Sunday, January 27, 2013

A Spectacle of Reading

“Would you like a hug, a high-five, or a handshake?” 

The preschooler took up her teacher’s offer of a high-five, having successfully read all three sentences on the board by herself.

“Now give your brain a kiss.” 

At the teacher’s encouragement, the preschool girl kissed her hand and tapped it on her head. It may very well have been the cutest thing I have ever seen.

This ritual of reward marks the end of each of the preschoolers turns at the board, whether they read the whole text, or simply identify letters that they know. [...]

The point is that each student is rewarded for the act of reading, a special event marked by the donning of oversized Harry Potter-esque spectacles and the acquisition of a long finger-pointer. 

As each child steps up to the board, peering through the large black-rimmed frames, they take on a certain somberness: this is important, their serious faces seem to say. This moment, separated out from singing B-I-N-G-O, playing name games, and eating lunch, is special: each preschooler is marked as important by the accoutrements of spectacles and pointer, and the rest of the class sits remarkably silent as words are sounded out, letters identified, and sentences formed. The act of reading not only merits reward—one of three alliterative options, reiterating language skills even after the event—but also special attention. The apotheosis of reading equated with success, for now the simple success of deserving to give your brain a kiss.

I was overwhelmed by adorableness as I sat observing the class at A.O. Sexton Elementary in Hyde Park, Chicago. One of my fellow Jumpstart members, who had also come in early that day to help out in the classroom, turned to me: “this is my favorite part!” she whispered. 

Perhaps it’s nostalgia for days when my own elementary school reading was constituted as an event which deserved a reward, but I couldn’t help but agree. This moment seemed somehow more important than the literacy-developing activities we did during Jumpstart sessions, not because it was necessarily more effective, but because it marked so clearly to preschoolers how very important, almost sacred, the acting of reading can be.

At present, that sacredness takes the form of studying, analyzing, and discussing texts in graduate English classes, a practice which requires a great deal of critical thinking and generally involves a lot less hugging. Certainly, different skills are more valuable, and rewards still exist—grades being the most obvious one, if the least exciting—but observing reading in preschool made me remember the way I once reveled in the moment of reading itself.

When the Harry Potter books were initially published, I read and reread them nightly: literally every night, tucked under my covers, flashlight in hand, spectacles (much more nerdy bifocals than Harry’s now hipster-cool frames) on, I would relish in the sheer act of reading. The reward? Taking part in magical adventures that seemed strangely to speak directly to my own elementary-school consciousness (with perhaps the exceptions of wizards, witches, flying broomsticks, magical potions, and castles).

My obsession with (re)reading Harry Potter wasn’t simply a matter of relating to the books. It was about knowing how to turn symbols on a page into words and then into narratives; it was about marking my ability to do this as important because it was enjoyable simply for its own sake.

While I can’t accept this as a sufficient reason for my present study of literature—and the financial and career implications that are naturally tied up with it—I do think there is something to be said for at least acknowledging reading as a skill which should be noted and rewarded simply for its own sake. Reading need not always be something which one must defend in practical terms, or dismissed for not fulfilling some use, but rather it can be an event, set aside from other activities as both enjoyably serious and seriously enjoyable, an event which can act as giving your brain a kiss.

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