Why Read

Patrick McGowan PhotoJosiah Brown sent in the following report about an event in which he took part.

On Oct. 23, the Literacy Coalition of Greater New Haven and the New Haven Free Public Library convened an afternoon forum at the public library’s main branch. Panelists considered the question “Why read?” and how to engage young readers, in school and beyond.

Brad Bullis of the public library welcomed the audience, and moderator Mindi Englart – who teaches creative writing at Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School (Co-op) – introduced the panelists.  They included LaShante James, who teaches English at Riverside Education Academy; Jeanne Z. Lawrence, librarian at Benjamin Jepson Magnet School; Angelina Carnevale, teen services librarian for the Public Library; and three readers ranging from their late teens to early twenties: Cynthia Garcia, a senior at Co-op; Troy Smith, a Co-op graduate and Solar Youth staffer; and Brandon Robinson, a graduate of Eli Whitney Technical High School.

Moderator Englart asked each of the panelists for an anecdote of how or when reading became important to him or her, for the young readers to cite adults who had influenced their reading, and for the professionals to cite ways in which they had worked effectively with students.  She asked everyone to reflect on achievement gaps and the role of literacy skills and interests in bridging those gaps.

She also evoked what English teacher and author Kelly Gallagher calls Readicide: “The systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools.”  Englart invited suggestions of how to counter this problem.

As a point of departure for the effort to balance virtues and limitations of digital technologies (computers, smart phones, e-readers, the Web, social media, etc.), she quoted David Mikics in his book Slow Reading in a Hurried Age: “...a good book is the only thing that will teach you how to read with a full mind, focused on enjoyment and mental profit. Newspaper articles, tweets, and blogs won’t show you what reading is all about. Only a book can do that. When you have learned slow reading, you will have a secure possession and an endlessly provocative one. Your attitudes and responses to the world will change in ways you could never have predicted. Reading…will complete you, make you whole and strong, as much as anything can.”

LaShante James – herself a graduate of Co-Op H.S. before she returned to the New Haven Public Schools to teach at Riverside – agreed that there is something distinctive “when you pick up a book.”  She emphasized the rewards of “patience,” the sense of “imagination” and “mystery, suspense” that books can bring.  She mentioned the works of Cynthia Voigt, which have a New Haven connection, and how both fiction and nonfiction can help expand students’ awareness of the wider world (while potentially addressing certain Common Core standards).

Cynthia Garcia, the youngest panelist at age 17, aspires to pursue environmental law.  She is a student journalist with deep interest in nonfiction, as well as fiction.  She described ways in which she and her immigrant family have worked to overcome challenges with English, and how her younger siblings now emulate her own passion for learning.  Her 9-year-old sister reportedly enjoys the Huffington Post, while her 7-year-old sister’s appetite for reading began through the cartoon pages of the New Haven Register.

Brandon Robinson recounted experiences in the early elementary grades, when fiction excited his imagination, helped him to cultivate his reading and speaking skills, and put him on a path to become a self-motivated reader by high school.  He observed that by the time he was at Eli Whitney Tech in Hamden, he was proficient enough to have many reading selections among which to choose.  He expressed sympathy for peers with less-developed reading skills and fewer such opportunities.

The role of peer culture, for or against reading, emerged as a central theme.  The audience included a staffer with Leadership, Education, and Athletics in Partnership (LEAP), which is among various local youth organizations that seek to support schools in promoting literacy.

Panelist Troy Smith benefited from Solar Youth and in recent years joined its staff part-time.  He recalled the inspiration of teachers, in middle school and high school, and his mother’s bedtime reading during his early childhood.  (Both his mother and grandmother were in the audience at the Public Library.)  Prompted by moderator Mindi Englart, one of his former teachers, he reflected on a list that he maintains of books that he has read since the idea came to him in high school (that list now contains some 65 books).  On the matter of peer pressure, for good or ill, he declared, “We need more young leaders, instead of young followers.”  (1)

When a member of the audience lamented having to read The Grapes of Wrath instead of what he considered more appealing alternatives while in school, Troy responded gamely that in his view, “The Grapes of Wrath is a good book!”  He had a rejoinder, too, for a commenter who expressed difficulty in remembering what he read.  Respectfully, Troy urged anyone in such a situation to “stop and think about what you just read.”

Still, he and others conceded the broader point – that readers’ tastes differ, and that teachers, librarians, and parents do need to provide a wide range of choices for learners of all ages.  (Kelly Gallagher, in Readicide, embraces Warwick Elley’s conception of a “book flood” as valuable in “immersing” students in high-interest reading material.)  Librarians Angelina Carnevale – working with teens – and Jeanne Lawrence, who has extensive experience with students in the early grades and their parents, emphasized this fundamental aspect of their mission.
Carnevale highlighted librarians’ role in understanding a growing array of texts and media, and how conscientiously to seek out and recommend readings with interest and meaning for various patrons and students.  She spoke of how time in South Africa as well as her own upbringing – during which she relied on libraries – fostered a resourcefulness to assist others and not take the availability of books for granted.  (Her work as the teen services librarian introduced her to Brandon Robinson, a user of those services.)
Both Carnevale and Cynthia Garcia alluded to the importance of quiet, secure physical spaces for young people to read, study, and develop in healthy ways.  Library branches and organizations such as New Haven Reads and its Book Bank therefore are key complements to home and school.  (2)

Jeanne Lawrence underscored how much of reading and learning (and life) is embedded in relationships.  (3)

Because a parent is often a child’s “first teacher,” Lawrence suggested that fruitful “bonds” can form and habits develop as families read together.  She is part of a “READy for the Grade” program, funded by the NewAlliance Foundation, to support families (including from non-English-speaking backgrounds) and to join libraries and schools in facilitating young students’ success.  (4)

It was agreed that technology can act as either a boon or a hindrance to reading.  Jeanne Lawrence invoked the value of “options” that include both “screen time” and books – though she maintained that reading books together, and having a conversation about them, can often be more truly interactive, advancing the relational dimension.

Audience comments and questions ranged from Parent University (November 2 at Gateway Community College, as indicated on the News/Events calendar at www.literacyeveryday.org) to technology – with Concepts for Adaptive Learning (CfAL) executive director Curtis Hill (also a Literacy Coalition board member) among those contributing to the discussion.  Kirsten Levinsohn, another Coalition board member as well as executive director of New Haven Reads, briefly described its resources and needs (including for an additional 200 volunteer tutors to address its waiting list).

The main event concluded with remarks by Cynthia Garcia’s Co-op H.S. classmate Melba Flores, who had been slated to be among the panelists before a soccer injury left her in crutches.  Speaking from her seat and joined by her parents, Melba represented the collaboration of family, school, and community, as she and her sister are longtime participants at New Haven Reads and in the services of CfAL – from which their family has obtained computer equipment and instruction – as well as students in the New Haven Public Schools.

Finally, there was mention of the Literacy Coalition and its “LiteracyEveryday” website, and of the broader Literacy Forum series.  The LiteracyEveryday site has portals to Get Help, Volunteer, Donate, and Learn More, as well as a blog and a News/Events calendar.  There is a need for additional volunteer tutors and mentors at such organizations as the Boys and Girls Club, Jewish Coalition for Literacy, Junta, and Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven, in addition to New Haven Reads.

Neighbors are invited to visit the Literacy Resource Center on Winchester Avenue, in space at 4 Science Park donated by Science Park Development Corporation.  The Literacy Resource Center, or LRC, represents a partnership among Concepts for Adaptive Learning, the Coalition, New Haven Reads, Literacy Volunteers, and the Economic Development Corporation.  Upstairs in the same building at 4 Science Park are the offices, classrooms, and art gallery of the Connecticut Center for Arts and Technology (ConnCAT).

You can help by:

• Reading in the home, promoted by libraries such as the New Haven Public Library—and involving grandparents as well as parents, and free books from sources including Read to Grow and New Haven Reads;

• Encouraging friends, family, and others to seek literacy assistance whenever useful;

• Volunteering as a tutor or mentor, including through the Boys and Girls Club, New Haven Reads, Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven, the New Haven Public School Foundation, and the Jewish Coalition for Literacy;

• Bolstering literacy in other ways, such as through donations of money—whether directly, via the Community Foundation or the United Way—or of books and by advocating and voting.

The Literacy Coalition of Greater New Haven is a nonprofit, all-volunteer organization with a mission to promote, support, and advance literacy for people of all ages.  Visit LiteracyEveryday to share or obtain information on free events, resources, and ways to get involved in pursuit of a region of readers.

Email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) for more info.

Earlier articles on the Coalition and its events:

“It’s about WORDS”

“Literacy Paths Plotted”

“Literacy, Every Day”

“Learning in the 21st Century, in Ways New and Old”

“Reading, Culture, and ‘Quality Time’ at Home”

“‘Empowering Teachers,’ Reading Research, Instruction, and Supports”

“Margie Gillis Discusses Using the Latest Research on Reading Thursday”

“Early Reading, Community Action, and Catalytic Philanthropy”

“Literacy Coalition Forum: State Legislative Update and the Big Read”

“A Day for Literacy”

“Commissioner Ted Sergi: Their ‘Second Chance’ Starts with Reading”


(1) A writer of poetry himself, Troy Smith might regard the following lines from e. e. cummings as apt:

    To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best,
    night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight
    the hardest battle which any human can fight and never stop

(2) Schools of course are crucial to this literacy matrix.  For an example of promising results at a high school, see fall 2010 New York Times coverage (including Sam Dillon’s article and subsequent letters to the editor) of Brockton High School in Massachusetts, where teachers over several years honed a school-wide approach to reading and writing.

(3) Attention to relationships and culture appears across the literature on education, from “emotional intelligence” to dropout prevention, school and family dynamics, and academic progress.  See, for example, Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count, by Richard E. Nisbett (2009). Also for instance, “relationships” are part of the Tripod Project’s conceptual focus on “content, pedagogy, relationships.”  (Disclosure: This reporter took two graduate-school courses years ago with Ronald F. Ferguson, Ph.D., founder of the Tripod Project and an educational researcher who directs the Achievement Gap Initiative.)

(4) Jeanne Z. Lawrence’s emphasis is consistent with what the New Haven Public Schools more broadly, with the United Way, are preaching: “The ART of school success” – attendance, reading at least 20 minutes per day with your child, and talking with him or her about that reading and the school day.

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