Reading, like riding a bike, takes practice

This column first appeared in The Nevada Appeal, February 19, 2003 while I was still working as a literacy specialist at an elementary school.

#teaching #readtoyourbabies #children

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How is learning to read like learning to ride a bike? Recently my fellow literacy coaches and I pondered that question at a class on the importance of motivation in learning to read. I took lots of notes as my colleagues talked about what they know best: children and reading.

First, learning to read and learning to ride a bike can both be a little wobbly at first. You make mistakes; you lose your balance. You don’t go very fast. You stop and start a lot. There is a certain level of physical readiness and integration of systems necessary—eyes and ears and other body parts must work together. You must pay attention to things like left and right, forward and backward, up and down. Many actions are going on at once and none of them is automatic yet. Not every child learns to ride a bike (or read a book) at the same age. Some learn as early as five, some at ten. Or later.

Training wheels are necessary. Having a grown-up there to catch you really helps. Training wheels for young readers are things like repetitive patterns, rhymes and pictures that support the text and carry meaning. Or someone whispering in your ear as you point to the words.

Riding and reading are also cultural. There are probably neighborhoods or families where bicycles (or books) are rare. Perhaps you only ride a bike (or read) at your grandma’s house twice a year. If so, it may take you longer to learn. Consistent practice is important.

Nevertheless, one thing is for certain, when someone thinks it is time for you to ride a bike, he or she does not start out by giving you one piece at a time, a wheel, a seat, or flashcards naming the parts of the bike. They give you a whole bike and put your seat on the seat, your feet on the pedals, and your hands on the handlebars. And as you start off, they hold on to you, and give you little instructions and words of encouragement. Maybe they even give you a little push. Nevertheless, you are riding the bike. Likewise, beginning readers need to have their hands on books.

Understanding the physics of motion and balance is not critical to riding proficiently. After all, whether it’s balancing on two little wheels or making those little squiggles on a page tell stories, the whole idea is pretty incredible. Some things you learn by feel. You take them on faith.

In both reading and riding, you learn the rules of the road. You slow down or speed up depending on the conditions of the road or the purposes for reading. You watch for traffic, stop signs, bumps in the road. When the going gets tough, you slow down and concentrate. Good readers watch for punctuation, bold print, illustrations, and captions.

Riding a bike and reading can take you places. They give you freedom to investigate new places and new ideas. Some of them are off the main highway; they might even be dangerous. We all take a wrong turn now and then. We stop, look around and start again.

Furthermore, there is a wide range in our ability to, and our interest in, riding a bike. Most of us learn to ride a bike, but few of us ride like Lance Armstrong. We ride to the market or to work. Maybe we ride to be with friends. Some of us love the exertion of powering up a mountain trail and the thrill of roaring down the other side. Some of us only ride on level, paved streets. And some of us haven’t ridden in years. Similarly, we choose to read what we enjoy or what we find useful.

But what keeps you practicing? What makes you try again, even after skinned knees and stitches? Perhaps it is because—if you were lucky—someone gave you a ride when you were little, maybe on a baby seat behind a bicycling parent. Or you’ve seen your older brothers or sisters pedaling like the wind, laughing. You want to be like the other kids, wheeling around, having fun, escaping boundaries, exploring the world. Yes, it’s hard at first, but you keep at it. You know you can do this. The faster you go, the smoother the ride and the more pleasurable. It gets easier.

Finally, both reading and riding are best learned when you are young and once you’ve learned you never forget. Both stay with you forever.

So, how about a ride? Don’t forget to bring the kids.

Dreyer’s full of humor and style

Dreyer's English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by [Dreyer, Benjamin]

I first bought the Kindle edition after it was recommended at a writing workshop. However, about halfway through all his delightful footnotes, I realized I needed a hard copy to sit on my shelf next to The Elements of Style. Benjamin Dreyer is that good. Readers, writers, and word nerds of all sorts will enjoy his conversational, snappy (sometimes snarky) commentary on what seems to be the moving target of proper English usage, capitalization, and punctuation.

I’ve even shared some tidbits with my nine-year-old granddaughter. Do you know when “flyer” is the correct spelling and when it’s “flier”? We do, now.

Recommend, but just go ahead and buy the hard copy.

 

 

Book Report: A hero with a passion for public service

41nczJM0fwLThe Salvation of San Juan Cajon

Last month at my 50th high school reunion, I chatted with a Michael G. Vail, a classmate who had just published his first novel. And since I know how difficult it is for unknown writers to get the word out about their books, I bought it and read it.

The title and lack of cover art gave me no clue as to the genre or subject matter. A spy thriller? Historical fiction? A military saga? So, I just started reading, hoping I could review it positively.

I am relieved to say that I can.

It turns out to be a modern heroic tale. Think Don Quixote living in Southern California in the late 20th century. Our unlikely hero, workaholic Micah Wada, is a facilities planner for the San Juan Cajon School District which is facing the impossible situation of massive overcrowding and nowhere to grow. Contentious factions, including the school board, city hall, California State Legislature, and the diverse population of the community must come to consensus or lose funding for a proposed and much needed new high school. Economic, cultural, and racial issues are pitted against each other. And then there is a suspicious death of a prominent woman.

Micah is a widower and has built his very successful professional life around solving such problems, but his failure as a father gnaws at his conscience. His teenage son ran away four years ago and he has no idea where he is.

If you have ever worked for a school or municipality, or wondered why public projects take forever to accomplish–this story will likely resonate with you. Mike’s insider knowledge–borne of a career as a manager of facilities and construction for some of California’s largest school districts—illuminates the challenges of balancing conflicting interests for the greater good.

Mike even left room at the end to carry the story forward. Good job!

Book report: The Founding Father without a father

51X4L0OiziL._SY346_Whew. I finally finished the EPIC Alexander Hamilton. Ron Chernow did a masterful job here, however the sheer weight of the 818-page tome made me especially grateful for my Kindle. I started reading it after I’d become obsessed with the soundtrack ofHamilton,” the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical it inspired. I heard Miranda say once that hip-hop was the only genre that could have captured the story, simply because it gets more words per measure.  An example: “The ten-dollar Founding Father without a father / Got a lot farther by working a lot harder / By being a lot smarter / By being a self-starter.”

Years ago I read Gore Vidal’s Burr.  I knew of the legendary duel between these two Founding Fathers. I also remembered the irony of Hamilton being an illegitimate child born in the Virgin Islands. However, somewhere I’d missed (or forgotten) Hamilton’s profound influence on our country’s birth, especially our financial system. And remember the Federalist Papers? Those essays written to promote the ratification of the U.S. Constitution? Yeah, Alexander Hamilton wrote most of them. He was kind of a big deal. And his origin story is pretty compelling as well.

“He embodied an enduring archetype: the obscure immigrant who comes to America, re-creates himself, and succeeds despite a lack of proper birth and breeding.”

“He chose a psychological strategy adopted by many orphans and immigrants: he decided to cut himself off from his past and forge a new identity. He would find a home where he would be accepted for what he did, not for who he was, and where he would no longer labor in the shadow of illegitimacy.”

“Like other founding fathers, Hamilton would have preferred a stately revolution, enacted decorously in courtrooms and parliamentary chambers by gifted orators in powdered wigs. The American Revolution was to succeed because it was undertaken by skeptical men who knew that the same passions that toppled tyrannies could be applied to destructive ends.”

I will admit to skimming through chunks of the middle—I got a bit bogged down in the detail of the political and highly partisan infighting. Nonetheless, it did remind me that our leaders have always fought, always been driven by principle—not to mention ego. No one mentioned here (Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Burr…) is without fault, least of all Hamilton himself.

Hamilton’s life was fraught with tragedy and scandal. He was passionate in all areas of his life Mrs._Elizabeth_Schuyler_Hamiltonand frequently his ego got the better of him. The one stabilizing influence was his wife Eliza Schuyler. From all appearances this was a love match. Eliza stood by him through scandals and long absences. His death left her in debt, still she worked to preserve her husband’s legacy as she built one for herself. Throughout her very long life, she served widows, orphans, and poor children. She established a school and an orphanage. Eliza even gave older orphans jobs in her home and helped one gain admittance into West Point.

Aaron Burr comes off especially poorly.

“For the rest of his life, he never uttered one world of contrition for having killed a man with a wife and seven children and behaved as if Hamilton’s family did not exist.”

If you–or someone on your gift list–loves history, I’d recommend this book. Otherwise, stick with the soundtrack to “Hamilton” and hope that Santa slips a ticket into your stocking (hint, hint).