Community Voices

Beyond the Classroom: Books — a critically endangered species


Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home.” Anna Quindlen.

As I begin this piece, I reflect on a recent article about the death of a male Northern white rhinoceros at the San Diego Zoo. It may not mean that much to you, but put in perspective, Angalifu’s death leaves only five such rhinos left in the world. Five. And then there will be no more. How did this come to be? It can be explained by many things, one of which is values. People have come to value a rhino horn more as a possession — to be made into a dagger handle or magical potent — rather than for the living, breathing creature it belongs to.

I also reflect on my observations during my morning and afternoon school rituals. Either waiting for class to start or waiting to be picked up, I gaze upon numerous children — yet only one or two students are reading a book. One or two. In a cacophony of tapping sounds, the masses are mindlessly thumbing (yes that is a verb now) their electronic devices. Like the white rhino, what will happen when those few children who still find joy and excitement in a written story have moved on? Who will replace them? And what will become of the truly literate, erudite human being?

The film Idiocracy takes a sardonic look at a futuristic nation composed of and governed by people who no longer read, nor can read. In fact there are no books in this world, no newspapers, just TV. And their world, from the justice system to the medical system, is a troubled one. Today as you read this, reading is becoming an endangered species. Local book stores have all but disappeared yet there are video game stores on every corner. Why? Values. It is much easier to stick a device in a child’s hands than have to converse with them. But what are the long-term implications?

In most child-filled homes, one can find a plethora of video game options and old and new devices, yet few provide equal access to award winning books, newspapers or thought-provoking magazines (New York Times, National Geographic, Muse, Smithsonian, Popular Mechanics, Boys Life, Dig, to name a few).

Yet society wonders why reading and writing scores in school are low. Why children don’t know the countries of the world or the name of the newest space capsule that was recently launched into deep space on top of Delta IV Heavy rockets. And no, it wasn’t NASA that maneuvered the lander Philae onto the comet. Teachers can nurture the love for reading and knowledge, but it is the parent who must sow the seeds. As such, giving a book assignment today — a great book — to a middle school student is considered by them the worst form of drudgery. Kids aren’t expected to read, they don’t want to read and because of that, many can’t read.

In a balanced world, electronic devices have their place, but unleashed, in the hands of unknowing children, electronics become ruthless destroyers of deep thought, expository writing skills, worthy conversation and the desire to be anything but entertained.

Studies show that increased time in front of an electronic screen inhibits children’s ability to recognize emotions. So when news breaks about school violence or violence in the community, I often wonder about the perpetrator. How many books have been read in their life compared to the amount of instant gratification they found behind a screen?

As Deanne Musolf shares, “Once upon a time, the warm glow coming from a child’s bedroom after lights out meant a book and a flashlight were in use.” Today it is more likely to see an eerie white light being emitted from games being played on a smart phone or tablet.

As a teacher, I am deeply troubled by many of today’s parents who readily allow their immature children the power of deciding between unlimited animated entertainment vs. ensuring that free time is balanced with reading opportunities that will expand their understanding of the world, increase their vocabulary and attention span, and improve their capability of holding rationale and purposeful discussions. Success in advanced placement (AP) high school courses where Socratic discussions and essay writing are often required, is readily demonstrated by those who can and have read. The ability to consume and extrapolate information from a book is a defining life skill.

An article from Science Blogs discusses the studies where young boys were given a new video game system. After four months, boys who had received the games had lower reading and writing scores than expected, failing to improve to the same degree as their device-free peers. They faced more academic problems at school — as reported by their teachers — compared to those who did not regularly use games. While some children were finishing their homework or reading bedtime stories, those with games were mashing buttons.

It is all too often that I hear parents, who are called in to discuss their child’s lackluster performance, tell the child that they are going to have all their games taken away and they will have to read books. Books are not a punishment. They are a privilege. A great book is powerful. It can take you to faraway places and allow you to live in another person’s shoes. Books instill empathy and adventure. A great book can make you laugh out loud and it can make you cry a river. A great book will leave you with an emptiness at the last page because there is no more to read.

But like the eternal vegetable dilemma, you can’t raise your children on burgers and soda and then expect them to eat a bowl of beautiful green broccoli. That is where parenting comes in. It isn’t about being nice and giving your child what he or she wants. Parents are supposed to know better and do the right thing for their child. Parenting involves wisdom, balance and discipline.

As Charles William Eliot wrote “Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.”

Do your children a favor; limit device time — don’t make electronic game devices the babysitter and default activity. It is ok for kids not to be entertained by a screen. Start a subscription to a newspaper or an interest magazine. Get a library card for your child. Let them find a book that suits their interests. Visit a book fair. Carry magazines and books in your car. Put them in the bathroom. Slip one in their backpack. Read with young children every night before bed, right after they brush their teeth.

When you cultivate a love for stories and the written word within your home, you will have helped save an endangered species.

Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former Heart Transplant Coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.