Sunday, May 6, 2007

Reading What They Want (Part 2)

There are so many stories.

I could tell you about the four year old boy who sneered at us in the summer of 2003, and told us that books were for "pussies". A year later, he would come running across the court to read with us, or to borrow another book about NASCAR or the World Wrestling Federation or Franklin. I could tell of the nine and ten year old boys singing - singing! - their way through a children's story. Or of the fathers with uncertain literacy skills who borrow I Spy books and Archie's Digest comics week after week.

One winter, on our rounds, we would often pass a man out gathering up shopping carts and recyclables. The man was shy and his rare verbal utterances suggested a serious cognitive delay of some kind. All the same, one morning we asked if he would like to borrow a book. He answered, "No", adding, "I can't read."

My response to this was to visit a used bookstore and purchase several coffee-table books full of interesting pictures and little or no text. Two weeks later, when we met this man, I showed him the books and asked if he would like to borrow one. He said yes and took a book with him.

The following week, we met him at his house with new coffee-table books. Standing at his door I asked, "How did you make out with the book you borrowed last week?"

He replied, "I read it."

"I can't read": "I read it". In the space of a week, this man went from being a non-reader to a reader, from alliterate to literate. There was no magic in this, and no need for hundreds of thousands of dollars. What was required, on our part, was a diversity of strategies for supporting literacy, and the freedom to innovate as we saw fit.

Of course, someone else - someone from industry or government or the dominant culture - might say he really couldn't "read". All he was doing was looking at pictures. How was he ever going to get a job and get off welfare?

Well, here's the thing. When we met him, he already had a job - gathering up shopping carts and recyclables. What he didn't have was relevant, accessible, literacy support appropriate to his personal goals and abilities.

These positive stories matter. In our reflections, we take deliberate note of the books men ask to read, and how boys incorporate literacy into their play and lives. We do this because the media has been running a constant silly and alarming story about males, young and old, in a literacy crisis.

Mind you, that story is about boys not reading assigned books, not passing an academic reading test, not keeping up with someone else's expectations. That story is not a heartening story about twelve year olds borrowing adult books on Hulk Hogan, young men decoding Tupac to their own satisfaction, or middle-aged men discovering themselves to be readers with the aid of coffee-table books. It is not a story about the functional, self-directed literacy of males who read because, in that moment, they see value in the text before them.

We could use a few more of these affirming stories.

Send me one. I'll post it here.

I know some guys who'd enjoy reading it.

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