That’s a question I was asked recently: What is your favorite axe to grind? I am pretty sure that in my whole life, no one has asked me to climb up on my soap box to preach, and it is probably a bad sign of my character that I was so happy to be asked.
Because as a matter of fact, I do have an axe to grind, and there is a slight chance that my colleagues are tired of hearing about it, so let me share it with a wider audience. As is usual with me, my axe to grind translates to an anxiety, something that worries me, and this is it: I am worried that story is moving to the back burner.
I started worrying about it many years ago, when PLA (the Public Library Association) and ALSC (the Association of Library Service to Children) teamed up to create ECRR (Every Child Ready to Read). Don’t get me wrong, I loved many things about ECRR. It was based on research, and it was a way to keep libraries relevant. I loved the idea that parents were being empowered to get their kids ready to read. I loved the emphasis on early literacy, because anyone who read Burton White’s classic The First Three Years of Life knows that there is a window of opportunity for learning when children are very small that makes them extraordinarily ready to learn things like language. And that is exactly what Every Child Ready to Read targets–taking advantage of that window from birth to about age five for learning, for laying down pathways to keep learning, later. I also loved the partnership between children’s librarians and parents.
So it’s great, except that in trying to translate that into librarian terms, it seemed to become an awful lot about taking storytime to teach letters and numbers and facts and skills. Storytime is about story. It is about a character in a book who goes through experiences. And if you think I am going to finish that sentence with “and they learn from their experience” you are very wrong. The experience is the experience, and the response from the reader is the response from the reader, and that is just as true of a one-year-old as it is of 100-year-old. That has always been one of the cool things about authors and readers–the authors write, and the readers interpret.
You can see where since I was already super-opinionated about the topic of storytime being for stories that the whole concept of the Common Core Curriculum with its use of literature to teach facts went over fantastically well with me. Yes, now let’s use great literature, with its characters and its stories and its meaningful commentary on life to pound more facts and figures into children. Let’s take Where the Wild Things Are and count wild things, shall we? Again, great idea to use wonderful books in a school setting. But must we squeeze the life out of it and be left with nothing except facts and figures and parts of speech? It feels very Dickensian to me.
So there’s that. And now, we have the addition of technology. We have a generation of children who are being trained to be in control of the experience. They are waiting for their chance to speak or move or swipe or push or do whatever action is called for. That takes a whole lot of brain power. For kids with limited impulse control, that takes ALL of their brain power. They aren’t listening for anything but the cue that tells them when to act. And because grown-ups increasingly have no faith that children can pay attention, the stories are being built around action instead of story.
So, that’s my axe to grind. Story, the thing that preceded the written word, is being squeezed out in favor of “learning” and “interacting”. But story? Listening to the tale of something happening to someone else, and empathizing with them, and imagining how we might feel in their situation? That’s being lost. It’s more than sad. It’s dangerous.
It doesn’t have to be that way. If you are doing storytime well–if you have picked good books that suit you and suit the kids developmentally, and you pay attention to the response of the kids and give them opportunities to participate, and you (for instance) emphasize the sounds of the words sometimes, you are already teaching them the early literacy skills. And you’re giving them the gift of story.