Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Appealing to the lowest common denominator

Kids don't wanna read? Let's have them listen to books on their MP3 players instead. That is the strategy of a middle school in New Jersey. They have partnered with a company who has handed out free MP3 players to the students, who then download the book they need from a subscription website provided through the school.

I have a huge problem with this. While I am happy that perhaps some students will be exposed to literature they might never have been otherwise, at the same time you must be aware that what is going on here is not reading. It is listening. Listening is an important skill, but its not enough. What do the studies always say? Children whose parents read to them will more likely grow up to be readers. Of course, an important step is for the child to actually learn to read. Instead of a parent, now we have an MP3 player filling that role, while at the same time, the student is not reading the book himself. This is like never teaching a kid how to do math, but handing him a free calculator. You can't always have a calculator with you. In the same vein, there is no audio version of a newspaper, or a periodical magazine. What will the now-grown-up kid do then? Crutches are nice to have, but they only work if you first learned to walk.

There is one blurb from this article that really bothered me, because it is something I often see at my school:
It was probably no coincidence the company chose to launch AudibleKids at the North Star Academy, a charter school where 90 percent of the kids receive free or reduced lunches, according to principal James Verrilli. Some downloads will be free of charge, and other titles can cost as little as $1.99, Fitzgerald said, adding that company research has shown more than half of third-graders own their own MP3 players....
So let me get this straight: these parents apparently can barely afford to feed their own children, but somehow they can find the money to buy their kid an MP3 player? I can't say I am surprised. I still remember a student last year who was received free/reduced lunch and never brought paper/pen to class because "we too po'", yet he was bragging to his buddies one day about his Red Monkey jeans he was wearing. Red Monkey jeans sell for hundreds of dollars. I also marvel at the students bringing their 80GB iPods to school (violating school rules by doing so) that retail for around $350 dollars. I have a 4GB MP3 player that I bought on sale for $110. Life is all about priorities, and unfortunately, I see a lot of bad financial choices being made by the so-called poor that live in this country.

One thing that will help keep you poor and unsuccessful is an inability to read. Giving a kid an audio book when he is below reading level does him no favors.

Good Day to You, Sir


Law and Order Teacher said...

Great post. When I read your bolded part I immediately seized upon the MP3 statement. I am really old fashioned. I don't even own a cell phone, a fact about which my students are continually amazed. Most of the time if there is something I want to read, I usually print it off and read it. There's nothing for me like holding a book and reading from it. You're are absolutely right in that this is not reading it is listening. The two are not the same. It is one more cop-out by schools to give up on the hard work of educating and entering the arena of placating students. We're heading down a bad road.

Anonymous said...

Whereas I agree with your perspective generally, I do think that we must use the technology at hand. I am starting to think that I must shift the way I teach and that would include a healty dose of technology; email reminders for homework via schooloop, podcasts, online powerpoints, and internet based homework for starters. This change was brought on by my own experience and the video " A Vision of Students Today" which can be found at

Education is in a damned if you do and damned if you don't position. On the one hand I want my students to be "classical" learners (a heavy dose of reading and writing and discussion), but on the other hand I have to show improved performance on standardized tests. How I would love for them to read real books and real articles but (keeping it real here) that takes way more time than I have on a tight calender. I tried an almost singular focus on learning via reading last year and it was disastrous. I was still having behavioral problems in May and my test scores were very low.

Kids are just wired different these days. Funny enough, I asked my students if they would rather:
A. Listen to me lecture live with visuals, etc.
B. Listen to me via film.

Can you guess which one they chose?


Anonymous said...

I heard a story several years ago about a man who was tearing down an old school and found several essays over Shakespearean plays written by 6th and 7th graders. It is all I can do to pull my 9th graders (advanced classes) through Romeo and Juliet. Something is terribly wrong with the reading level of students these days and it starts with TV!

As far as the "free lunch" students, I was surprised when I found out that no one even checks the financial information submitted by parents in order to qualify student for the program. In fact schools encourage students to sign up because every student that is enrolled add to the amount of money the school receives from the federal grant. As usual, just follow the money!

Texas Truth said...

You really hit a nerve with this post. I see students in my school who are on free lunch, but are wearing $200 shoes. I see students in my school that are on free lunch who are listening to their iPods at lunch. If they can afford these "luxuries” then they can afford to pay for their lunch.

As far as the listening as opposed to reading, I agree 100%. Listening to a book is not the same a s reading it. In my classes (mostly juniors and seniors) the reading skills are so poor that I spend time doing vocabulary in a math class.

This is another example of a school cutting corners and allowing students to be used to further the company’s profits. I wonder how muck kickback the principal and admoinitration is getting off of this.

Anonymous said...

Shocked that all these kids are on free lunch? Don't blame the kids, blame the parents. My students informed oh so many years ago that many parents LIE about their finances in order to get the free lunch.

I live in a community where welfare fraud is rampant. I see it every time I go to the grocery store. Shame on the system for being so liberal with taxpayer money.

If anyone of us could find a way to get kids these days to read, we'd be bazzilionaires!

We all know, as John Mayer put, " . . . we're slow dancin' in a burning room."


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