Education Opinion

The More Things Change

By Donalyn Miller — August 30, 2009 2 min read
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On Friday, PBS aired the final episode of Reading Rainbow, the landmark television show that invited a generation of children into the adventurous world of reading and books. While #savereadingrainbow climbed up Friday’s hashtag rankings on Twitter, my new students happily shared their favorite early childhood books— treasured titles like If You Give a Mouse a Cookie and Stellaluna, books which, incidentally, appeared on past episodes of the Emmy-winning show. Claiming that “research has shown that teaching children the mechanics of reading should be the network’s priority,” vice president for children’s programming at PBS, Linda Simensky, implies that teaching children why they should read is no longer as valuable as teaching them how. My students are blissfully unaware that their love for books is unimportant, and I intend to keep it that way.

As one more opportunity to spark a love of reading dies over at PBS, the New York Times announces that The Future of Reading is reading workshop. Describing one teacher’s journey to implement reading workshop with her middle school students, the article explores the messy challenges and smalls triumphs of a classroom environment where children choose the books they read. It bewilders me that reading workshop, first introduced to practicing teachers in works like In the Middle by Nancie Atwell (written in 1987), is still seen as groundbreaking or newsworthy. I continually wonder how activities like reading one book as a class, dissecting classics, and presenting book reports become entrenched in reading classrooms for generations while ideas like allowing student choices, reading contemporary literature, and writing authentic reading responses fail to gain a foothold in many English classes. When we do embrace ideas like using real books instead of the basal reader, we rush to fence in independent reading with computer-based tracking programs like Accelerated Reader.

While debating the merit of programs like AR is nothing new, either, it seems that a new voice is finally chiming in—parents. In the essay, “Reading by the Numbers,” (also in this week’s New York Times), author and parent, Susan Straight, denounces the arbitrary application of AR points to the contemporary and classic works her children read and bemoans how the hunt for high-point books restricts their reading choices. Straight writes, “The passion and serendipity of choosing a book at the library based on the subject or the cover or the first page is nearly gone, as well as the excitement of reading a book simply for pleasure.” Using programs like AR shows an inherent mistrust of students’ independence and teachers’ ability to assess what students know.

No matter how much we discover about teaching reading we seem to ask the same questions. Are we really teaching if we do not micromanage every aspect of the reading process, from the books children read to how they respond? Is inspiring students to read more important than sharing a common literary heritage? Does pleasure reading matter anymore? I believe we can create literate, educated citizens who also love to read. I know a lot of you believe it, too. Who decided that these were incompatible or impossible aims?

The opinions expressed in The Book Whisperer are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.