Here’s the understatement of the year: Our educational system is in a state of flux.
Parents and many grandparents know first-hand the reality of this mess. Some of you have decided to homeschool your children, bought the necessary books and supplies, and now, face the challenges of that new endeavor. Others whose students remain enrolled in public or private schools are distance learning as they did this past spring, or are attending school two or three days a week and engaging in digital learning the rest of the time.
And many of you are wondering: Are my children receiving a worthwhile education? Are they keeping up? Is the new way of learning working for them?
Only you can answer those questions, but keep one thing in mind: whatever your school situation, you have the freedom to add subjects to the curriculum.
Which brings me to books and reading.
Reading and School
All too often our young people associate reading with academics and school. Most of them first learn to read in a classroom, and as they grow older, they are forced to take up unappealing books and are then compelled to take tests or write papers on what they have read.
In addition to teaching my own children at home, I spent 20 years teaching literature courses to seminars of homeschool students from grades 7-12. My students read scads of novels, plays, short stories, and poetry ranging from Sophocles’ “Antigone” to Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” from “Pride and Prejudice” to “Watership Down,” from the poetry of Emily Dickinson and John Donne to the short stories of Frank O’Connor and Rudyard Kipling. My seventh-graders even read “Calvin and Hobbes” for its excellent vocabulary and irony. Some of the students liked and profited from my selections, while others weren’t at all happy. And yes, they often wrote essays on what the books they had read.
But this isn’t the sort of reading I mean here.
Pleasures and Treasures
Adults may have to study certain books, magazines, or articles for their work, but most of us come to the printed word for amusement or for information. Bob, the history buff, encounters Shelby Foote’s “The Civil War” and falls in love with what some have called the American “Iliad.” Arthur, the guy with the 9-to-5 job at the bank, picks up the latest Lee Childs novel at a bookstore and silently cackles with glee at the pleasures awaiting him that evening. Susan, who has dreamed for years of visiting Paris, pores over the photographs and commentaries in the art and travel books she snagged from the library.
We can pass this same sense of excitement about books to our children. To do so, we must disassociate reading from the books required for the classroom. If homeschooling, in particular, we must set aside time for reading outside of the school day and treat it as we might soccer, gymnastics, or piano lessons, an activity to be enjoyed for its own sake.
Does 17-year-old James love sports of all kinds? Get him a subscription to “Sports Illustrated,” which, in addition to sports coverage, offers some of the finest writing in American magazines. Is 9-year-old Sally enamored of all things equestrian? Take her to the public library and introduce her to books, both fiction and nonfiction, about horses. Has 7-year-old Henry become fascinated by dinosaurs after his grandmother gave him a package filled with plastic replicas for his birthday? Again, off you go to the library or local bookstore, and your son will likely gulp down these books with the same enthusiasm he shows toward a bowl of ice cream.
We often forget how blessed we are living in America. We turn a spigot, and out comes water hot or cold. We push a button, and four minutes later, a microwaved meal of General Tso’s chicken appears. We push a few buttons on a cell phone, speak briefly with a teenager behind a cash register, and 20 minutes later, a pizza arrives at our doorstep.
The same forgetfulness is true of our libraries, those magical castles of stories, histories, biographies, and all sorts of other genres for children. The United States has more than 9,000 libraries, all of them eager to welcome and grant young patrons a library card. In Front Royal, Virginia, where I live and where I visit the library two or three times a week, it’s not unusual to see a mother with three or four children hauling home several bags of books. For an inveterate reader like me, this sight induces a burst of euphoria, a joy that young readers still take pleasure in print and paper.
Commence that love affair with the library when your children are toddlers. My daughter, my oldest child, was five days old on our first visit to the library in Charlottesville, Virginia, which was an easy walk from our house. Yep, a little crazy, but she remains a reader.
Toddlers and the Rest of Us
Want to have your kids become lifelong book lovers? Want to prepare them for kindergarten? Want to introduce them at the age of 2 or 3 to the great conversation of our culture?
Fill their heads with nursery rhymes and fairy tales. Let them shake hands with “Jack and Jill,” “Little Boy Blue,” “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “The Princess and the Pea,” “Cinderella,” and “Hansel and Gretel.” When they get a little older, add the fables of Aesop—“The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse,” “The Fox and the Grapes,” “The Lion and the Mouse.”
While I was teaching, I was always astounded when I would mention such rhymes and tales to my classes of homeschoolers, and find one or two who had no idea of what I was talking about. These treasures of childhood are as much a part of our literary culture as Shakespeare, Dante, or Mark Twain.
Tips for Adolescents and Teens
As our children grow older, their need to connect with others their age increases. Many of the homeschool students who attended my seminars were there not only to learn, but also to spend time with their peers. Friendships were forged or strengthened, and at least four pairs of these students later became husband and wife.
You don’t need a classroom to bring your adolescent and teen readers to books and bonds of friendship. A good many years ago, I helped form a book club, where a dozen students read the same book or story, and then met once a month to discuss that reading, with an adult asking questions and keeping the discussion on track. We followed the meeting with a social hour, and the kids had a great time.
Another idea: have students read the same book or story, and then sponsor a movie night using a film based on the book, with discussion following the movie. Did they like the way the writers adapted the story to the film? Why or why not? And why did the film’s writers and director make these changes?
One young woman I knew threw a Halloween party and invited her friends to come decked out as their favorite literary character. Some of these young people went all out, not only dressing the part but also playacting Long John Silver or Elizabeth Bennet.
A Gift for a Lifetime
Let’s end with Emily Dickinson’s poem about books:
There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul –
If we give rein to our young people in their reading—with guidance, of course—we’re preparing them for a lifetime of pleasure in the printed page and equipping them with tools they’ll need as adults. Books will strengthen their ties to the parade of humanity, past and present.
Let’s help our children become a part of that parade.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.