Thursday, June 12, 2014

Out-Loud Reading

This week, I concluded a full dozen years of reading stories to the two-, three- and four-year olds in our Nursery School. Obviously, it’s a huge amount of fun. (How could it possibly not be?) And I’ve developed some important skills over all the years that I hadn’t previously needed even to acquire at all, much less seriously to hone. After all these years, for example, I can read almost as well upside-down as I can right-side-up, an indispensable skill if you want to hold a book up so your audience can see the pictures and still be able to read the text aloud. And I’ve perfected the junior version of the bimah-glare that makes it clear to my occasionally rambunctious young listeners that they’re not going to be listening to anything at all if they don’t quiet down and stop distracting themselves and their friends. Most of all, though, I’ve had a full twelve years now to observe children in the being-read-to state…and what I’ve learned from all those years of looking out at the boys and girls in our Nursery School while reading to them is what I’d like to share with you all today. (Sharing is a big part of what we all learn to do in Nursery School!)

First, let me describe the scene so you can have a clearer mental image of how this works. I sit on an adult-size folding chair. The children sit on tiny chairs they themselves bring from their classrooms into the atrium. First, I tell them about the book. I make a point of mentioning the book's title and its author’s and illustrator’s names, and I always try to make a point of reminding them if we’ve already read a book by that specific author or seen books illustrated by that same artist. And then I read the book. We pause for vocabulary that seems over the kids’ heads. (This last week we learned the difference between a rooster and a chicken, and between a hog and a sow. But we also learn more challenging vocabulary words. A few weeks ago, for example, we spent time trying to decide if “generous” and “kind” mean exactly the same thing. It’s that kind of Nursery School we run at Shelter Rock!)  We also learn how to say unusual, cool things in foreign languages. (A few weeks ago, we learned how to say “soup ladle” in Hebrew, Spanish, and Farsi.  This week, for example, while learning about roosters and chickens we also learned which in the Argentinian version of our story would be the pollo and which, the gallo. Each week, we try to learn how to say something in some language other than English.) Eventually, the story ends and then it’s book review time. Every week, I ask the same questions. Did you like the book? Would you like to hear more books by this author? Did you think the drawings suited the story? Would you recommend this book to other boys and girls your age? And, amazingly, they answer me. Sometimes, we are not all in agreement…and particularly when my young listeners feel the author stretched excessively the natural boundaries of credulity. (This seems particularly to be an issue when the book features talking animals, as this week’s book, Cece Meng’s Tough Chicks, did.) Still, even when we are not all in agreement, a consensus can usually be reached. And then, having completed our book, I play some songs for the children on the piano—this week I played Tumbalalaika and Tzena Tzena Tzena—and the kids run around in the Nursery School version of circle dancing.  And that’s it. The whole thing lasts about half an hour. Occasionally, I play a third song. If they ask nicely!

I think lots of people imagine that the concept of reading to children is basically a stop-gap measure designed to allow children to find pleasure in books before they eventually learn how to read on their own. According to this line of thinking, reading to kids is basically a favor, something akin to driving teenagers around before they acquire their own driver’s licenses and can drive themselves to wherever it is they need to go. In a sense, of course, that is exactly what it is all about. But there is another part to the exercise, and what I’ve come to realize over these years of reading to children is just how crucial and meaningful that other part actually is. Reading to children is not just a clever way to awaken a love of literature in children before they learn to read on their own, but a serious step forward towards training children in the dramatically underappreciated art of imagining.

I read picture books to our kids because they are still very young and my time with them is short.  But what I do should ideally only be akin to priming the pump, because the real goal is to read books to children without showing them pictures to look at, but only exposing them to words to listen to.  Think about what it is like for a child to hear a book without seeing any pictures, for example when being read to at bedtime when only the reader sits in the light.  As the story unfolds, the child sees nothing at all…with his or her eyes. But as the story progresses and draws the child in, a universe opens up that the child soon realizes he or she actually can see.  People, places, buildings, streets, even lakes and mountain ranges—these all become fully visible as the child lies back and hears the story. And I have come to think that that ability to imagine a universe that one cannot see is the key to academic and intellectual success later in life. It is certainly the greatest gift parents eager for their children to succeed in school, including years later in university and beyond, can offer their children.

The greatest scientists are the ones who take ideas that strikes them, even unlikely or outlandish ones, and then imagine an internally-revised universe unfolding around them as that idea crystallizes and clarifies, and as its implications alter the shape of such newly-imagined worlds either slightly or dramatically.  Surely, the same is true of authors as well: isn’t that exactly what it means to write a novel, to dream of a world that doesn’t exist to the point at which an author actually can see it and describe what is happening in it to people only the author can see and whose short- and long-term destinies only that single author can chart.  The greatest feats of human creativity derive directly from the ability to imagine, to see what at first only exists within the matrices of one’s own creative intelligence, to hear a word and suddenly to see a world.   And I believe that the fortunate among us acquire that skill as children when being read to over the course not just before they learn to read themselves, but for many years after that as well.

I remember my father reading to me at bedtime when I was a boy. Of all the books I heard in bed at night with the lights off, two—Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth—became so familiar to me that I still think I might remember some passages by heart. (Another feature that we pass by all too quickly in our world, by the way, is the intellectual good—not to mention the pleasure—that comes from reading our favorite books again and again. The whole point of learning to love books is to read the best ones many times over, seeing how familiar scenes morph along into more clever, or even darker, iterations of themselves as we ourselves age and come to know more of the world.)  But there were many others, including some books (like Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) that even now seem to me like odd choices for a young boy.  My father’s was a nineteenth century world of books—in addition to Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson, my father favored stories and books by Mark Twain and Washington Irving—but that hardly mattered: what counted in the long run was not the specifics of the tale being told, but the challenge of conjuring up a universe in the dark (the lights were always off in my bedroom while the book was being read) to the point actually of being able, at least eventually, to see it in my mind’s eye as clearly as if it were the real world that would be there in the morning when I awakened to a new day.

We (and by “we” I mostly mean Joan, my synagogue duties so often calling me away at bedtime) read to our children for years, favoring latter classics like Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, and all the Roald Dahl books, not to mention the Lewis Carroll “Alice” books and the L. Frank Baum Wizard of Oz series. Whatever other mistakes we made as parents, we produced three excellent readers! But even more the point, my kids all learned how to imagine a world in the dark…and how to conceive of things they couldn’t see but couldn’t imagine not to exist. If anyone were to ask what I think of as the greatest gift we gave our children when they were young, it would have to be their ongoing love of reading.

Our Nursery School graduation was Thursday and I was asked to speak. I’m writing this before then, but I already know what I’m going to tell the parents of our four-year old graduates. (By the way, if you haven’t ever seen four-year-olds in mortar boards, toy tassels, and graduation gowns made out of their fathers’ white shirts worn backwards, you haven’t even begun to see cute in your life!) Aside from imploring them to keep on building their children’s Jewish educations on the foundation we have labored so diligently to provide in our Nursery School, I plan to tell them that, in my opinion, nothing they can do for their children will lay the groundwork for future academic success than reading to them…and that it would be a huge error to imagine that that only applies for as long as the children do not know how to read well themselves. I believe that it is worth reading to children for years after that, taking them personally to the center of the earth or the secret garden, to Treasure Island or to Oz or to Sleepy Hollow…or personally showing them what’s going on twenty thousand leagues beneath the sea or teaching them how to go around the world in eighty days. (I forgot to mention Around the World in Eighty Days, but I should have: it was in some ways my favorite book as a boy, one I really still do remember as though my dad read it to me last month, not fifty years ago.)

That is what I’m going to tell them! Will they listen? I suppose some will and others will dismiss my opinion of the worth of reading aloud as exaggerated or too much rooted in my own personal experience.  But I know what I think! And what I think is that there are few pleasures in this world more satisfying for children than being read to. No one has read to me in a long time while I lay in bed at night and wait for sleep. I make do, obviously. But that pleasure, that sensation that I can still recall after all these many years of being ushered into an unseen world through the medium of the spoken word…that is one of the things I recall my parents offering me as a boy that has truly stayed with me over all these many years. I love to read and I really do read a lot…but even I can’t read in the dark! 

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