In December of 2013 I completed my two year stint as National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Appointed by the Library of Congress and the blessings of the Every Child A Reader Foundation, it was an honor to travel around the country promoting literacy. I visited schools, community groups, and lots of juvenile prisons. On balance I think I learned more than I taught. The first thing that I learned is that there are a lot of young teachers out there who are dedicated to uplifting and preparing American youth for the challenges ahead. That’s the good news. The not so good news is that high school graduation rates in this rich country of ours are appalling. They are even worse when we break out Black and Latino students.
To me it’s a familiar cycle. What we talk about most in families is our experiences in the work place and with our fellow workers. As jobs disappear in any area so does the chief source of family language input. As families are put under stress due to low income the conversations within the family decrease. Children begin their educational experience months behind in development and thousands of words behind in working vocabularies. Less than twenty percent of the children who lag at the age of five years old ever make up the difference.
We’ve done enough studies to predict the possibilities for their success. At the classroom level we have, in the main, teachers who understand that many of their students come to class less prepared to learn. We also are beginning to understand another phenomenon, that by the ages of twelve and thirteen, many inner city boys are ‘giving up the struggle’ to be competitive. We can tell them what we want, but they no longer see themselves as part of American culture or the American dream.
What is needed is to include families and communities into the conspiracy to educate our young people. Considering that many parents/caretakers have themselves walked away from the struggle, this will not be an easy task. But it is a necessary task and we have to keep this in mind. America’s children are America’s future.
We can start by introducing language back into the family through reading to toddlers, using books and other reading materials to supplant the language that was lost through unemployment. We need to teach family caretakers that language is a gift that they possess, and that it is their duty to pass it on to their charges. We need to create a demand for reading by reengaging the affected communities. And, yes, we have to go to where the children are and address their needs.
I want to reach the children we are so clearly missing and hope you will join me in this pursuit. So read to them, read with them, and let them read to you because reading is no longer optional.