more about how to craft our own.
All that is possible – unless of course your primary focus is test preparation. The high-stakes standardized tests by which we judge students, teachers, and school systems measure and encourage a deeply reductive view of reading. Students reading to prepare for a standardized test learn to look for the one main point in passages taken out of context, to find the one right answer that will get them the score, rather than being invited to consider the complexity of a story or an idea. Real-world reading looks nothing like the tests we give our children. The tests we give our children do little or nothing to prepare them for the wider world.
At home and in the classroom, we can work to change that. One book at a time, one kid at a time, we can share the stories that move and challenge us. As readers, we know just how powerful those stories can be.
Annie Thoms is a high school English teacher and mother of three, with a passion for reading everything from board books on up. She is the editor of the interview-based monologue play with their eyes: September 11th – the view from a high school at ground zero. Since 2010, she has been blogging about children’s literature at annieandaunt.blogspot.com. Annie is a regular guest on WNHH Radio’s Book Talk. You can find her on Twitter @msathoms.