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Monday, June 11, 2012

A Long Day's Journey into Night

I hope Eugene O'Neill will forgive me for stealing the title of his great play for the title of this blog, but nothing seems more appropriate right now. At 8:03 Sunday morning I boarded the Amtrak train at the Trenton, NJ station bound for Washington, Dc. The main purpose of my journey was to take in the Folger Theater production of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew at a two o'clock matinee. It was the last day of the production and I didn't want to miss it. Since the train would get in at 10:30, I would also have some time for shopping at Eastern Market and lunch at one of the many good restaurants in the Capitol Hill area.

I settled into my comfortable seat, opened my iPad to the Sunday Times and declared myself content. At about 9:15 AM, with the train just south of Wilmington, the conductor came on the loud speaker to announce that a drawbridge over the Chesapeake was stuck open and the train would be delayed indefinitely. "Oh well," I thought. "I have plenty of time and if I can't get in the shopping I will surely make it to the play." At 11:00 PM it was announced that the bridge had been fixed, but electricity was out on the bridge and we were waiting for a diesel engine to come push us to Washington. At about 12:30, we were informed that all was repaired and we were on our way. If I am lucky, I thought, I might be able to catch a cab and make the show. I went forward to the club car and bought a sandwich and diet Pepsi (no nice lunch on this trip).

As I got back to my seat with lunch, the train lurched to a halt again. After a few minutes, a very apologetic and exasperated voice came on the PA to announce that while the bridge was fixed, our engine had broken down and we were now waiting for a new engine. "There goes my play", I thought. Also I had read the entire Sunday Times from cover to cover and was now casting about for reading material. I downloaded the Times Sunday Crossword and settled back in for the wait. The crossword proved challenging, but now I was in a real panic, my iPad was losing power and I had not packed the power cord (who would need it on a one day trip to Washington?). My biggest concern was having no reading material to entertain myself on this endless journey.

Finally about 2:30 the train started moving again and we arrived in Washington Union Station at 4:15. If I had rushed I could have made my way over to the Folger Theater to see the audience walking out of the production. Instead I went to the nearest bar and had a stiff Tanqueray on the rocks.

With the museums closing at 5 on Sunday and with my return train two hours away from leaving, I decided my trip would be confined to a visit to the Barnes and Noble in the station and dinner at one of the many restaurants. I wanted to be sure I had some reading material for the return trip with my iPad now down to 10% power.

I moseyed through the Barnes and Noble, found a magazine that looked interesting and sat down to a leisurely dinner at the Pizzeria Uno. At seven I took a seat in the waiting room, to wait for the call to board my 7:20 train home. Sure enough, at 7:15 an announcement came on that the train was delayed (I know you all saw that coming). Fortunately, this gave me time to use the last 10% of the power on my iPad to send a nasty email to Amtrak customer service. When the train still was not called by 8:00 PM, I settled back to read the recently purchased magazine. The train finally was called and left the station at 9:30 PM. I arrived in Trenton at 12:05 AM a sadder but wiser traveller, having spent nearly an entire 16 hour day sitting on or waiting for a train and I never even got to my play!

Other than giving me a chance to vent, what does all this have to do with a reading blog? Well, somewhere in the fog of my last two hours on the train, I began to wonder about what I would have done with all that time without the very special gift of reading. This may have been the longest amount of time I have had to read since I was 8 years-old and would hurry home form school to ensconce myself in bed with my latest favorite book. I learned a lot on this day, because I had time to indulge a favorite past time.

Here are a few things I learned:

There is a wonderful magazine out there called Mental Floss. I picked it up in the train station and had time to read it cover to cover. The thing I like about it as a reader is that it is full of entertaining trivia and takes a witty approach to it all. Even better as a reading teacher, I think this is just the magazine to help teachers of middle school and high school reluctant readers. It will keep them engaged and provide background information for all kinds of future learning. Check it out:

Secondly, from the New York Times Book Review section, I learned of two books that are now on my summer reading list and should be on yours too. First is Canada by Richard Ford, the newest book from one of this country's greatest contemporary writers. The second is The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, a first novel that has a baseball theme, but apparently is about so much more.

Here is some other stuff I learned along the way of my journey:
  • Stan and Jan Berenstain wrote a book called How to Talk to Your Children About Sex!
  • It costs zoos a million dollars in yearly rental fees paid to China in order to be allowed to exhibit Pandas.
  • The "rockets red glare" that Francis Scott Key wrote of in The Star Spangled Banner were actual Congreve rockets hurled at British ships from atop 15 foot bamboo poles. Unfortunately, they were not very accurate and were as likely to destroy US ships as British ships.`
  • That kids at highly competitive schools are self-medicating with the "good grade pill" Adderall. Scary.
  • Words like "egg" and "bee" have three letters even though two would be sufficient for spelling and pronunciation, because the redundant additional letter makes these nouns more substantial words and distinguishes them from function words like "of" or "to."
So the next time you wonder about the importance of helping each child become a reader, think about my long day's journey and remember you are equipping them to be be their own best entertainers and learners.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Celebrate Maurice Sendak

As I am sure you have heard by now, the great children's author, Maurice Sendak died yesterday. Sendak's greatest legacy is that he did not underestimate children. He trusted his readers to understand his highly imaginative often dark works - and of course they did. I had the great pleasure of meeting Mr. Sendak thirty years ago at a conference at Rider University. Even then he was quirky. He refused to give a speech, but agreed only to be interviewed by a staff member from the University. He was, as he always was, intelligent, irascible, passionate and unforgettable.

I suggest two ways to celebrate Sendak's life: 1) read one of his books to a child and 2) view this absolutely wonderful interview with Stephen Colbert by following this link.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The View from the Coffee Shop at Barnes and Noble

So this morning I am sitting in the Barnes and Noble coffee shop waiting for my car to be repaired. Sitting here with my decaf Americano and cinnamon scone, I can look out over the sales floor. Here are the signs I see: LEGO Architecture, Toys and Games, Trends and Collectibles, Jigsaw Puzzles, Star Wars Figures, Travel Games. I kid you not, I must strain my eyesight from here to see a book.

At the risk of sounding old and stodgy, this worries me. When people enter a book store, they should be tripping over books, not action figures. I am trying to launch a one man offensive against toys and games and gimmicks taking over space in book stores. On Easter Sunday, I gave each of my children and grandchildren a book along with their chocolate bunny. The message: "Reading is sweet."

Please help me with my campaign; go to a book store this week, buy a book and give it to a kid. Try to ignore their disappointment when they see it is not a Star Wars action figure.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Need to Read Aloud

Recently, as I was cleaning out my office, I came across my copy of The Read Aloud Handbook, signed for me by the author, Jim Trelease. More than 30 years ago, I was doing a presentation at a reading conference in New York City. It was one of my first presentations at a large conference like this and I was quite nervous. My topic: The Role of Read Aloud in the Middle School Classroom. I had become a huge advocate of read aloud as an instructional strategy through my graduate work and through the reading of the Trelease book.

After the presentation, which I thought had gone rather well, a gentleman from the audience came up to me and said, "Hi, I'm Jim Trelease." I was floored. Jim Trelease, nationally known author and the country's biggest advocate of read aloud, was in the audience as I stole and shared many of his ideas. I think I stammered something like, "It's a pleasure to met you. I hope you liked what I had to say." In my mind I was thinking, "Oh my god, I hope I credited him appropriately."

He said kindly, "Absolutely, I think you were right on the mark. And thanks for plugging my book." He was very gracious, signed my copy of his book for me and gave me his phone number so we could stay in touch.

Over the years we ran into each other at subsequent conferences and he never failed to remember me and take a moment to talk about our work.

I bring this up now because I fear for the place of read aloud in our schools today. Only six years ago, with the encouragement of my then Superintendent, Sam Stewart, I had decreed that every student in every school in our district would be read to at least once a day. Now, I hear from many teachers that read aloud is being crowded out of the curriculum. Read aloud is an endangered species because of the creeping demands of accountability and testing. In an atmosphere where teachers feel under siege and where standardized test scores are high stakes, an apparent "soft" part of the curriculum, like read aloud, may get crowded out.

So perhaps now is a good time to revisit Jim Trelease and remind ourselves of the critical learning that results from children being read to every day.
  • Read aloud conditions the brain to view reading as a pleasurable activity
  • Read aloud builds background knowledge
  • Read aloud builds vocabulary
  • Read aloud provides a fluent reading model for children
The most skilled teacher would be hard pressed to design an activity that has that much bang for the buck. When an administrator asks you your goals for read aloud, recite the list above. Fight for the right to read aloud to your students. We must read to our students every day. To fail to do so is educational malpractice.