Thursday, February 26, 2015
Who cheers for the reader? How we can help our kids win
Published in the Springfield Republican newspaper:
By David Mazor
Take a look around at the high school basketball game and you'll find plenty of parents, relatives, friends, and teachers cheering on the athletes who devote their time and effort to excellence on the court. It's no mystery why. We understand that people perform better with the strong support of a community. The recognition and approval of our families and friends is a marker of success and a strong driver of achievement.
But when a struggling reader rises to the challenge of finishing a book, who cheers? This is far from a rhetorical question. To the contrary, anyone with a stake in the literacy of the next generation – all of us – should see this as a very practical question.
The young people in middle and high school right now are developing the habits that they will carry with them into adulthood, and learning the values that they will pass along to their own children. When we cheer them on and celebrate their achievement at athletic events, we reinforce the effort, teamwork, and determination they show on the court. Is it any less important that we celebrate academic victories?
The research is pretty stark about why we should not only be cheering but making proficiency in reading a top priority among our school-age population. In Massachusetts alone, generally considered near the top of the list nationally when it comes to education, some 43% of third graders read below proficiency. And if we look at the original eleven gateway cities in Massachusetts, mid-sized cities targeted by the Commonwealth in 2011 around closing the gap in education outcomes, the average rate of third graders reading below proficient in these cities is 63%.
The numbers aren't any better nationally, as the Annie E. Casey Foundation reports that 66% of fourth graders in the United States are reading below proficiency. If there was ever a time for a call to action on reading, the fundamental building block for all learning, it is now.
I've learned that creating a supportive culture of reading is an essential and necessary piece of the solution, and is the reason why I started the public charity Reader to Reader, that at least anecdotally is seeing some encouraging progress.
Since 2002, Reader to Reader has been donating books to the poorest schools and libraries across the nation and around the world. We know that students who grow up lacking reading material face an uphill climb later, when reading becomes essential for high school, SAT and ACT, and college itself. Along the way we learned that, without a culture that supports and values reading, there is only so much the books themselves can do.
In 2007, in an effort to improve circulation in a poor, rural high school library, we tried an intervention that seemed so simple: We asked struggling high school readers to choose books to read, then gave copies of those books to college-age reading mentors. We gave each mentor-mentee pair a secure online space to correspond about the book, and we trained the mentors to be friendly, supportive, and encouraging. The results were compelling. Students loved reading with college mentors, and they formed strong bonds beyond the book discussion itself, often asking questions about college life.
Eight years later, that program is called Read, Think, Share, and it has served thousands of young readers. It was part of the school day for more than 1,000 middle and high school students in 2014. The program has proved replicable, having been used in both rural and urban schools. In addition, its growth and scalability have been a direct consequence of its popularity among college students as a way to be involved in the community.
It became clear to us early on that this seemingly simple intervention offered a sophisticated set of benefits to the struggling reader: a role model for the importance of reading, a mentor for guided discussion, and someone to cheer for them when they finish a book. Actually, it gives a student many people to cheer for them, because Read, Think, Share gets classroom teachers, reading specialists, and administrators involved in the program.
There is no single way to overcome the challenges that students face when it comes to reading. Economic circumstances, language barriers, and individual learning differences may all contribute to a student's struggle to read at grade level. But every striving reader needs a cheer, a pat on the back, someone to tell them they have accomplished something worthwhile, and worth taking pride in.
In the end, we get more of what we reward, so cheer for the hardworking athlete who just won the big game. But remember the hardworking student who just scored a big victory by reading a book, and cheer your heart out. America's future success depends on it.
David Mazor is the founding executive director of Reader to Reader, a 501(c)(3) public charity based in Amherst, Massachusetts that is engaging students, teachers and school districts nationally around literacy. In 2011, he was recognized as a Massachusetts Literacy Champion.