There are but a few reading memories I have from my childhood. I loved McCloskey’s Homer Price, The MAD Adventures of Captain Klutz, Woody Allen’s Without Feathers, D’aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths and was rather fond of the Uncle Remus “trickster” fables. There was a big brightly illustrated picture book series by Miroslav Sasek called, This is Australia, This is Stamford… that made me dream of travel to faraway lands. I also remember using Battle for the Planet of the Apes (the novelization) when my 12th grade English teacher required oral interpretation of a novel.

Fourth grade was a year of revelations for me. I realized that if I painted everything black I could get the child study team to come in and evaluate me on a regular basis. Rorschach Tests were MUCH more interesting than copying lists of spelling words. I also continued my crusade to become a G-Man just like my boyhood hero, J. Edgar Hoover. If forced, I might have chosen to grow-up as Evil Knievel, although there were more jobs for crime-fighters than daredevils.

There was a series of books in the school library that captured the imaginations of my boyhood friends and me. I remember what the books looked like. Most had red covers with black and white photos consuming the bottom half. The author was C.B. Colby. Thanks to the World Wide Web’s ability to archive bizarre ideas and products I’ve been able to track down a few of the actual titles of these literary masterpieces.

  • Bomber Parade Headliners in Bomber Plane History
  • Chute!: Air Drop for Defense and Sport
  • Submarine Warfare: Men, Weapons, and Ships
  • FBI: The G-Mens’ Weapons and Tactics For Combat
  • Six-shooter: Pistols, Revolvers, And Automatics, Past And Present
  • Two centuries of weapons, 1776-1976
  • Jets of the World: New Fighters, Bombers and Transports
  • Fighter Parade: Headliners in Fighter Plane History
  • First Rifle How to Shoot It Straight and Use It Safe
  • Musket to M-14 Pistols, Rifles and Machine Guns
  • Leatherneck : The Training, Weapons and Equipment of the United States Marine Corp
  • Fighting Gear of World War II Equipment and Weapons of the American G.I

And my personal favorite… Art and Science of Taking to the Woods

I checked these books out of the library by the armload although I’m not sure I actually read them. The photos contributed to my world of fantasy play. Being seen with the texts of Mssr. Colby was as important to gender identity as were water pistols, cap guns, plastic guns that fired rubber pellets and the Boy Scouts – all military artifacts which I enjoyed as a child.

One can imagine the smell of C.B. Colby books being incinerated by schools in the post-Columbine era. I don’t own a gun, despise the stain on American history left by J. Edgar Hoover, am a champion of civil rights for all and have shot very few people despite having read the violent manifestos of C.B. Colby. I must have turned out alright because Marilyn Manson and the web didn’t exist when I was a child. Or perhaps it was because I had adults around who I could talk to?

© 2001 Gary S. Stager

Originally published in the June, 2001 issue of Curriculum Administrator Magazine

We are cheating our students by turning reading into a game of dodgeball.

There is lots of talk about games and education these days. Educators mystified by students’ indifference to schooling are all too easily taken in by slick talkers drawing grandiose conclusions from some kids’ love aff airs with video games. Rather than take the steps necessary to make school more social, teachers more engaging, and curriculum more relevant, we either shift blame to parents, TV and hip hop, or seek salvation in the lessons of Grand Theft Auto.

Kids have always spent long periods of time engaged in activities different from those valued by school. Most display a talent for developing an encyclopedic knowledge of topics from dinosaurs to sports statistics to gossip. Children whose passion or aptitudes happen to match the tested curriculum are declared “good students.”

While we marvel at the intensity and focus required for children to achieve video game success, we are quick to label the same children as having attention deficits while in class. The capacity of children for intensity is squandered by mountains of worksheets, timed tests and other curricular contradictions.

Students as Workers

While we obviously recognize the value of play in video games, we cancel recess and build schools without playgrounds, referring to students “as workers.” As fewer children enjoy the sportsmanship and healthy competition learned from a friendly game of kickball with classmates, they have been transformed into soldiers in a high-stakes political game of international economic competitiveness.

Perhaps there are many more distractions facing children today, but great teachers continue to create environments where their students want to be and to learn. The answer to bad teaching is better teaching, not another worksheet, get tough movement or quick fix. The sad truth is that schools may be better at destroying interest in a subject than inspiring it.

A friend used to require his students to write a weekly television show review. This satisfied a variety of language arts objectives and shared the unintended consequence of the traditional book report: Students’ interest in TV would decrease with each report required.

Illiteracy is not a problem among preschoolers. Every toddler enjoys books. It isn’t until children attend school that they begin to feel self-conscious or failures as readers. We tell kids what to read. We interrupt their reading with comprehension quizzes. We rush, test, score, fail and recover them. We reduce the world of literature to “Fawn at Dawn.” In way too many cases, school has a highly effective prophylactic affect on reading. An alarming number of learning disabilities result.

Winning Points

Too often, schools respond to the literacy crises they create by turning reading into a game. I remember being told that I read 750 words per minute, a feat unmatched by TV’s Steve Austin. The secret behind my bionic ability was a talent for guessing answers to multiple-choice questions, not superhuman comprehension.

Many classrooms today use a popular software program to test student reading. No longer do students read for pleasure or information. They read to win points in a misguided effort to mechanize teaching and learning. This perverse notion of motivation turns reading into a contest with winners and losers. Strong readers choose simpler books to rack up points quickly, while struggling readers are humiliated by the public nature of their scores.

Guess what? Teachers tend to become dependent on teacher-proof systems and stop exercising professional judgment. While the company behind this system has been very nimble and creates tests for new books, teachers are unlikely to value the reading of a book not in the system.

Reading for fun wastes time you could spend crushing your classmates. With score tables automatically generated and parents alerted to their child’s pole position, teachers will invariably use the points in grading students regardless of the program’s intent.

Turning reading into a game is neither effective nor very good for inspiring lifelong readers.

Originally published in District Administration Magazine – April 2008

Last week, my 7 year-old nephew, (let’s call him) Homer, brought home another stupendous homework assignment. He was required to read a phonics primer to his parents, get his parents to sign that they had been sufficiently tortured by the experience and then answer comprehension questions on a worksheet.

The book was titled, Fawn at Dawn.

Here is an excerpt from this classic tale…

I saw a fawn. I saw a fawn at dawn… I saw a fawn at dawn on my lawn…”

Homer then whipped out his worksheet and assumed the role of literary critic.

Question #1: The story was about?
The story was about a girl named Jenny who saw a fawn, but nobody believed her.

Question #2: Favorite part of the book?
The end because the story was very porly (sic) written

The teacher corrected the spelling of “poorly” despite the mistake being wholly consistent with phonics instruction. Then things began to get a bit ugly.

Question #3: Who else do you think would like this book?
I don’t think anyone would like this book. It’s just aw aw aw awful!

On Homer’s paper the teacher wrote something to the effect of “I’m sorry you didn’t like it. I guess you have the right to your opinion.” (as if she LOVED the book) In class the teacher dismissed Homer’s critique by reminding the kids that this was a phonics lesson so the stories don’t have to be good.

The moral of this story?
Homer has been reading fluently for three years and loves books, but this one-size-fits-all assignment made no allowances for his skill or personal interests. In fact, there would be no time for pleasure reading that night because by the time this second grader gets off the bus at 4:30 PM, does his homework and eats dinner there is rarely any time left to waste on playing with friends, practicing an instrument, visiting with his parents or reading a good book.

Couldn’t Homer read a real book and make a list of the “aw” words he encountered?

If I were to suspend my disbelief and stipulate that every child learns to read by systematically mastering 43 phonemes I am left with a simple question. Once a child can read shouldn’t phonics instruction end? Why has phonics become a separate subject rather than a decoding strategy?

Why should Homer and his literate friends be subjected to crummy reading materials until middle school when a bumper crop of high-quality high-interest literature is available?

Originally published Sunday, March 18, 2007 in The Pulse: Education’s Place for Debate