In David Denby’s recent book, Lit Up, the New Yorker magazine writer embeds himself with several quite varied American high schools in order to explore the state of reading and teaching literature at the secondary level. A few items caught my attention as they affect the middle level and the “onramp” to secondary school language arts or English.
Mamaroneck High School (New York), for instance, adopted a program they hoped would create “a culture of reading.” Simply put, reading begets more reading. It’s kind of a volume discount proposition: The more you read, the more you want to read…and the more depth and quality you will demand of your reading. We can’t avoid yearning for better quality prose, and more satisfying plots and characters, in storytelling. “Mamaroneck wanted to build a kind of reading ego: having chosen a book on their own, the students took control of it and enjoyed pride of ownership, a very American idea.” The school simply set aside time and resources to encourage reading of any kind. To break it down a little further, they knew reading is propelled by enjoyment, and enjoyment is propelled by choice. In the case of high school students, “awakened by pride as well as interest, they might be roused from electronic stupor,” their absorption in the allure of social media being the ostensible enemy. At Mamaroneck, everyone got involved. Teachers and students alike posted their current reading choices; shared views and reviews; got involved in one another’s book interests. Reading took off. The quality of those choices eventually took care of itself.
Is writing the same? Newspapers used to pay writers by the column inch. And does all that texting going on today count as writing? If so, your pay packet is going to suffer! Would a useful gambit be to simply reward word count not sophistication, like we do adding up books read? My second grader, Oliver, wrote a recent tree frog story. There was six feet of it, which got me thinking of the possible rewards of the column inch approach.
As human beings, we are, after all, the storytelling species. We should not let our love of narrative be displaced by the ease of data or mere information. We need to read to ourselves, tell ourselves the story of where we’ve been, wrestle with angels and devils and tree frogs, and then dream. It improves the quality of the stories we will tell of where we’ve been, what we’ve seen, and what it felt like to journey there. Read on. What might these 436 words be worth?