Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Required Reading

I don't even know if there's such a thing as required reading in our education system anymore and I say this because I have a weird hypothesis floating through my brain when it comes to reading and young people. (If there is required reading in some jurisdictions, I'd love to hear from you)

You see, we've been hearing a lot lately about the fact that fewer and fewer young people are picking up books and reading them. Don't worry, though, I'm forty-five and they were saying the same thing back in the early 1980's when I was attending high school, so maybe it's possible that young people think that books suck? Who knows? Maybe it's an inter-generational fact that no matter what authors and the book industry do, kid's ain't going to read a whole hell of a lot.

I'll get to the hypothesis in a moment, bear with me.

Once upon a time in the days before smartphones, text messaging, and mind rotting reality television that is a harbinger of the fall of western civilization,  I was in the public school system, I can only remember one time, in 1979, when I was required to read a book for class. As I recall, I had a choice between three books: Gone with the Wind, The Hobbit and Fahrenheit 451. (I read Fahrenheit 451, by the way. I was twelve and I do remember this much: I didn't get it. Maybe I should have read The Hobbit.) My son who just turns 23 this year didn't have any required reading in class - I know this because I'm his dad, but also because I asked him this past Saturday and he told me that he didn't recall a required reading project either.

This might be true for you and your kids - or maybe every region is different. But onto that hypothesis that I'd mentioned. I think kids might read if they are given a choice of stuff to read that has a cool factor. (Or possibly a book that relates to their personal life experience.) Cool factor books could be, for example, books that have magic, time travel, superheroes or maybe even a troll or two thrown in for good measure. Or maybe even a book about sparkly vampires that date teenage girls. (I know, I'm going to get hate mail for typing that, but geez, at least the kids would be reading, right?) They might also want to read about themselves and the issues they are facing in their young lives - no it doesn't have to be "issues" based - there is still a market for contemporary middle grade and young adult books. Who knows, it might capture children's imaginations enough to make them want to, I don't know, read another book once they finish the one they've got.

Given that books have to compete  XBox 360,  iPads and Facebook - but really, is it possible to use a social networking tool like Facebook to get kids reading and to do it in concert with the education system? I mean, if Facebook is cool  (which it may no longer be ... apparently everyone is leaving Facebook in North America) and say a school throws its lot in with genre fiction and books about them,  is it possible to get kids talking within their social networks about the books they've read? (Or would having schools using Facebook to educate kids suddenly make Facebook itself uncool and would this unleash the wrath of Mark Zuckerberg?)
I'm throwing this out the the universe to consider: are there any educators reading my blog today who think this is doable?

I think we all eventually start to read at some point in our lives, but I just think the school system could probably do a lot to foster a love of reading if they can figure out how to tap into kids interests a bit better. (This means that reading needs to be a pastime as opposed to an assignment or homework. The minute reading smells like homework, I think you're going to lose young people a thousand kinds of fast.) Similarly, is there a culture of reading at home or are parents not reading themselves? We live what we learn, I suppose.

This is something I've been thinking a lot about lately and I thought to see what others believe. It's important, too - I mean, with government austerity measures being implemented globally in the fallout of the world-wide economic crash of apocalyptic proportions we've been experiencing since 2008, you just know that libraries are on the hit list for cuts. We've seen it in the UK and they're even talking about it in Toronto, Canada's biggest city.

So ... what's the solution, dear readers? Can required reading be cool? Can it be done? Do schools want to take this on or is there not enough literary merit in books about sparkly vampires or child wizards at Hogwarts.


  1. Well, in Florida they still have required reading. My second grader is reading Charlotte's Web with her class, so it starts early. When I went to high school (in the 90s), I read a lot of required books. Back then, I didn't have time to read for pleasure. So I agree with you that if I had a choice of "required reading" books that were more interesting to me (I still remember hating The Heart of Darkness SO MUCH!), I might not have gone on basically a 15 year read hiatus before rediscovering how much I love reading.

  2. I remember being so disappointed by the books they chose for required reading at school because 9 times out of 10 I'd already read those books years earlier. And I suspect my son will come across the same problem as he gets older. I can't get his nose out of books! But I'm not complaining.

  3. North Carolina has LOTS of required reading, at least in Wake County. I was always in the upper-level English classes, which might have been part of it, but I've had to read something in every English class I ever took. I actually liked most of the books we read, but I'm a big fat nerd and used to read anything you handed me. It's probably a YMMV situation.

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