Dear Governor: Lobby to Save a Love of Reading

On New Year’s Eve, we and another couple sat, as we have for many years, playing party games -- waiting for midnight, a final toast, and a conservative but not reactionary bedtime shortly thereafter.

In past years our friends’ two girls led (and clobbered) us in rousing games of Pictionary; this year they were too old to hang out with their parents on this most festive night of the year. Our kids (younger) were already asleep.

Instead of Pictionary without the champions we decided to play a new game: “take the third-grade English Language Arts practice test” that our son had brought home from school as his vacation homework (if that is not an oxymoron, it should be).

We felt pretty confident of our ability to do well on the test: we all have Ph.D.’s in the humanities, three of us are tenured professors and one is a university administrator. We all make a living through reading.

The first section of the test comprised reading a short story and answering six multiple-choice questions about it. The story, concerning a pair of tiger siblings (an older sister named Tikki and a younger brother named Mista), was short and simple.

“Tikki eyed Mista, her little brother,” it began. " 'You sure don’t say much,’ she said.”

In the course of the story Tikki gets annoyed with her little brother because he can’t talk yet, attempts to get him interested in looking for bugs, then joins him in tearing bark off a log.

She tries to instruct him in this task, but discovers to her surprise that he is better at it than she is.

The first question asked, “What is this story mostly about?” and offered four choices:

  • A) what tigers like to eat
  • B) how tigers tear bark off logs
  • C) how two tigers get along
  • D) what tigers like to do

An intense literary debate followed the reading aloud of the story and this first question. In fact, we never got beyond it. One of our party felt that B, “how tigers tear bark off logs,” best summed up the action-oriented nature of the story, while another thought that C, “how two tigers get along,” best highlighted the interaction between the two animals.

The third felt that the story was mostly about sibling relations, and fretted that there was no E) none of the above.

And, predictably, the fourth felt that all the possible answers had merit: F), or all of the above.

The truth is, even such a banal story cannot be reduced to a single theme, nor should it be. By asking young students to spend time taking tests like this we are doing them a double disservice: first, by inflicting on them such mediocre literature, and second, by training them to read not for pleasure but to discover a predetermined answer to a (let’s not mince words) stupid question.

Consider for a moment what it would be like to try to answer this question of a major work of children’s literature. So: what is the story “Piglet Meets a Heffalump” mostly about? Is it about hunting and trapping techniques? Facing one’s fear of scary monsters? Joining with others in a great enterprise? Trying to impress your friends by claiming knowledge you don’t possess? Or does it mostly reveal how friendship and love can transcend all our foibles?

It is about all these things and more. Discovering such themes and trying to understand how they are presented is worthwhile; deciding which is the "main" one is not.

Literary texts, whether by A.A. Milne or Leo Tolstoy, always admit multiple interpretations -- and the greater the work, the more robust the tension among these readings, and the graver the loss in trying to reduce the work to a single idea.

We cannot help but see a connection between the reductive approach to literature exhibited by the test and the reading program in place in the classroom, which we learned about during curriculum night early in the school year. We were informed that the school’s system for teaching reading was that of Fountas and Pinnell, a widely used curriculum developed at Columbia Teachers College.

This system ranks books, and children’s reading skill, according to an alphabetical scale of difficulty ("Harry Takes a Bath," level E; "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," level V).

During curriculum night the teacher admonished that our children should under no circumstances read books either above or below their assigned level, because that would hamper their progress. She also frowned upon their reading a book more than once, presumably because it wastes valuable time children could be spending improving their reading strategies on new books.

These instructions were completely at odds with the way we both read as children: we re-read beloved books dozens, if not hundreds, of times, for years after our initial encounters with them, long after they had ceased to be challenging.

This is how our love of literature was born: by having committed to memory our favorite books, by internalizing the rhythms and cadences of their language. And yes, also by tackling books that were too hard, experiencing the excitement and mystery of partially glimpsing visions we would only possess in the distant future (long after the spring testing season).

By turning the experience of reading into something that is to be quantified, both in the way it is taught and the way it is tested, our son’s curriculum ensures that children will learn to regard reading as a chore and not as one of life’s great pleasures. Worse, it can become an instrument of competition.

“Greg is only reading at level E,” our son informed us scornfully early in the year after Greg had hurt his feelings over something. “And I’m at level P!”

In his recent State of the State address, Governor Cuomo said he wants to be an advocate for children. Let him lobby to protect their natural curiosity and love of learning from the onslaught of anti-intellectual, ends-oriented teaching practices forced on our educators by over-emphasis on standardized tests.

Thus was our first, and only, new year’s resolution formed as the clock struck midnight and we opened one last bottle of Spanish Cava to toast the new year: We will boycott the standardized test this spring, and we will do everything we can to encourage fellow parents to join us.