Monday, December 13, 2010

Wishes for the New Year

‘Tis the season for both gifts and good wishes. Sometimes the two are one and the same. Still good wishes don’t always sound so pretty.

1. I, like so many people, am confused and outraged by the article in the New York Times about certain parents deciding to bypass picture books as quickly as possible to move on to chapter books. (Full disclosure—I write picture books.) This reported trend reminds me of a past fad using flashcards with quasi-verbal kids in an attempt to catapult them into SAT courses about the same time they finished toilet training. Hey, I’m a parent too; I worry all the time about my kids being well and happy and getting ahead. BUT COME ON!

My first wish? I wish that parents will realize that snuggling with their young child and a picture book, looking at it together accomplishes more than the chapter books I write as well. The child hears words she could never read at her age and enjoys a sophistication of story, relationships and ideas he could never read about by himself. The pictures act as an artistic dictionary, helping that young reader equate the look of a word and the word itself with its meaning via a drawing. Why be one of the seven blind men trying to define an elephant when you can just look at a picture of one? Furthermore we live in an increasingly visual age; why deprive a child of a model of using word and image together from the start?

And finally, we not only learn by doing, we learn by liking what we do. Kids love spending undistracted, interactive time with their parents (at that age, anyway) when the parent and a book are guides into new exciting worlds. They love reading picture books. And once they’ve practiced decoding letters and become used to bunches of them together with spaces between them, they love reading chapter books.

So I wish you guys would just calm down, then sit down and read a picture book to your kids.

2. Many writers here at I.N.K. have blogged about evolution and its detractors. They have been as impassioned and eloquent as I could ever be. So I’ll just start this wish/rant by saying, “ditto,” and move on to the general principal that we have never had better access to good, accurate information.

I wish we would value it more. Enough with “truthiness,” Mr. Colbert! And enough of cherrypicking facts or factoids that simply support our previously held views. I wish people would work harder to dig for this accurate information, find it, actually THINK about it, and use the results to create their opinions. Then let’s talk about how to reduce the deficit or raise our students’ math scores.

In other words, I wish we’d all start ascribing to a wise thought attributed to everyone from Bernard Baruch to Daniel Moynihan: Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.

3. I mentioned in a previous blog that I am currently an author-in-residence in a Boston school located in the middle of a public housing community. There is nothing like extended time in a school to remind you that teachers are heroes. They’ve got a hard job that is everyday and most of them try their best to do it well. I wish society appreciated them more.

As an author, I also wish they would/could use better hand-crafted books (nonfiction and otherwise) in their classrooms. I now understand better than ever how hard it is for teachers to use initiative and personalize the lessons they teach. There are seemingly endless mandated tests beyond the required state exams. Grade level curricula have units that must be covered from, say, October 11th to November 7th and others that pick up on November 8th. Where is the time for spontaneity? For the magic that comes from an inspired lesson or experiment or book?

I wish that we can somehow figure out how to slip more want-to’s in with ought-to’s. I can see from my time at the Perkins School that sparks do get kindled in kids and we just have to have a sufficient variety of kindling around to reach the future poet and scientist alike.

4. Besides all this, I wish we all could have world peace and a Happy New Year.


Unknown said...

Well said, Susan!! I've just attended two world conferences on education--one virtual and one in Qatar and I can report that there is virtually NO DISCUSSION about the quality of reading material in the classroom, let alone mention of the role of books in the learning processes. All of us need to keep ranting away.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your words on picture books as well as quality books within the classroom. As a teacher and a writer, I have been promoting (with the help of the librarian)the use of picture books in the upper elementary classroom. I think children at that age, or any age, gain so much from reading a fiction or nonfiction picture book. As you say, the visual pulls them in and reveals more of the world the well-crafted words are describing. The combination of both words and pictures is so much more powerful than any textbook.

I especially enjoy a nonfiction picture book that presents ideas through a story, allowing a reader to become part of the exploration.

But picture books are not only a fantastic way to immerse children in nonfiction. They also help older children better understand the structure of story and the craft of writing.

We have been successful in my school doing the above, but how can we make other schools, other districts and other states see this?