The Power of Reading: My response to Neil Gaiman’s ‘Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming’

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Reading Rainbow was the bomb...

Reading Rainbow was the bomb…

As a teacher, (and a young one at that),  I often wonder what makes schooling today so much different than when I was in school. No matter where I’ ve taught ( charter or public school, Urban or Suburban…) , its all so very different than when I was in school, which was again, not that long ago ( graduated in ’07’) !      So, I was pretty moved after reading Neil Gaiman’s lecture in the Guardian
 ( http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/15/neil-gaiman-future-libraries-reading-daydreaming)  I think it touches on I i’ve  why the gap between educational experiences is ever widening.
One of the main differences I’ve seen is the school culture around reading and appreciating fiction has vastly changed… whether through the take over of standardized testing or the push for an English curriculum that values informational texts over creative texts; its impacts are far reaching and speak volumes about what how we see ourselves and connect to each other.   I remember reading endlessly and being read to from all teachers in all subjects, I remember being the audiance to several school sponsered puppet shows, storytellers, and fairytale events.   I remember library being an actual class where we learned to work the card cataloge and put together multistep projects and work as a team.
reading in the 90's was wicked awesome!

reading in the 90’s was wicked awesome!

What is interesting to me is that as a Palestinian woman  growing up in post 9/11 America, I didnt realize that is wasn’t my work as an undergrad antiwar activist or as a spokesperson for students for justice in Palestine that was going to spark a revolution, but my imaginiation that will. How empowering it is to be reminded that one of the most revolutionary things I could be doing right now is exactly what I’ve worked on and wanted to do all my life; “make stuff up and write it down”.
ok, so what this wasnt a book? still pretty great...

ok, so what this wasnt a book? still pretty great…

When Gaiman states, “We need our children to get onto the reading ladder: anything that they enjoy reading will move them up, rung by rung, into literacy” I am reminded of how I was taught to teach- just hook kids into reading anyways, anyhow… ( so I had creative control and freedom of what I was teaching them)    It was life or death…  and for the group of students I primary taught it was.  It didnt matter if I got teens reading graphic novels, or those hood novels which some schools thought were too violent…just get them to read!  Now its about reading informational articles that are short and boring as hell… last year, the public school had me teaching a scripted cooperate program ( so much for creative freedom or even professional respect) about polar bear habitats to English language learners in the 7th grade.  This was supposed to be an English class… and yes getting poor students  of color in Providence reading is life or death:
                      “The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners  are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn’t read. And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure.”
The most important thing reading did for me anyways is to build empathy with others.  I didnt know a lick of English when I immigrated from Kuwait and didn’t understand a thing about American culture.  Needless to say there were times growing up I felt awkwardly lonely and very misunderstood. Gaiman says that [reading helps] “you get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well.”  That other world, for me, was America.
Alex Mack was the BEST

Alex Mack was the BEST

He goes to say, “you’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.”
I certainly was.
I learned about the Black struggle through fiction, about slavery and immigration and other wars and other times besides my own.  I wasn’t simply born political by way of nationality as others like to joke ( Ive known many a palestinian with sucky politics…) Reading helped me form my own thoughts and ideas about the way things could be.  Reading provided me with the background and the historical context I needed to build from, its not only personal experiences that shape one’s politics, its all these things and more.
 Reading fiction assured me I wasnt alone, that I had a place, that there were others out there like me who I could one day connect with, organize with, change the world with… This was revolutionary given how cut off my mom and I lived from any Arab or Muslim community, how sedated my suburban white environment actually was and how drowning that felt as a youth.  Reading was my savoir, the key that unlocked the wider world and my future possibilities.  More than anything reading fiction gave me hope, it taught me that “the world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.”
My son and his friend with Big Nazo puppets at PRONK festival, imagining a different world...

My son and his friend with Big Nazo puppets at PRONK festival, imagining a different world…

Gaiman goes on to talk about reading as a form of escapism, arguing that “escapist fiction opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.”  As a child witness to war and domestic violence and now as a teacher of students with varying levels of  trauma, Ild agree that reading is certainly a real way to cope with and in turn, change reality.
I wholeheartidly reccommend reading Gaiman’s lecture.  Here’s the link again: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/15/neil-gaiman-future-libraries-reading-daydreaming
                      “Fiction is the lie that tells the truth, after all” and the truth is, all of us, whether or not we are teachers or writers, have the power to imagine and create a better world and the obligation to provide for others to do the same.
Sunset over Providence

Folks marching at Providence PRONK festival

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