June 3, 2010
Hell in a handbasket
Since the world is imploding in every imaginable way, we must focus on basics. You can't personally plug the gaping oil hole in the gulf, or plug the gaping hole in the national wallet, or make Middle Eastern diplomatic relations semi-functional, or make Washington semi-functional, or rescue the euro, or get to the bottom of the climate science scandal. But you can do something simple and wonderful for underprivileged kids. Just give them your old books. Piles of them. Seriously.
USA Today explains:
Can a $50 stack of paperback books do as much for a child's academic fortunes as a $3,000 stint in summer school?
An experimental program in seven states may help answer that question this summer as districts from Nevada to South Carolina give thousands of low-income students an armful of free books.
Research has shown that simply giving children books may be as effective as summer school — and a lot cheaper. The big question is whether the effect can be replicated on a larger scale and help reduce the USA's nagging achievement gap between low-income and middle-class students.
Schools have always tried to get students to read over the summer. For middle-class students, that's not as big a deal with their access to books at home, public libraries and neighborhood bookstores, says Richard Allington, a longtime reading researcher at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.
Over the past 20 years, researchers have shown that low-income students simply have less access to print. In some cases, even walking to the local public library may be too dangerous.
"A lot of parents say, 'When we're gone, you can't go to the library.' It's not an option," says Rebecca Constantino, a researcher and instructor at the University of California-Irvine.
The result: a well-documented "summer slide" in academics that, by sixth grade, accounts for as much as 80% of the achievement gap, Allington and other researchers say. Researchers note that low-income students lose about three months of ground each summer to middle-class peers.
"You do that across nine or 10 summers, and the next thing you know, you've got almost three years' reading growth lost," Allington says.
For a study to be published later this year in Reading Psychology, Allington and colleagues selected students in 17 high-poverty elementary schools in Florida and, for three consecutive years, gave each child 12 books, from a list the students provided, on the last day of school.
In all, 852 students received books each year, paid for mostly by federal Title I money. Three years later, researchers found that those students who received books had "significantly higher" reading scores, experienced less of a summer slide and read more on their own each summer than the 478 who didn't get books.
Constantino, who in 1999 founded Access Books, a group that has given away more than 1 million books, says the cause-and-effect is simple: "When kids own books, they get this sense, 'I'm a reader,' " she says. "It's very powerful when you go to a kid's home and ask him, 'Where is your library?' "
The program, piloted last year in Richmond County, Ga., and Charleston, S.C., expands to eight more cities this summer, and 1.5 million books are expected to come home with students, says Greg Worrell of children's book publisher Scholastic, which is offering the books at a discount.
Like Constantino, Worrell says many low-income families "just don't have books in their home at all." But when books come home, parents are inevitably as excited as their children, says Carmel Perkins of Chicago Public Schools, which plans to hand out books to 8,600 students this summer.
"It seems so simple, but parents see it very differently," she says.
This morning, the foam on my homemade latte resolved itself into a mysterious symbolic shape. I rather thought it was a picture of a phoenix rising -- if not from ashes, then from the dregs in the depths of my mug. My interlocutor disagreed. She thought it resembled a fist giving the finger. Perhaps it was both: hope and change, revival and resistance at once.
Gather up your old books and your kids' old books: You know they are cluttering up your shelves and that you won't re-read most of them. And pass them on. What's just taking up space for you may make all the difference for someone else.
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I COMPLETELY agree with the sentiment.
But death first.
There will still be kids around who need them when I die.