Posted by: jockmackenzie | January 30, 2012

Reading – Importance? Purpose?

There are lots of students who don’t like school. As a teacher, I am a bit sensitive when I hear or read complaints. When I read Sue Grafton’s G is for Gumshoe, I was not surprised to find this passage:

          “How’d you manage to go to school?”

          “I didn’t if I could help it. I hated school. I couldn’t see the point. To me, it all looked like preparation for something I didn’t want to do anyway. I was never going to work in a feed store so why did I have to know how many bushels in a peck? Is that an issue that comes up for you? Two trains leaving different cities at sixty miles an hour? I couldn’t sit still for junk like that. Nowadays they call kids like me hyperactive. All those rules and regulations, just for the sake of it. I couldn’t stand it, I never did graduate.”

As teachers, we are always faced with making school important and purposeful. Some students need a lot of convincing, some don’t. I remember reading a 2003 copy of Voices from the Middle, in particular an article called “A Sense of Story” by the much-loved Young Adult author, Avi. He said, “In my office, I have a photograph of a blind boy. The boy is without hands or arms. War did that to him. But the photo shows him reading a Braille book – with his tongue.”

For the students who do need convincing, there are a number of things we can do. One of those things is to chose relevant reading material. Here’s one example:

For most middle school students, a driver’s license is somewhere in the foreseeable future. As I suggested in a recent entry (Reading Skills – Use the Phone Book), students can immediately grasp the value of something like a phone book or a Driver’s Handbook. This later book provides an excellent opportunity to teach the reading of symbols as well as how to read pictures/diagrams.

I attended a workshop in Calgary where two young teachers showed this old dog a few new tricks. They used a story called “the House.” Initially, they asked the audience members to read the story and underline whatever was deemed important. They didn’t explain in detail, just asked us to note the “important” parts.

When we were finished, they asked us to re-read “The House” and underline anything that would be important if we were robbers. Afterwards, they asked us to do a final reading and underline anything important to a student who was thinking about skipping school.

I wasn’t sure who to credit for the story (and I still don’t) but I found an interesting site for you to try the same exercise. Just click on this link –

If you’d prefer the story by itself, here it is:

The House

The two boys ran until they came to the driveway.  “See, I told you today was good for skipping school,” said Mark.  “Mom is never home on Thursday,” He added.  Tall hedges hid the house from the road so the pair strolled across the finely landscaped yard.  “I never knew your place was so big,” said Pete.  “Yeah, but it’s nicer now than it used to be since Dad had the new stone siding put on and added the fireplace.”

There were front and back doors and a side door that led to the garage, which was empty except for three parked 10-speed bikes.  They went in the side door, Mark explaining that it was always open in case his younger sisters got home earlier than their mother.

Pete wanted to see the house so Mark started with the living room.  It, like the rest of the downstairs, was newly painted.  Mark turned on the stereo, the noise of which worried Pete.  “Don’t worry, the nearest house is a quarter mile away,” Mark shouted.  Pete felt more comfortable observing that no houses could be seen in any direction beyond the huge yard.

The dining room, with all the china, silver, and cut glass, was no place to play so the boys moved into the kitchen where they made sandwiches.  Mark said they wouldn’t go to the basement because it had been damp and musty ever since the new plumbing had been installed.

“This is where my Dad keeps his famous paintings and his coin collection,” Mark said as they peered into the den.  Mark bragged that he could get spending money whenever he needed it since he’d discovered that his Dad kept a lot in the desk drawer.

There were three upstairs bedrooms.  Mark showed Pete his mother’s closet that was filled with furs and the locked box that held her jewels.  His sisters’ room was uninteresting except for the color TV that Mark carried to his room.  Mark bragged that the bathroom in the hall was his since one had been added to his sisters’ room for their use.  The big highlight in his room, though, was a leak in the ceiling where the old roof had finally rotted.

If we can persuade students that what they read is important and purposeful, we are two steps closer to engagement.

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