Summer Semester: Technology Saves the Day

By Christopher Byrne

I’ve been talking to a lot of parents about summer reading and some of the challenges they’re facing getting their kids to read—even when it’s assigned by the school.

On the one hand, I sympathize with the kids. Having recently finished school for the year, the prospect of mandated reading seems a lot like more homework, particularly when teachers insist on picking books that don’t intrigue kids. I mean, “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” was written in 1937. Why teachers still assign it—since so many kids find it deadly and it’s on many summer lists—boggles my mind. (It’s a cute story, but it seemed old-fashioned when I was a kid. Imagine what it feels like to today’s kids!) Why set up reading to be a chore? Look at the success of Harry Potter and the Twilight series. Kids will read when the story engages them, and no teacher yet has convinced me that a Depression-era children’s book teaches reading skills more effectively than a popular, contemporary book. What’s wrong with giving kids credit for doing something they want to do? Because, on the other hand, reading is the single most important skill kids can have that will help foster success in school.

Now, in what will apparently seem like a contradiction, I’m going to make a case for reading classic literature as well. Whether it’s Shakespeare, Dickens, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius , Emerson, Twain, Franklin and so forth—the introduction to some of the great thinking that comprises our history is essential to a well-rounded education. To contemporary readers, some of this can seem like heavy going indeed, but the sequential development of reading skills in the preschool and primary and middle grades prepares kids to tackle this stuff as they get into high school and college. Establishing reading not just as an onerous task but a pleasure helps kids to establish the foundations they need to succeed in school. These “dead white males” who are so often vilified still provide the basis for much through in our Western culture and they should be read—not to the exclusion of more popular, fashionable writers but for context, and dare I say it, the intellectual rigor they demand.

However, if you don’t get kids reading, these doors will be shut to them, and they—and the culture—will be the worse for it. Just watch the Sunday talk shows and you’ll see the dearth of ideas or even discourse. When a bunch of Senators on both sides of an issue are merely sniping at each other, I hear Plato and Aristotle rolling in their graves.

All of which brings me to Amazon’s Kindle.

This e-reader, as it’s called, has certainly revolutionized reading. The ability to slip an entire library into your backpack is only one of its appealing features. You can get hundreds of thousands of books from the newest celebrity tell-all to the aforementioned classics. The latter have the advantage of being either free or costing under $1.

I became a fan of the Kindle when I discovered that it had stopped a family argument. An acquaintance of mine was having a heck of a time getting his Ninth Grade son to read “A Tale of Two Cities.” The struggle was escalating as the school year was ending and the unread book was hanging like a millstone on not just the kid but the family.

The father, an avid reader, downloaded the book (for 99 cents) onto his Kindle device and gave it to his son, who was entranced by the technology. Overnight, the son became cool, carrying the loaned Kindle to school—and finishing the book in a matter of days after months of wrangling.

But here’s the thing: The technology might have gotten the kid into the book, but it was the story that kept him there. While the language is complex and certainly different from much of what kids read today, Dickens’ power as a storyteller is still as compelling as ever.

I tried to contact Amazon about this because I was fascinated by the impact of this technology and wondered if they had any other examples of how technology is driving reading. All I got was stony silence and unreturned phone calls. So I have no idea whether or not this was an isolated incident. To be honest, few families are going to shell out $350 to get a kid to complete his schoolwork, but it is intriguing to see that the 19th Century writers still have relevance to 21st Century kids—if we can get them into it.

The young man in question did not get to keep his dad’s Kindle, though they share it from time to time. He did, however, download the Kindle App (free) to his iPod Touch and has just read “Hard Times” (99 cents) and is about to start on Mark Twain (also 99 cents), much to his parents’ delight.

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