Monday, May 9, 2011

To read (in the summer), or not to read? That is the question.

As the final installment to my literacy series this year, I would like to outline some tangible ways to promote reading during the summer holidays.

For most of us adults, one of the great joys of any vacation is to read a compelling book uninterrupted by the mundane tasks that normally occupy our lives. Although I am quite dogged about reading for pleasure every day, I realize many people simply do not make reading a daily priority. This leaves the holiday period for catching up on unfinished novels or tearing through the latest thriller or biography. However, I realize this is not always the case for all of our children.

LCC is fortunate to have a strong core of students who are avid readers. Nevertheless, some of our students would prefer to do just about anything else than read. We are doing our best to promote reading through greater choice of texts in literature circles, the school-wide books selected by the LCC Reads Committee and the reading lists at every grade level. As English teachers, we understand that reading is based more on preference and interest than on proscription. This is why we are moving away from studying only core texts and in the direction of greater choice.

In collaboration with the librarians and students, we in the English Department choose books for the reading lists that we feel are age appropriate and span a variety of reading interests and abilities. We strongly encourage students to consider carefully the choices they make by doing some Internet research and talking to older students about the books they enjoyed. Also, at the beginning of the school year, students share the books they have read over the summer, thereby promoting texts to their peers.

Although the choice of text is the single most important factor in a student’s successful completion of a book, there are other ways you can help at home to encourage your children to read over the summer. One idea you might explore is a technology- and activity-free hour every day. Set aside one hour when everyone in the family is quietly reading a book. This program, known more formally as “Drop Everything And Read” (“DEAR”), is an excellent way to promote reading. Parents model good reading habits and children spend more time in front of a book than they would normally in front of a screen. If you institute this regimen, you may encounter initial resistance. However, if you stick with it, I guarantee you will see positive results.

Some parents have an aversion to rewards systems; nonetheless, I would encourage you to celebrate your children’s reading achievements. You could establish a rewards program, whereby when your child finishes a book or a certain number of books you reward him/her with something special. I do warn you to make sure your child has actually read the book by asking a few questions. If you are reading the same text, which I highly recommend, you will have knowledge of the contents. If you have not read the book, you can scan the text, read the blurb and do a little Internet research. Open-ended questions, like “What did you like/dislike about the book?” or “What did you learn from the central character?,” work best, as they allow your child to speak freely about what they have read.

I have mentioned in previous articles that reading to your children is a very positive way to promote reading. Even teenagers enjoy listening to adults read books aloud. I would suggest you choose humorous or action-packed books for this activity. Reading a book in a serial fashion can create a desire for the next installment. Therefore, I would suggest you always try to read to a section in the book that will have your children craving more—a cliffhanger moment, for example.

For long car rides, I strongly recommend talking books. Of course, you will need to choose texts that appeal to everyone in the family. If you need advice on appropriate texts, I would suggest you speak with librarians, teachers, family friends and book store employees. Listening to a great story will wile away the long hours you may spend traveling to your vacation destination.

Above all, as I have written before, make reading a fun and pleasurable activity in your family. Summer reading can enhance students’ skills and foster their appreciation for (and, ideally, their love of) the written word. However, if it is seen as a chore or something only to be “done for school,” resistance will mount. If all else fails, you may want to share with your child the immortal words of Groucho Marx: “I find television to be very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go in the other room and read a book.” Enjoy the halcyon days, everyone.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Death, Disaster and Warfare: Have a Nice Day!

In recent days, we have witnessed the devastation of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, intense socio-political upheaval in the Middle East and the absurd meltdown of Charlie Sheen. Of course, the latter is inane, not life-threatening to anyone but Sheen himself (and perhaps a few suicidal “Sheenites”) and a clear reflection of the madness of popular culture, Twitter, etc. However, the former two news items affect vast populations of people; their ripple effects are global and significant. At times like these, it is easy to lose perspective and think, “OMG, the sky is falling!” And for some the sky is falling—in the form of nuclear radiation; therefore, I do not intend to make light of their plight.

In any event, curious to learn more about the relative human effects of natural disasters and warfare, I did a little Wikipedia research and discovered that Mother Nature and Father War have wreaked far greater havoc with lowly Humankind than we have seen in the past month or so. For example, the Shaanxi earthquake of 1556 killed an estimated 830,000 people. I’m not sure about the fidelity of record-keeping back then, but that’s a whopping big number any way you slice it. More recently, in 2004, the Indonesian earthquake and tsunami wiped out about 230,000 individuals—and it’s only sixth on the list of earthquake “genocides.” The current death toll in the Middle East conflicts in Egypt and Libya (and several other countries) is in the tens of thousands. It is no surprise that WWII, including the Sin-Japanese War, takes the laurel wreath for this one, with an estimated death toll of anywhere from forty to seventy million. These figures are staggering: double the current population of Canada!

As I was perusing these figures, I came across some other little tidbits that gave me pause. Did you know that the Aztecs are alleged to have ritually sacrificed upwards of 1.5 million of their own? The European colonization of Africa and Asia (from the late 1700s to the late 1900s) killed an estimated high of sixty million souls. And the European colonization of the Americas, apparently ongoing from 1492, has killed an estimated high of 200 million people.

What is my point? Whereas Mother Nature is indifferent towards disasters and genocide, Father War has a vested interest in warfare and annihilation. Of course, this is the big difference: the former (Carl Jung’s anima) is natural and not pre-ordained; the latter (animus) is unnatural and willful. Will there always be warfare and natural disasters? I would be willing to wager heavily on the positive response to this question. No matter how much we would like to think otherwise, we cannot control Human or Mother Nature. Stuff happens. And if you don’t believe the facts, just look at Charlie Sheen…

Monday, March 14, 2011

Air Canada Gets It...

Air Canada gets it

Air Canada did what the NHL failed to do: send a clear message on head shots. If more corporate sponsors spoke up in this fashion, the league would be forced to take action. The beautiful sport of hockey is being marred by selfish, violent acts and, consequently, losing some of its best players, e.g., Sidney Crosby.

Brian Moore


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Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Right to Know

The right to know

(“Secret Society” series) Thank you to Peggy Curran and the editorial staff for addressing mismanagement of public monies. As taxpayers, we should have the right to access information on the allocation of all public expenditures. Without transparent accountability in Quebec, corruption will continue to flourish, our hard-earned salaries will continue to be ravaged by increased taxes and the average person will not be able to sustain the mounting tax burden. The province’s privacy and access to information laws should protect the individual taxpayer, not corrupt politicians and those who benefit from their lust for power and greed.

Brian Moore N.D.G.

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© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Happy Reading in 2011

Now that the excitement of the holidays has abated and we settle back into our normal routines, we have an opportunity to re-establish the daily reading practices we might have cast aside during the pressure-packed social season.

Parents ask me about creating a reading climate in the home—an invaluable asset for personal and intellectual growth. Although there is not one tried and true approach, I can offer some suggestions that will assist you in fostering and, in some cases, re-kindling (pardon the pun) your child’s interest in reading.

I have mentioned in previous articles that it is imperative to begin by focusing on your child’s passions. If your son or daughter is an avid hockey fan, for example, you can start with the Sports section of The Montreal Gazette. You can share with your child articles that you find interesting, whether they be Red Fisher’s “Red Line” on Saturdays or Stephanie Myles’ daily column that gleans entertaining items from other sources. You may want to give your child a subscription to Sports Illustrated for Kids, Sports Illustrated or Hockey News. Sports biographies and autobiographies are also excellent resources for stimulating young fans’ interest in reading. Of course, I am referring only to the world of hockey. However, you can find print material and online resources for any hobby or activity your child finds fascinating.

To adapt Ernest Hemingway’s famous phrase, all one needs is a “clean, well-lighted place” to cozy up with a good book, magazine, newspaper or e-reader. In fact, you don’t even need light if you have an Apple iPad. Create attractive spaces in your home away from the television where you and your children can read either alone or together. As reading is usually a private act, reading nooks tend to be the most desirable areas for snuggling up on a cold winter’s evening to enjoy the pleasures of an alluring story. In any event, a comfortable chair or sofa and light are the bare necessities.

As e-readers become more popular, books and bookshelves may eventually disappear. Although this reality makes me sad, as I am an avowed bibliophile with a personal library of about two thousand books, I realize that technologies change. After all, we are no longer reading papyrus scrolls. However, creating a home library over time is a wonderful way to foster reading. Not only is a wall of books attractive, but it also contains millions of words and ideas that may be absorbed by your family. A library is a sanctuary, a physical space that cannot be replaced by an electronic screen.

Finally, show your children that reading is a worthwhile activity. Once they are beyond the age of bedtime stories, continue to model good reading habits. Read on a daily basis. Talk about the books you are reading. Leave good books lying around for your children to pick up in a casual way. Take your children to the local library and bookstore. Above all, show them that reading is a positive, fun activity. Readers tend not to be bored or lonely, as they can always find stimulation and companionship in the printed word. In the immortal words of Groucho Marx, “Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read.”

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

How to Combat Reading Lags

According to reading specialist Paul Kropp (Canadian author of How to Make Your Child a Reader for Life), children tend to experience reading lags as they begin elementary school, again around grade four and, finally, when they enter high school. Although the reasons for these lags are not absolute, severable variables are at play.

When children undergo significant transitions, e.g., parent-child separation upon school entrance or moving to a new school, daily routines like reading at bedtime may become disrupted. In the case of boys, peer influences may supersede activities like reading. Around ages eight to ten, boys begin to view reading as “uncool” and prefer to engage in physical and tactile activities, like sports and video games. In early adolescence, when boys and girls are going through puberty, their interests turn to one another and away from books.

Parents often ask me what they can do to combat these reading lags. Rest assured, children who live in literate households where the printed word is valued will pass through these reading lulls and return to their love of books with very little prompting from their parents. If your child falls into this category, I would recommend patience, some gentle prodding, like recommending books, and continuing to practice the literate approach you have already cultivated. Trust me, they will come around in mid- to late-adolescence. Forcing the issue too much may backfire, as teenagers are more likely to do the polar opposite of what their parents suggest. As a father of four and a teacher of many over the years, I can also advise you against reverse psychology. Our children are far too smart to be taken in by our legerdemain.

The following concrete suggestions should help you combat the dreaded reading lag.

The first step is to create a home atmosphere where books, magazines and newspapers are the norm, not the exception. Even though all newspapers are available online, subscribe to a daily paper. The newspaper is often the only print our children see us reading for pleasure during the day. Eventually, they will become curious enough to read the paper themselves. Doing the daily puzzles and reading the cartoons, especially with your children, are also fun ways to interact with the paper. The Gazette offers a weekly page for young students that includes word games and puzzles. In addition, subscribe to magazines for yourself and your children. Just as you may be fascinated by current events and read The Economist, your child may be passionate about sports and read Sports Illustrated. (There is even a Sports Illustrated for Kids.)

Engaging in literate activities outside the home is also extremely important. The cheapest and easiest way to do this is to take advantage of your local library. Going to the library with your child on a regular basis is a great way to cultivate the love of reading, not to mention a very pleasant parent-child experience. Libraries also offer cultural activities, reading clubs and competitions that may stimulate your child. Although they may be more expensive, occasional trips to a bookstore are imperative. Letting your children purchase their own books indicates that you value books and respect their interests. As teenagers often do not want to be seen with their parents, you may want to just make sure their library card is current and give them gift certificates to Chapters on an annual basis, for example.

Although this may seem odd to you, continuing to read with and to your children throughout adolescence is a positive way to combat the reading lag. Share the books you are reading, but do not foist them on your unwilling children. When you are commuting or going on family road trips, listen to audio books. Talk about books, current events and popular culture at the family dinner table. Show your children that you are interested in their passions. Above all, be an active reader yourself and leave plenty of reading material lying around the house.

Knowing and cultivating your children’s interests will reap life-long benefits. Supplementing their passions through reading, whether it be books about the sports they play or their favorite singer or actor, is an excellent way to show them you care about what they care about and to get to know your children on a deeper level. If you sense a reading lag, do not despair or overreact, simply follow the guidelines I have outlined above. However, whatever you do, do not tell them I said so. Remember, they are intelligent beings who sense overt attempts to improve them. Nonchalant subterfuge is often the best approach.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Importance of the "Gateway" Book

In The Book that Changed my Life, seventy-one writers reflect on the texts that had the biggest influence on them when they were children, adolescents or young adults. Some, like novelist Elizabeth Berg, whose life was changed by reading Catcher in the Rye, cite a single volume: “I couldn’t sit still after I read that book. It was the literary aphrodisiac to end all literary aphrodisiacs.” Others, like Yale University’s Harold Bloom, cannot nominate just one book. The closest he can get is the complete works of Shakespeare. Regardless, all fledgling writers have literary epiphanies that compel them to create their own works, whether they are poems, essays, plays, novels, articles or blogs.

Even if one does not become a professional writer, the pleasures of reading engender the enduring benefits of learning about the human condition, experiencing the lives of others, both real and fictional, and gaining knowledge about the myriad mysteries of life, our world and the universe. Whether one is reading in print or online, the experience gives one the comfort that no one is alone and the awareness that knowledge is limitless. As the poet Billy Collins observes, “We read in order to travel, or be borne, to that other place [beyond our own reality] and thus interrupt the curse of having only one life to lead.”

Even though I lived in a literate household with plenty of printed material lying around for the taking, I would not have classified myself as a serious reader prior to my mid-teens. I like to share with my students that my life-altering book was Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. When I read this novel in 1974, at the impressionable age of fifteen, I had the sudden insight that reading can be a pleasurable activity, not a chore or something I had to do only for school. Vonnegut’s satirical and somewhat taboo sense of humour appealed to me in a way that no other writer’s sensibility had up to that point. From that book on, I was hooked. Thirty-six years later, words still transport my imagination to places and states of mind I may never experience otherwise.

On some level, perhaps instinctively, I have come to realize that reading is highly personal and based entirely on one’s interests and personality. This is why I always counsel parents to find books that will appeal to their children’s passions. The fire of reading can be lit by a single text, so do your best as a parent to search out titles that will provide the spark. If you are having trouble locating this “gateway” book, contact, your child’s teachers and school librarians, your local library or bookstore. I maintain that every child can become an avid reader, but only if he or she associates reading with pleasure, not drudgery. If a person gets hooked on books, the habit of reading will become second nature and intellectual growth will be a matter of course. And, to paraphrase Dr. Seuss, who knows the places they will go…