Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Required reading in schools

I do not doubt that many if not all of you, at least once in your life, was required to read a book for school. I'm not talking about college/university, but primary/secondary school. You had to read the book at a certain pace, and do various things related to it – writing assignments, tests, quizzes, book reports, even projects.
Doubtless most, if not all of you, didn't like the work associated with said books – even if you were an avid reader like I am. For me, these assignments and projects simply ruined a book for me. I just wanted to read the book, damnit. I didn't want to do some lame poster or diorama or essay on the book. I LOVED to read, and read a god amount of classic books that had never been required reading for me through my time in public school.

School curriculums were different, I've heard of a wide variety of books being required that were not part of my own curriculum, and vice versa. The books carried from city to state, and doubtless, from country to country, but I do not doubt that many non-American students have had a similar experience with reading a book for school.

In primary school, several books were required from fourth through sixth grade (appr. Ages 9-12 in the American school system) For me, this included, but was not limited to, The Wind in the Willows, A Wrinkle in Time, and the Hobbit. I should have enjoyed all of these. I didn't. All because the school bogged down the reading process with superfluous junk that just left me bored and frustrated. I remember for Wind in the Willows, there were ten words per chapter that were apparently supposed to be challenging for us. Apparently we were deemed too stupid to have known what these words meant, and so each chapter came with a list of ten words that each student had to write into a sentence to show that they knew the meaning of the word. And making sure that we knew the meaning of the word was supposed to ensure that we knew what the fuck the story was about and it was also supposed to expand our vocabulary and help us become more well-rounded. Or some bullshit like that. It was just basically busywork.

Being an avid reader, I knew what most of the words meant, and for the few that I didn't, I'd just look up in the dictionary (mainly British words that I was not familiar with at 9 years old) These stupid vocabulary lessons were a waste of time for me, and I would write the shortest sentences possible (two or three words, typically) The teacher was upset at this, even though technically I was following the rules. I freely admit I was the kind of kid who would brush off aside assignments and put in minimum effort in projects I felt was a waste of my time. I'd have been happy to read more instead of doing projects.

The next couple of years brought more books which I would have enjoyed on my own, without any prompting from teachers, but the assignments given us ruined the experience for me. Group projects were usually an ordeal for me as I never liked to talk, and would have remained silent during the whole meeting unless prodded.

Middle and high school brought about several more books. Fortunately, my 7th grade teacher was a decent fellow, and though we did have a few assignments/quizzes, it was much better than in elementary school. 8th grade English was focused on grammar, but we did have several short stories to read and analyze through the year. My teacher was… ugh. That's all I'll say about her. We had to write exhaustive essays on these stories, and despite my best efforts, it was difficult for me to get an A (the best grade) on these assignments even though I had no problem with actually reading said stories.

High school (grades 9-12, ages 14-18) was actually better. I had one great teacher in 10th grade that made his assignments more flexible so students were better able to use their natural talents. We did have a couple of assigned books, but he also gave us a couple of options. We could pick ANY book we wanted, and choose from one of several projects to do for our book. These options included an essay, making paper dolls, suggesting how you would make the book into a movie, and so on. All you had to do was demonstrate that you actually read the book and understood the story. 

Even the book everyone had to read was introduced to us in a manner that included some flexibility for us. 11th grade brought me to American Lit. The teacher was a decent fellow, and we read several American classics, two of which I had already read before on my own (The Scarlet Letter and To Kill a Mockingbird) There were no projects, but we did watch the Mockingbird movie, and had classroom discussions on the chapters as we went along, along with several tests and quizzes. Overall not a bad experience.

I understand that teaching a child to read is important, and the value of the appreciation of a book. However, not everyone is so inclined to bookish pursuits. There are all kinds of people in this world, and while literacy is important for everyone, not everyone is going to have literary interests. There's plenty of other issues with the public education system, but I'm focusing on this particular topic. Not everyone is going to like a book. I know I hate a few books that are considered classics, and fortunately I never had to read them for school.

I think the best way to foster an interest in books for children is to give them an option. Some kids like sci-fi, others prefer historical, and so on. My recommendation would be to have a list of books for children of primary school age. Perhaps 20 to 50 different books. And the same, for older children. The books could also be split into length, with an appropriate selection from each. Perhaps 100 short stories, 50 middle-length books (150-200 pages for primary school, 200-250 pages for higher grades) and 20 longer books, again age-appropriate as needed. Over one semester, a child can choose one from each category, to read at their own pace through the semester. The categories would be varied so students could pick a book that would interest them more. Extra credit could be gained by reading more than the required amount of stories. Titles would include many classics but also some contemporary novels, perhaps a small category of current popular books like Harry Potter, Divergent, or the Hunger Games.

Students could also choose their own books and propose it to the teacher, so as to not limit students to the pre-approved book list. This flexibility would help students read/discover niche authors and titles, and share them with the teacher and other students.

To prove they have read the books, they can either have an interview with a teacher who has read said story, take a test with a mixture of multiple choice/short essay questions, or write an essay on their thoughts on the book, with enough information to prove that they actually read the story. The student can choose which s/he is comfortable with and fulfill the requirements without any silly busywork. This would ensure that a child does a set amount of reading, and since they chose the book, they can enjoy reading more. This wouldn't make everyone avid readers, but it would give children a good start in literacy and the chance to read and learn from different voices and authors.

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