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Pondering on GLBT Literature

28 Jul

GLBT themes and characters are hot in teen literature right now and this is something that I welcome. As I posted in my review of Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan (http://wp.me/pYHNm-11) I think it is important for gender variant teens to have role models that they can identify with. This issue hits close to home. I have children and friends who are GLBT and I want them live in a world that accepts them, and the unique and wonderful contributions they bring to it.  I want them to be safe and feel loved. For those of us who are straight, I believe that it is important to read books that expand our understanding and empathy.

I hesitated with writing my review of Will Grayson, Will Grayson for several weeks, because I wanted to make sure that I handled the subject with grace and sensitivity.  Clearly, homosexuality, and other gender variations, do not fit under the under the “disability” definition of exceptionality, however, I have found that many of the GLBT teens I have known are extremely gifted and talented.  By my more loose definition of “Twice Exceptional” (http://wp.me/pYHNm-B) I could argue that being GLBT adds another layer of complexity to a gifted person that deserves attention and makes it fit well into the theme of my blog. (Not that I have any problem posting about any book that I like, but I wanted to be clear of its place here.) In my experience, teens who are gifted tend to think more deeply than the average teen, and thus, they tend to be  articulate and thoughtful about their identities because they have needed to be.  It seems that for these kinds of kids, literature that speaks to them is even more important to their well being than it is to average kids.

A recent suicide of a young, gay man in my circle of community struck me very hard.  (http://usu-shaft.com/2010/homophobia-claims-another-life/) I didn’t know him, but I know many like him, with the same background, and I hurt for him, and them, and want, somehow, to speak out against the bigotry and intolerance that is hurting people.  I worry that I will alienate family and friends who believe differently than I do. But, feel it is more important to stand up for what is right and stand by those I love–a lesson that I was reminded of in Will Grayson, Will Grayson.

In addition, I don’t want to word anything in a manner that might offend my GLBT friends or family. Even the words I use seem loaded and dangerous at times. I’ve stuck with GLBT and “gender variant” in my writings even though they often feel awkward and repetitive.  I had a discussion the other day with my son who prefers to use the term “Queer” but that feels to me a bit like a white person using the “N” word. I just don’t feel comfortable using it.  And so, writing this post has taken longer than most. I have written and rewritten a number of times, trying to express my feelings the best way I can.

My son and I also talked about a recent discussion I saw on another blog that I read:  The Right Amount of Gay? (http://tinyurl.com/2vmput7) The Lambda Literary Foundation has made the decision to only give their yearly award for LGBT books to LGBT-identified authors. As a straight supporter of gay rights, I understand the sentiment. However, I am troubled by the idea that a writer can only write about his or her own identity. This begs the question: Can adults write from a teen point of view or can a woman write from a man’s point of view? My opinion is that the purpose and talent of writing is the convincingly write a character that isn’t your own.  My son felt much the same as I did on the issue.

My readings and ponderings of late have been a good jumping off point for discussion with my son, and maybe, that is the value of GLBT literature for teens. Maybe, GLBT literature will provide a place for gay and straight youth, adults and parents to meet and find understanding and compassion.  We can use it.

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The Demise of the Read-Aloud

21 Jul

I was having coffee last week with one of my favorite teachers and a dear friend., Ms. K.  We reminisced about the book “Walk Two Moons,” which she always reads at the beginning of the year because she likes how it teaches about empathy. I remembered the year that my son was in her class; he brought me the book and told me I just had to read it.  He not only loved the book, but he became an evangelist for it!

Ms. K lamented that, at her school, reading aloud is not a part of the current curriculum. The literacy program uses leveled readers and there is no place—or time for literature.  Ms. K is a tenured teacher with union backing and she just shrugs and says: “What are they going to do to me?”  She cuts into math instruction time in order to read aloud to her students every day. This is not the first time a teacher has told me that she has been told by administration that reading aloud to students in not useful or necessary.

When my kids were young, we had an elaborate reading ritual each night. My kids were spaced roughly two years apart and so we had a range of reading and comprehension levels. Typically, I began with my youngest two, reading a few board books that they had memorized and could “read” to me, then we’d move on to several picture books. Sometimes the older kids read to the younger ones.  As the younger kids drifted off my lap and played with toys on the floor at my feet, I gathered the older kids around and we’d read from chapter books.  We never seemed to be able to stop at one chapter and often, reading sessions lasted an hour or more. Sometimes I read and sometimes we took turns reading. In those years we read the Harry Potter books, The Secret Garden, His Dark Materials trilogy, The Little House books and many, many more books.  As each kid got to be about thirteen they would decide that they would rather read alone and gradually, our nightly gathering diminished in size until one day, it was gone.

Whenever other parents would ask me how I got such articulate kids, I told them how much we read together. Other factors came into play as well, I am sure, but I am convinced that my children’s success in school and life is largely due to those hours and hours we sat reading together and talking about books.

Research studies corroborate what I believe strongly about vocabulary and reading. Kids learn the majority of new and unusual words from reading. Struggling readers are at a disadvantage, because the vocabulary that they are able to decode is not as rich as they are capable of understanding. Children who are not fluent readers also read a great deal less than strong readers do. Reading aloud levels the playing field and makes interesting and varied vocabulary accessible to all students. According to Warick Elley “Vocabulary is the single best indicator of intellectual ability, and an accurate predictor of success at school.” (Elley, Warick. “New Vocabulary: How do Children Learn New Words?” Reading Forum NZ. June 1987, pp 2-4)  Elley’s article goes on to recount a study of vocabulary acquisition during read aloud, which shows convincingly that reading aloud and discussing new vocabulary is an effective way for children to learn new vocabulary.

I am very grateful to teach at a school where the needs of the child come before strict curriculum schedules, however, as an interventionist, I have limited time with students and the time I do have needs to be used as efficiently as possible. The regular classroom teachers have a lot more leeway. Although most teachers I know hate the way standardized testing dictates our teaching, we are nonetheless slaves to it. Our jobs depend on it. Not all schools dictate that teachers can’t do read aloud time, but many teachers just don’t have the time after meeting all the curriculum requirements.

Reading aloud is particularly important for kids who are at risk for academic failure.  Reading to children on the aspergers/autism spectrum, or with behavioral and emotional disorders gives parents a chance to discuss nuances of language and emotion in a non-threatening and non-personal manner. Exposure to idioms and figures of speech and discussion along the way is very helpful to kids who are literal thinkers. Children with reading disabilities typically can understand much higher levels of complexity in literature than they are able to decode on their own. Reading aloud gives them incentive to go to all the hard work of learning to read well—so that they too can read wonderful books. it is also much easier for a struggling reader to decode a familiar word or phrase. Continual exposure to dry leveled readers that are developmentally and thematically immature, with no exposure to rich language, theme and plot would discourage reading in anyone! Kids with ADHD need one-on-one reading time, which allows for movement breaks. Reading high interest books to kids with attention deficit disorders gives them practice in focusing. Gifted kids, especially younger ones, may not be able to read the books that will capture their imaginations and drive them to learn more.

I stand by my assertion that reading aloud to kids is vital, and research backs me up. I believe this move toward shoveling in standards and curriculum like we are stoking a furnace is detrimental to our kids development in life and in literacy. In the long run, we all lose out and I fear that the sheer joy of reading will gone for these kids. Given the time restraints we have in schools it is even more vital that parents read to their children every day and in copious amounts.  If you have a primary school-aged kid, your child’s teacher may not reading aloud to your child. They may not have the seniority that Ms. K has to go against the dictates of administration. This means that sharing the love of reading and books and literature and rich, beautiful language is up to you.  Read to your kids.