As a teacher we are often told that the Workplace student's future is equally important to that of the academic student. Yet, as I search through the internet on a variety of issues facing graduating High School students and the idea of life-long learning I couldn't help but notice that the articles are targeted to one demographic: the academic student.
In Neil Postman's Graduation Speech he notes that the world is divided between Athenians and Visigoths. Those with a passion for life-long learning, reading and culture are the Athenians and those who do not have such a passion are the Visigoths. He also makes it clear that "you do not become an Athenian merely by attending school or accumulating academic degrees" adding that his "father-in-law was one of the most committed Athenians" despite being merely a "dress cutter on Seventh Avenue". The same, I might argue can be said for my father-in-law who reads several papers from start-to-end everyday. It seems that in the past we instilled in students the passion to know. However, I wonder if we have forgotten the importance of instilling reading and life-long learning in our College-level, or more importantly, workplace students?
As my own grade 12 Workplace students graduate high school they do so with great excitement, for they will - in their estimation - never have to read or apparently learn again. Yes, of course, they believe that they will learn how to do certain tasks like plumbing or renovations or learn while on the job. However, they seem to not see that learning goes beyond that, and perhaps that is where we as educators have failed?
As an English teacher, I often begin my classes by asking students to think of a book they loved. They immediately react to this question defensively, as if to admit that they ever enjoyed a book places them in a group with "those" students who are forever reading and poised to be "stuck behind a desk". At some point though teachers have to admit that we played a role in the death of literature. We were an accessory to the crime. Even the most reluctant reader can reflect on a time when they loved entering the zany world of Dr. Seuss, or the oddly awkward stories of Robert Munsch and/or the cadence of Dennis Lee's Alligator Pie. But, then we stepped in. We "guardians of language" (as Stephen Fry referred to us) chastised them for their use of grammar, told them they dare not start a sentence with and, and drowned them in symbolism & theme. Just when we had them there drinking from the fountain of beautiful poetry and prose, we killed that love. I can already hear my colleagues ready to rhyme off Academic students who went to study literature here or there. But, what of the others? What about those students who will work as a cashier, a farm hand, a labourer or dress cutter? However, we teachers are not alone in the blame for this wave of reading reluctance.
An occupational hazard in my profession is that I have a preponderance for reading. Thus, our house has numerous bookshelves holding numerous books. As too do my children's bookshelves. Yet, I am amazed when I walk into peoples' homes and see relatively few books (it is even more strange when I don't see books in the homes of fellow teachers). There was once a time when parents read to their children. The joyous first memories we have of reading should (and hopefully do) involve parents taking us into the world of Seuss, Munsch, Lee. Can't you see parents smiling with rolled eyes as their kids, cuddling up in beds or on a comfy couch pull out the same book they wanted last night, the night before that, and even the night before that? Yet, what happened? When did we stop mentoring that reading? When did parents lay the entire onus of reading on young people deciding other things were more important? Instead of mentoring reading they seemingly chose overscheduled calendars, or TV viewing.
I have recently taught a student whose parents want her to get higher marks. So, every week or so she comes to me and asks - as if memorized from some script - "what can I do to get 70%?"
The last time she asked I replied with my own question. "How many hours did you practice hockey this weekend?"
The girl seemed a little shocked but replied quickly "about 4 hours". I then asked her how many hours she had read.
I know I don't have to give you the answer, because as I already mentioned, we killed reading. Parents, and educators together have created a generation of truly reluctant readers who don't care if it is in a magazine, tablet, graphic novel or whatever other form a publisher has decided might sell. The truth is that "those" kids will read, get a job (perhaps even "behind a desk") and read the paper, the news, blogs, non-fiction, histories, biographies and even the occasional novel. But, the sad truth is that the other students, those students who begrudgingly pushed through each and every one of their English classes and raged against literacy like it was the "dying of the light" won't.
Tonight my daughter and I ended our day together perched on our sectional in a relatively new little ritual. One of us facing east and one of us facing north. Each of us was reading our own book. Now, if I can only get that love of literature across to the 16, 17 and 18 year-old students counting down the days until they graduate...when they never again have to read.
I write about education, music, politics and my own philosophical conundrums. If I have left you thinking about something let me know. Sometimes I think this world needs more thinking.