Saturday, December 3, 2011

Why Reading To Kill a Mockingbird Will Help When it Comes Time to Read Conceptual Physics

Part 1

This morning, I came downstairs to spy the husband sitting in our dilapidated rocking chair in front of the television wearing a headset in order to talk to strangers online.

I cannot express how disturbed I am by this development.

Yesterday, John bought a wireless router so we could access Netflix through his Xbox. Unfortunately, this means subscribing to Xbox Live. If you have Xbox Live, you can play arcade games with other people live over the internet- through the television. If he starts playing Warcraft, I am going run off and become a lounge singer on a cruise ship. He wasn’t even excited about all the Gregory Peck movies we could watch right in a row! Or the karaoke features! He just wants to play hockey with 12-year olds who swear at him if he fails to prevent the opposing forwards from screening his goalie.

In my next life, I am going to marry someone whose idea of gaming is playing Scrabble on a Friday night. Good grief.

In other horrible news, we moved the television from the basement up into the playroom, which means we have two TVs on the first floor. The Wii is in the playroom, and the Xbox is in the living room, which means when I came downstairs, everyone in the house was playing video games.

Video games, of course, are not inherently bad in themselves, and I guess have some “benefits,” like in that 80s movie where the boy’s impressive gaming skills get him recruited to battle in an intergalactic war.

Of course, as a mom, I am naturally concerned that TV, video games, and other forms of technology are turning my kids’ brains into the consistency of the gruel served to Oliver Twist in Dickens’ classic.

“What’s gruel?” asks Ben.

“Kind of like porridge.”

“What’s porridge?”

“What the three bears ate.”

“Oh, yeah! That stuff is good!”

(I assume he decided that based on contextual evidence.)

Part 2

While some argue that the reading and writing kids do online “counts,” I am suspicious. And here’s why: reading a friend’s poorly conceived e-mail or participating in online forums or threads on Facebook does not develop the critical reading skills kids need to succeed.

I’m a huge fan of fiction: it’s fun, it allows kids to learn to sit in one place and read for an extended period of time, improves analytical thinking, expands vocabulary, improves memory, and helps kids become better writers. However, other types of literature, including comic books, magazines, and non-fiction books achieve these same goals.

Online reading doesn’t generally improve critical thinking skills. Since most kids aren’t logging on to The Atlantic or online literary journals, they are susceptible to the strategies websites use to get readers on to their website. Strategies include writing short paragraphs that are written around “keywords,” lists, emboldened headings, low-level vocabulary, and water-downed pieces of information people can scan to get the gist of the message. And then, there are the built-in links that drive online users from one page to the next, where eventually they become lost in cyberspace. There is no discernable ending when reading online, and time is literally sucked up into a vacuum as we aimlessly wander through a virtual world of our own creation.

Yes, digital literacy is a valuable asset in today’s technology-driven world, but are kids really gleaning valuable, factual information while web-surfing on their own? Outside of the classroom, kids troll YouTube, Facebook, celebrity sites, and personal blogs. Sure, you can find an answer to a question a lot faster on the internet than by visiting the library, but how do kids know if that source is reliable? I love this quote from a NY Times article:

Web readers are persistently weak at judging whether information is trustworthy. In one study, Donald J. Leu, who researches literacy and technology at the University of Connecticut, asked 48 students to look at a spoof Web site ( about a mythical species known as the “Pacific Northwest tree octopus.” Nearly 90 percent of them missed the joke and deemed the site a reliable source.
Extensive web-surfing fosters extremely short attention spans. The average time a person spends on a web page? 27 seconds. In a rush, we search for the answer to our question, then click on an advertisement that proclaims to have pictures of Ashton Kutcher’s latest tryst. (The pictures were questionable, by the way.)

If kids don’t grow up reading books, they miss out on developing critical thinking skills. When they get to college and a professor gives them a reading assignment, a lot of freshman can’t do it. They don’t know how. If they can’t sit still and read the first chapter of To Kill a Mockingbird, how are they going to read two pages of Conceptual Physics? How are they going to be able to dissect and respond to case studies, poetry, historical documents, and political science articles?

In short, if the future of mankind places extreme value in virtual hockey playing, intergalactic starfighting, finding songs on YouTube in less than 10 seconds, and cyber-bullying, by all means, let’s allow our kids to spend unprecedented amounts of time gaming, web-surfing, and texting. However, if the future still calls for doctors, physicists, engineers, novelists, poets, teachers, and lawyers, we should temper gaming and surfing with reading. (Maybe not the lawyers.  Unless they are like Atticus Finch, played by Gregory Peck in the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird.)

Part 3

The best way to foster a love of books in your kids is to:

1. Read to them.
2. Read in front of them.
3. Provide them with interesting reading materials.

(In the husband’s defense, his nose is in a book as often as or perhaps more often than he’s in front of the Xbox.)

I’ve been reading the boys A Christmas Carol, because of the holiday season and also because of a possibly premature and over-zealous desire to introduce them to Dickens. We stop a lot because they want to know what words mean.

“What does frigid mean?” asks Ben.

“Let’s see if you can figure it out. I’m so frigid! Brrrr!”

(A snicker comes from a corner of the room.)


The boys are really enjoying the book, even though it’s a bit beyond a first and third-grade reading level.

“It’s like that movie, Monster House!” says Ben.

“I would never wear tights. Even if I lived back then,” says Caleb.

The other night, we unwittingly allowed Caleb to stay up past 11:00 on a school night. He was reading Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen.

I’ve never been so proud.

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1 comment:

Toaster said...

I can't believe you mentioned one of my favorite 80s movies, The Last Starfighter! :)

But, more importantly, VIGGO!!!