Passionate About Cincinnati
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The Most Important Reading Lesson You’re Probably Skipping

booksIt was a gorgeous, warm, sunny May day in the Bronx. Ninth period. Last class. And the final bell had just rung. Yet not one of my sophomores moved. Not one.

In fact, not only did they not move, not spring from their seats, not run for the door, the completely and utterly ignored the bell in all of its significant glory.
Why? What could I have possibly said to them? Did I give them the old, “I dismiss you, not the bell!” speech? Nope. Did I threaten them detention? Ha, what’s detention? Definitely not. Did I bribe them with baked goods? Nope, though this would probably have been the most likely scenario of the three.

So what gives?

Why were these students willing to sit there and listen to me? Trust me, I don’t have magical powers. I’m not cool. I am by no means the most intelligent person in the world. I also didn’t pay them. So what did I do?

I listened.

Truth is, I simply let them talk. I let them have ideas and opinions. For better or worse, I told them that they couldn’t be wrong in English class if they could defend their opinions. Then I had to teach them how to formulate an opinion.

Parents, please foster the creativity and originality you see in your child. Please. Sit with him/her. Open a book. Yes, read the book. But more importantly, ask questions. And please don’t just ask questions about colors and numbers and other factual information. Those are good, but we live in an Internet world. I realize this sounds silly but if I can’t remember what number comes after 3, I can “Google” it. And while I may never have to ask Siri what letter comes after L in the alphabet, I often wonder about other lessons. Who fought in the French and Indian War? (Not as obvious as one might think!) What are the parts of a plant cell? How do you spell preposterous? Thank you Siri.Don’t get me wrong. Facts are important. They are evidence. But facts are just so much more accessible these days. Can’t remember an actress’ name? Look it up on your phone. Don’t know where Estonia is on a map? Look it up on your IPad. Can’t recall the balance in your checking account? Look it up on your computer. Seconds. It takes seconds. We have all become walking encyclopedias. Hence, “multiple guess” (also known as multiple choice) tests just don’t do it for me.

I am not saying that memorizing the alphabet is bad. I am saying that we need to go beyond this, and it’s not as hard as you think! We need to inspire generations of professionals who are willing to take a chance. Who aren’t afraid of failure. Who are willing to think outside the box. Who aren’t beaten down by being told “No, you’re wrong.”
I was a straight A student. Mostly because I have a very good memory. If I am being honest with myself, I wish I had earned more F’s. Looking back, I’d rather be the kid who answered “Name this shape” with “Ernie” than “Square.” I was so afraid of failing, so afraid of being wrong that I never really took any chances. And I want more for my daughter. I want her to be more like her dad. I’m pretty sure my husband has never actually heard the word “No” in his life. It’s been said to him, he just hasn’t registered it. And trust me, I’m not advocating for a life without “No!” Safety is still a top priority. But when it comes to mental exploration and learning, I believe we should allow our children to explore without the fear of being shot down immediately.

So how do you foster this ability?

It’s right there in all of the books you already read to your child. You just have to go beyond the words.

Step 1: Preview the book. Look at the pictures. Look at the background. Look at the formatting.

Step 2: Based on what you see, try to think of questions that have at least TWO answers. In other words, not simple facts with right and wrong answers, but questions that will inspire critical thinking.

Step 3: Go to a quiet place. PUT YOUR PHONE DOWN. Open the book. As you’re reading, stop and ask your child the questions.

Step 4: LISTEN to your child. Ask him/her to explain why he/she answered the way he/she did. Prompt your child to give evidence. The evidence doesn’t have to make perfect sense by the way… don’t tell your child he/she is wrong, or that his/her answer isn’t possible. We learn a lot about children by listening.

Step 5: Agree or disagree with your child. Explain why you agree with his/her answer, or why you disagreed. Use evidence.

Step 6: Ask the child to respond once he/she has heard your side of the argument. Does he/she still stick to his/her ideas? Be careful that your child doesn’t just side with you automatically because you are the parent. The goal here is to foster independent thought. Your child can change his/her mind based on your argument, but shouldn’t do this ALL the time.

** Repeat as often as possible!

Let me give you some quick examples just to get you started. Take “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?”
Consider: “What color is the bear?” This question only has one answer. Your child is either right or wrong. It’s not bad to ask this question, and help your child learn colors, but the questioning should not end here.
Consider: What is the bear doing? This is a comprehension question. Once again, it only has one right answer.
Consider: Demonstrate how this bear might roar. Ok, not a question. But no matter how silly this might be, and how fun, your child is still going to make some sort of roaring noise. We’re getting closer, but still just one main response.
Consider: Why do we call a bear a mammal? Ok, definitely more challenging, and maybe not the best for a toddler, but still a question with an answer based in facts.
Consider: How would your life be different if you were a bear? Ok, now there are a bunch of different answers. Though most children will still talk about bear things. But this is called synthesis and is starting to touch on imagination and creativity.
Consider: Do you think bears should live in zoos?
Bingo. No right answer. Your child has to formulate an opinion (thesis) and then defend it (evidence). This is evaluation, and this is one of the most important gifts you can give your child–the ability to formulate a unique opinion! Now listen to your child. Challenge him/her. Ask why when he/she makes points. ONLY when your child is done, can you give your opinion. Then discuss your opinion. Have a real conversation!

And this is just the very first page of the book.

I used this strategy whenever I assigned an essay. With the new PARCC testing to prepare for, and more importantly life in general, it definitely helps to give your kids a head start. To give you some more examples from novels:

Lord of the Flies: Consider Machiavelli’s idea that “It’s better to be feared than loved.” Where do you stand?
The Great Gatsby: Choose a character and write an essay detailing that character’s past (which for most characters is never mentioned in the novel). Explain WHY the character is the way he/she is. For example, what happened to Jay Gatsby to make him the way he is in the novel? What happened to Daisy to make her the way she is? Etc. (You would have to make this part up, as very little past is mentioned.)
Fahrenheit 451: What can we do to be more social without using technology?
The Catcher in the Rye: Is Holden a victim? Expound.

I could go on and on, but I’ll stop here.

Try it out and let me know what you think! And please feel free to share your books and the questions you created in the comments below. Would also love to hear some kid responses!

One Response to The Most Important Reading Lesson You’re Probably Skipping

  1. Terri Johnson March 16, 2015 at 4:38 pm #

    Information, ideas, and advice in this essay are a gift to parents & grands…!!! Thank you, Jamie

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