I’m having a profoundly difficult time with some of the things in this post by Ta-Nehisi on the problems of picking books for kids to read in school, and of getting them to really read and absorb them. I think some of my difficulty comes from the fact that I’m exactly the kind of kid he describes at the end of this paragraph:
Some of us are poor students, and I’m not totally convinced that any form of mass education can fix that. That’s a statement of autobiography, not accusation. I simply wasn’t interested in the notion of sitting in a chair for an hour at a time and receiving information at a predetermined pace. I don’t even know that I’m interested in that now. I say that knowing that there are very good reasons for why this is the case. Moreover, there are children who excel at this model. I think a conversation like this should always remember that.
I don’t think, for example, that just because some kids are unlikely to absorb the books they’re given to read in school doesn’t mean that schools should stop trying. I do think some curricular flexibility would be a good thing. Reading books in tandem helps illuminate them, I think: there are books you could pair together at a chapter a night that wouldn’t be hugely demanding but that might help kids who are unlikely to relate to one relate to both.
And I guess I think the reason it’s important to never give up is there are things I was required to read in the classroom that I probably wouldn’t have read on my own that really lit the world up for me. I remember a period of profound junior-year obsession with The Song of Solomon, scribbling litanies of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, drunk on the poetry of the language. It was something my English teacher added to our curriculum, something that didn’t necessarily have a lot that would immediately resonate with a nerdy, white, half-Jew with limited experience in the world, but I was just in love with it.
This is what good teachers and librarians do—they find the books kids will want to read, and the books they need to read without knowing it yet, and they hook them up with them, they keep the idea of reading alive through the stuff that’s not engaging. I’m not saying everyone has a teacher or librarian like that, but that should be the ideal. Teaching is more than the work of teaching to the test: it’s profound, tricky, elusive. And it’s just as hard to encourage kids to meet educators half-way. I’m not saying this is easy, but I also think it’s a huge mistake to embrace the idea that it’s just not going to work for some kids. Not everyone who struggles with school is going to be self-directed and self-educated later.