Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Gift

A conversation with my college students this week centered on the importance of reading. Students often despise their course reading assignments and do a poor job of completing the work. I try to help them get past this negative attitude and embrace the written word, even when it seems dry and dull. As a mass market writer, I know I must capture my readers quickly, or I’ll lose them. Textbook authors appear not to have the same approach or desire; they already have a captive audience. And, we do treat captives differently than we treat those we’re pursuing.
Students dislike the captivity of textbook reading. Any reading assignment, in fact, seems to elicit moans and “do we have to” pleas. "Can't we watch a video instead?" they ask. A few students nod as I’m giving the assignment, and I know they'll hunker down and do it, amybe grudgingly. That’s what I did in college and what I still whenever the reading is tedious. How do we change our attitudes about tasks like this? How do we interact with print that is exceptionally dull?
A little self-talk about “the gift” helps....
This week in class, we discussed language as a gift. When you’re given a gift, I reminded students, you should unwrap it and use it, and appreciate that it was “given” to you. My message was clear: Read and write as much as you can, ramp up your vocabulary, converse and listen. Imagine if you couldn’t do these things. How difficult would life be then? Embrace and love language. It truly is a gift. It will help you succeed in life.
Overall, students agree with me about this. We’ve discussed how other species did not receive "the gift," at least we haven’t discovered any other creatures that speak, listen, read, and write as humans do. Isn’t language what moved us upward and made us the dominant species on the planet? Sure, we have big brains and a tight social structure, but the ability to use language—speak, listen, write, read--seems like a crucial factor in human success, I think.
Students still hedged in last Monday’s class. Textbook reading is difficult if you aren’t motivated to do it. So is writing. How do you motivate yourself, I ask them? They give various canned answers, such as: "I put on music I like." or "I promise myself I can go hang out with freinds if I get it done." “Just do it!” ones says, invoking the Nike mantra.  “How do YOU do it?” they ask me. “You do it a lot;  you write books!”
II should mention here that I use YouTube clips a lot in class. It keeps the students interested and breaks up the monotony of lecture and keyboard work. I wish I had a YouTube video that shows this: A little kid who suddenly realizes she can read and write. It’s an amazing transformation to witness…
II've never been able to find the right video, so told the class about my student teaching experience many years ago. I had second graders, twenty-four emergent readers….little, energetic sponges ready to absorb everything I could give them. They knew their alphabet and letter sounds; they knew books were filled with words, and they saw how older kids and adults used the words in books to learn and discover and do things. Usually, their families underscored for them the importance of books.
At first, my second graders liked the pictures more than the words, because they knew how to interpret images. Pictures were very familiar. Words were still a mystery, for the most part…a challenge. They preferred to draw pictures rather than write words, to listen to someone read rather than try it themselves.
They started the school year with decoding skills learned in kindergarten and first grade—the ability to take apart a word letter-by-letter to sound it out. D-O-G….dog! And a picture of dog came to mind, or they saw a picture of a dog next to the word. I taught them sight words—about 25 of them to memorize, like a like a little meme—so they could recognize these groups of letters as words, picture them in their heads, and feel like they were getting somewhere with reading.
We read every day, and wrote too. Writing was the same for them at this point as reading, a recognition of letters strung together to make words, except that it was more like drawing, though not particularly interesting drawing. There were rules, and kids tire of rules quickly. Learning to read and write was slow; it required repition, all the senses, and dedication. Nothing is more inspiring to watch than a dedicated second grader grappling with a book and a pencil and paper.
“Every day!” I reminded them. “Let’s do this every day.”  At age seven, kids understand the word "daily;" they know what practice means. “If you want to get better at T-ball, what should you do?” I asked. Their answer was firm: “Go to practice, play by the rules, be nice to the other players, and try again and again until you can do it. Then practice some more to get better.” 
Each child, after a time, unlocked the door to reading and writing. They realized there are rules, just like in T-ball, and that those who play by the rules could go farther, better, faster. But they also saw that each player could add his or her own flair to the sport, some special technique or skill or idea. And there were coaches to help and parents to cheer and peers to impress! There were other rewards too, like Kool-Aid and cookies to celebrate the achievements.
It’s magical when it happens, because very often it happens so suddenly. Kids’ facial expressions and body language change. A triumphant demeanor overcomes them. They sit up straight, smile, wiggle, get excited. They look like they’ve just discovered a new world with no borders in sight…
...and they have. “Oh, the places you’ll go,” Dr. Seuss said. As one after the other of those long-ago second-graders broke through the language barrier to become real readers and writers, interpreters and creators, they paraded to my desk with books and pieces of writing. “Look what I learned…read…wrote!” they said with pride. “I’m going to write my own book now!”
College students know this too. They chuckle when I ask them the same questions about sports and practice and how we become masters of anything. Their answer is the same as a second grader’s answer.  Okay, then, I remind them! “Think of reading and writing and speaking as sports. Practice, be dedicated, play by the rules, come to the games, play nice…you’ll get better at it.”
It’s too bad we can’t emote like kids do, getting that look of pure amazement when we discover we can do something. In sports we still do. We jump up and down when we score big, we do a little dance, hug our teammates, and celebrate.

Ashley told me in her journal: “This makes so much sense. I never looked at it this way. These things were always separate in my mind—class work and sports.  I am on the college basketball team, and language is so much like basketball for me now. I am ‘body smart’ but I can be ‘language smart’ too. My coach told me the best athlete is a literate athlete.”
This is what keeps me in the classroom!

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