Monday, April 20, 2020

John Steinbeck, Ray Bradbury and the Power Of Choice Reading

During my monthlong period of social isolation I have been re-reading several books by John Steinbeck: The Long Valley, Cannery Row, East of Eden. I have described Steinbeck as my favorite author since I was a 14-year-old in ninth grade at Benjamin Franklin Junior High School in Levittown, PA in 1962. I became a Steinbeck reader by choice. I had never and have never been assigned to read a Steinbeck work, but I found my way to him, fell in love with his writing and his books have long held an honored place on my bookshelf and in my heart. Occasionally I pull them down and re-read them.

I discovered Steinbeck in my 9th grade English class. We had been assigned the reading of the novel Silas Marner, by George Eliot. I am sure Silas Marner is a great book. I am sure the school curriculum committee had very good reasons for choosing it. I also know that my 14-year-old mind was not ready to receive it with open arms or even open eyes. I didn’t read it then (I tried the first few chapters and gave in to a deep and satisfying sleep). Sitting in class as the teacher reviewed some early chapters in the book, I sat, trying not to make eye-contact so I wouldn’t be called on, rifling through the pages of the book. In the back of the text, I found the Steinbeck novella/folktale, The Pearl, appended for no apparent reason. I started to read The Pearl. I read it during class, at lunch, in study hall and in my room that night, instead of the next chapters of Silas Marner.

The next day I was unprepared for English class again, but I was a also a dedicated Steinbeck fan. I had finished the story. I had revelled in the wonderful way Steinbeck seemed to have with sentences and nuggets of moral insight. During homeroom I asked to go to the library, where a very helpful librarian led me to the few dusty volumes of Steinbeck she had on the shelves. I discovered that Steinbeck had written several novels and that many of them were blessedly short. During the next few years, I read Cannery Row, Of Mice and Men, Tortilla Flat, Sweet Thursday and Travels with Charley. Much later I would attempt his longer novels, The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden.

As an adult, Steinbeck has become a sort of independent study. On my shelves I have a wonderful book of his informative letters compiled after his death by his widow Elaine Steinbeck, a couple of biographies and several volumes of criticism, along with copies of everything the man has ever written: plays, photographic essays, logs of scientific explorations, reportage from WW2.

I tell this story to make the point that choice is critical as an aspect of the literary education of all children. While it is certainly the responsibility of teachers to provide children with instruction in the great works of literature, if we truly want our students to become life-long readers, we need to provide them with lots of time and opportunity for choice in their reading. Adolescence is a time when young people are searching for their own identity. The likelihood that they will find their identity in The Scarlet Letter or Oliver Twist or Silas Marner is not great. The chances that they might find that identity in authors that they have found through chance or guidance are much better. 

As I suggest with the word guidance, above, the teacher still has a role to play in choice reading. Many readers may not know what they would like. I certainly had never even heard of Steinbeck when I ran across him by chance. By knowing your students and by knowing the best of contemporary literature that is available to students of the ages you are teaching, you can foment interest by suggesting choices. I found when I was teaching seventh and eighth grade, that if I could get  reader started on an author, Chris Crutcher, Judy Blume, or Robert Cormier, for example, that student would also want to read other books by the same author.

Along with providing and guiding student choice, we must also be sure to provide time, in class, for students to read their choice books. This is not often easy in a crowded curriculum, but I believe it is necessary. Students need extended periods of quiet reading time to get truly engaged with books. With all the distractions at home, the best place for this to begin to happen may be the classroom. I found that this independent reading time was an important part of my instruction. While students read, I was able to go around and conference with individuals, check to see if the student had found the right book, discuss the book with the student, check comprehension, and even listen to an oral reading of the book to check for fluency. Some students, I am sure, saw these conferences as an intrusion, but others valued them as an opportunity to talk about what they were reading with another person. Structuring time for students to talk to each other is also an important part of an independent reading period.

A final story about the power of choice. My school chum, Warren, was an outstanding student, but I noticed that he did not show the same enthusiasm for English class that he did for the science classes, where he was always helping me to understand concepts that seemed to wiz by me. One day, I was over his house and we were playing in his tiny bedroom. I could not help but notice that his bookshelves were filled, chock-a-block, with paperback books. He appeared to have every Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov and JRR Tolkien book ever written along with literally dozens of other science fiction and fantasy books and tons of comic books. When I asked about them, he said that these were the books he loved, but he rarely found any of them assigned at school, so he did all his best reading at home.

Choice – it is a powerful tool for those of us who want to create a reading habit that lasts a lifetime.

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