Reading & Literacy Opinion

Hide Your Books

By Jane Ehrenfeld — February 01, 2003 5 min read
After the author finally managed to get her students to read—and enjoy it—the principal insisted they watch TV instead.

“To Ms. Ehrenfeld: This morning I observed that during the morning news program, you and your students were engaged in activities other than watching television.”

So began the official letter of reprimand placed in my personnel folder by the principal at the elementary school in Maryland where I was teaching 3rd grade at the time. Odd as the accusation was, it was made even odder by the fact that my students were reading when the principal caught them not watching television. She had walked in, and there they were, sitting as silently as a group of 3rd graders can, every one of them absorbed in a book.

What they were supposed to be doing was watching our school’s morning news show, an exercise in terminal boredom during which students from the upper grades mumbled incoherently into a microphone, reading the weather forecast, the lunch menu, and the daily announcements in a fast monotone. Every day, this list would be supplemented by an “educational lesson,” which often consisted of a vocabulary word and its definition. I imagine the expectation was that after hearing the word spoken once, all of the children would retain it in their memories forever.

Because this was an inner-city school with abysmal test scores and a learning day far too short to cover the material necessary to help these students, I hoarded every educational second. For much of the year, my television had been mysteriously out of order, which neatly solved the problem of wasting 20 minutes watching the news. Then, sadly, it was fixed, and I no longer had an excuse for skipping the program. So I did the next best thing: I devoted the time to silent reading and trained the kids to ignore the screen (no small feat with TV-addicted children). This worked beautifully—until we were busted.

—John Macdonald

After delivering the letter of reprimand, the principal took to sneaking up to my classroom and standing in a spot just outside the door where she could see in but I couldn’t see her. My students would whisper to me that she was there, but it didn’t matter much, since I had already forced them to put down their books and watch television every morning, as directed. One kid went so far as to suggest having me or someone else stand guard to watch for the principal so we could read in peace until she appeared. Although I reluctantly vetoed the idea, I did like the thought of adding that job to my list of duties: line leader, board eraser, homework grader, spy.

What happened next was surprising and glorious: My students began reading surreptitiously, hiding books under their desks and sneaking glances at me when they thought I wasn’t watching. We had achieved the impossible—my Internet Age children were actually choosing books over television! Of course, I had to make a show of telling them to stop when I caught them, but my heart was never in it. And they persisted, to my secret delight.

I’ve never been comfortable teaching by the numbers, so when I entered the profession five years ago, I figured it wouldn’t be long before one of my methods prompted a reprimand. I thought maybe I’d get in trouble for letting my kids howl like wolves while studying The Three Little Pigs; or for keeping 2,000 worms in a compost box in my classroom; or for conducting earthquake drills (remember, this was Maryland). But I never imagined that when the letter finally came, it would demand that my students watch television.

What baffled me most was that these kids were already excellent TV watchers. If that activity had been on the state tests, ours would have been a Blue Ribbon School. The children tuned in faithfully every evening, on the weekends, and in the mornings. There was no end to the time they would sacrifice to the almighty screen.

Reading was a different matter, though. In that area, our scores on the state test were as low as they could be; very few students were reading at grade level. For most of them, picking up a book at night or on the weekend was simply unheard of. I struggled for months to get them to read and like it even a little. Imagine my thrill, then, when Richard, a popular boy who usually spoke of nothing but professional wrestling, showed up one morning with a hardcover copy of the first Harry Potter book, which he had bought with his own money! By spring, many of my students had fallen similarly in love with books like Roald Dahl’s Matilda and Jerry Spinelli’s Maniac Magee. This was a triumph.

I devoted the time to silent reading and trained the kids to ignore the screen (no small feat with TV-addicted children).

Our principal, I felt, should have been one of the people most excited about this literary turn of events. To be fair, she may have felt that the news program boosted school spirit or was an important learning experience for the older children who ran it. But I also think her pride in our audiovisual equipment obscured what the administration’s priorities should have been. I don’t know her exact reasoning because I never raised the issue with her. At our school, her word was law, and I was saving my energy for other, larger battles.

The TV incident could be chalked up to the idiosyncrasies of one principal if I had not since heard stories of teachers at other schools who’ve received similar reprimands. Channel One, a news program that reaches 8 million children in 12,000 schools across the nation, is particularly insidious because it’s peppered with commercials and product endorsements. I know of one teacher who was ordered to have his students watch the program after he’d turned his classroom’s television off. This fellow came up with an interesting solution. Obeying the letter of the law, if not the spirit, he would turn the television on but leave the volume all the way down. Then he’d sit in front of it, wearing an absurdly huge hat that blocked the screen, and read to his students from Shakespeare. If only I had thought of that!


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