Sunday, December 23, 2007

Painting Our Children’s Hearts With Beauty and Color

Cay at Cajun Cottage had a good post about the Advanced Child trend. She also linked to some other interesting posts on the subject, but they were more about books that are "reading level suitable" but not "maturity level suitable" for kids . I have some thoughts about that issue, but I'm not sure if it's one of the posts I really need to write. I am sure it's been written well by someone else.

But I like what Cay says:

Goodness! isn't life complicated enough without funneling books down their neural tube? Let's lighten up a bit. Let's paint our children's hearts with beauty and color. This isn't an argument for dumbing down or building up. It's an argument for touching our children's hearts with the first things that came out of our mouths and into their ears...Words!

She goes on to talk about how she will be sharing Patricia Pollaco and Jan Brett and eggnog with her children today, not pushing them into reading Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice; there are years ahead for that. "Pushing" is the operative word here, of course; if one of her children picked up Jane Austen, or if Cay wanted to invite a child to read it with her, that would be a different matter. But it wouldn't be about "reading levels" or "advancing" – it would be about an invitation to share a great book.

Ruth Beechick said something I read many many years ago, about how it wasn't necessary to be always "challenging" your kids in reading. Did your kid check a book out of the library and read a couple of chapters and then drop it? Why force him or her to finish it? Do you force yourself to read every single book you start? Maybe it would be a richer experience for the child some other time. Is your child reading at a supposed 5th grade level at age 6? For one thing, this is not that uncommon. Really, it's not. It does not mean super-geniuis, any more than heaving a Nerf Ball across the room at 9 months means you have the next Joe Montana. Those things tend to even out over time. Some plants bloom quickly, and others bloom over time. The quality is not measured by the quickness. But even supposing you have a genius on your hands, why would she necessarily then want to read only books from Sonlight's Year 5 at age six? Why ought she to have to? There are so many wonderful books out there suited for 6 year old – not dumbed down, but not accelerated either – with creative, poetic use of language, first rate illustrations and perceptive understanding of life's truths.

Ruth Beechick recommended a variety – easier books to let the child consolidate his skills and for age-level enjoyment and understanding; more difficult books for challenge and growth. Most kids naturally gravitate towards a mixture if this is encouraged. My kids went from The Hobbit and Beowulf to Frog and Toad and Peter Cottontail and back again. The key here is no twaddle. The picture books should be ones that a grown-up could find delight in reading, as CS Lewis said. As Cay says, they should be books that paint hearts with beauty and touch them with words.

Reading levels aren't really the key. I know kids who weren't really reading at age 10, who could read the Federalists and Anti-Federalists, with understanding and joy, at age 14. I know kids who were reading bits of Romeo and Juliet and the Hobbit at age six, who also had a heart of joy and wonder for Hans Christian Andersen and Beatrix Potter, and needed time and space to develop a relationship with those things.

James Taylor said that everyone should read the Pooh books. If you missed them when you were six or seven, you should read them at nineteen or forty. They are not "accelerated" – they live outside of sequence at all, in eternity. That is almost the point. Acceleration implies sequence, doesn't it? So does "advancement". They are transitive terms, leaving in question the end goal: advancement towards what? If it is towards "superior mental function" then it is the wrong goal. Children and books and their relationship shouldn't be locked into sequence like tracks in the service of academic superiority; books – particularly speaking of literature, here-- should open doors to eternity. This is a greater thing. You can be advanced and accelerated towards nothing; it happens to kids all the time. On the other hand, you can be a "bear of very little brain" and participate in eternity.

I always feel a bit sad when I walk into the local school's resource room, where Aidan has his speech therapy. The room is stacked with piles of books. … sets all of the same books. You might see a pile of Berlioz the Bear, along with a stack of The Black Cauldron. A few feet away is Tom Sawyer and on the other side is Ghost Town at Sundown by Mary Pope Osborne. When I was a child I would have thought this was a treasure trove, except.. except.. it is not so much a trove as a warehouse. And what they do with these stacks is horrible. I have a hard time writing it, because it seems so well intentioned and yet so misguided. They put them on a list with grade levels and point systems. A school kid reads one of them. Then he takes a multiple choice test to ensure that he has really read them. Then, if she passes the test, she is eligible to pick little prizes according to how many points the book is "worth". Oh, my. I feel so sad for these stacks of paperbacks stuck in the resource room. Just the fact that they are in these stacks seems to dehumanize them, relativize them, temporalize them. This is not eternity; it is like exile, or like exploitation. I feel so sorry for the kids who encounter Lloyd Alexander and Jan Brett in a context of "reading levels" and "points" for "prizes" and stacks of paperbacks just sitting there, in a side room. Surely that kid has not at all the same experience as a child who hears them while cuddled in the arms of a parent, or picks them up while browsing quietly through a home library on a snowy afternoon.

Now such is the power of a child's heart and mind, and the power of a great book, that even this conclave of prisoners can have wonderful results, I do not doubt. One good thing about this warehouse of books is that I can see a little child browsing the warehouse, choosing a book, passing the test, even acquiring the cheap prize, and in spite of all these hurdles still connecting with a book in a real, life-changing way. Because the human spirit, of authors and children, is bigger and better than all those hurdles are small and mean. But it's not the best way. And using books as fodder for "acceleration" is not the best way, any more than it would be a good thing to shovel books into the fuel compartment of a new kind of high powered locomotive. Travelers' guides to your journey ought not to be used as your fuel.


mel said...

ah yes...the accelerated reader program. It was one of the reasons that lead us to homeschooling. I had a late reader, and she was in first grade and not "allowed" to participate because she didn't test well enough to begin the the other kids were going to pizza parties and bringing home prizes that they had "won" with their reading points and she couldn't go. At the same time, she wasn't allowed to check out books from the school library that were above her assigned level, even though, as she said, she just wanted to "look at the pictures anyway". This was the beginning of "I hate reading". We took her out of school at Christmas break of that school year. Now she is 11 years old. She still hates reading, even though now she tests on a 7th grade level for it. :( I wish I'd taken her out sooner. The whole thing scarred us both, and I still cringe when I walk into the public library and see those levels taped to the sides of the books, and binders with reading lists for each school and each grade level.

Amy said...

I love the point about Pooh - so true!

Your thoughts about the resource room warehouse are the same reason I keep signing up for Pizza Hut's Book It program and then never telling my girls about it - I hate turning reading into a prize to be won. At least my children are exposed to books the "right" way LOL - bookcases full, book baskets full, piles everywhere, reading everywhere and anywhere and any time! ;-)
a quick OT note about your comment on my blog - you said you would feel silly counselling me now that you are in an easier time - but that is exactly WHY I think your counsel is so have been through it and come out the other end without falling apart (or at least having put yourself back together). :) Thanks for leaving your comment, and feel free to always leave me advice, I could use it, and you are so good at it. :)

Mrs. Darling said...

Dropping by to wish you a merry christmas and to send you blessings of peace and goodwill in your hearts and home this season!

JoVE said...

Efficiency at work, again, I suspect. All reading must be for some "purpose" and set you on a road to more difficult reading. No idea of reading as a pleasurable activity. And an implicit snubbing of the idea of reading a book more than once. The practice mel recounts of not letting kids take out books above their reading level even to look at the pictures gives it away. No, we couldn't look at the pictures this year and maybe read the book some other time. Much less read it with some understanding once and reread it later and get more out of it.

Even if you have read Pooh, you should read it again as an adult. It surprises you. Lots of things you only get with more experience of the world.

Thus, I think reading this post along with your recent on on repetition would make a good introduction to the whole area of "reading" for a new homeschooler.

Have a wonderful Christmas.

The Bookworm said...

Great points, Willa. Reading for pleasure and interest it never linear and progressive, yet children are so often expected to read this way.