How To Read a Book by Kwame Alexander

Posted on January 14, 2020

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I love picture books! And I especially love this one. Illustrator, Melissa Sweet, has made EVERY page an original work of art with vivid colors and delightful surprises that perfectly complement Alexander’s lively language. If I were still teaching in the high school English classroom, I would use this book on or near Day 1! With this book, Kwame Alexander sets the tone that I want to convey to young people about reading: it’s an adventure; it’s full of surprises; and it brings great pleasure. 20200108_103817

This book can also be a opener to conversations about the MANY ways to read–for a good story, for ideas, for information, for a perspective, to go new places, and to meet cool people! It would be a great discussion starter about how to use various strategies to read for multiple purposes. One could even do a second read-aloud where each student focuses on a particular approach, then discuss.

Since it’s currently January, and I just discovered this book, I’d want to share it with my students now, AND make a note to start with it next year. I could use it at this time of year as a discussion starter about how we read words and images before we began the unit on media literacy and advertising; I could use it to lead into a discussion about book awards and tie it to thinking about which books they’d select as their favorites at year’s end. I could also share it on a day before I took students to the library to choose new books for independent reading, simply to remind ourselves of the joy of reading. What I’m saying is: if I were in the classroom, I’d find a way to share this book with students.

I love this book, and I want young people to see it, mostly because it is the EXACT OPPOSITE of the kind of reading required for standardized tests like NWEA and SAT.

The takeover of reading by non-educators has done more to make kids hate and fear reading than anything in human history. The emphasis on standards and testing over the joy of learning as it happens organically from following one’s interests as a reader is something that has troubled me greatly since around 2010. To speak of those tests as if they had any validity as measures of learning or usefulness in society literally makes me ill; it is one of the reasons that I retired from teaching.

I truly believe it is, at least, unethical for educators to sabotage children’s natural hunger to learn–and, at worst, child abuse. I am deeply aggrieved by the ways that children are hurt by a system that focuses on testing that produces numerical scores rather than literacy practices that are based on the deeply human arts of reading and writing and that produce a one-of-a-kind portfolio with evidence of growth over time in reading, writing, research, speaking, listening, and reflection. I spent a lot of money at university to learn how children learn, and one thing I learned over and over is that testing is not teaching.

One of the most painful aspects of the testing takeover for me was when parents had bought into the idea that their child’s test scores were very important, and they would become angry with their child over it. I would try to explain all the good things I could see in their child’s work: the areas of strength, the unique and creative expression, the growth in their ability to think…

And sometimes I could turn the tide in that conversation, but at others, the indoctrination was too strong. The propaganda about testing is everywhere, even regarding kindergartners, who should not even be using computers, let alone becoming anxious and depressed about the computer telling them that they are somehow losers at learning. They should be learning primarily through PLAY; the research is clear that tying literacy learning to testing is harmful to young children. Likewise, high school students should have much more authentic learning and MUCH less testing and test prep.

By the time a student is in high school, they’ve faced hundreds of standardized tests, and if they’ve retained any joy for reading or learning, they’re unicorns. Most ninth grade Honor students I met identified as non-readers and believed that reading was a painful chore that nobody would willingly undertake.

The good news is that, with the right approach, most teens, even second trimester, non-reading seniors, can rekindle their love and joy for reading and learning. Kwame Alexander’s How To Read A Book is a great spark. Share it with the young people you know, gift a copy to your child’s teacher, check it out from your local library and read it with your grandkids. With this book, anyone can help a young person remember the joy they felt when they first learned to read. Few things are as valuable, if you want them to get a good education. Read on.

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Posted in: Books, Reading