Saturday, January 24, 2009

Reading on the Rise?

First the good news: according to Reading on the Rise, the latest survey sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, the number of adult Americans reading rose to 119 million in 2008, compared to 115.5 million in 2002.

Now the bad news: If you crunch the numbers, and factor in the fact that the population increased by 19 million during that span, it puts the percentage of Americans who read any book in 2008 at 54.3%, which is actually down from 56.6% in 2002. Also, the latest survey includes online/electronic reading, which the previous surveys did not. NEA Chair Dana Gioia credits "...'Harry Potter' and 'Twilight' and Oprah and the Big Read and the Internet," but is quick to add that the battle is far from over.

My take? I think all of the above have been good for advancing the cause of reading. I also note that the timing and positioning of the report coincides with Mr. Gioia's departure from the Chairmanship. I'm not being cynical - Gioia has worked hard to initiate and advance many reading programs, the Big Read among them, and deserves to celebrate the contributions he has made to the cause. Were I in his shoes, I would welcome, and focus on, some good news at this juncture as well. But mostly I think we must be cautiously optimistic about what these things, and the change of administration, may signal for the future of reading... and carry on working tirelessly in homes, schools, libraries and bookstores to connect - and re-connect - reading with pleasure.

You can read more about this subject in this week's Publisher's Weekly - in Sara Nelson's column, Yes, He Can, and in More Americans are Reading, But..., which includes tables from the NEA study - as well as in the Wasington Post. You can also download the NEA's full report yourself at

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Your Comments

Oh dear!

I'm fairly new to the Blogosphere and somehow today I accidentally rejected all the comments that were still waiting for my moderation and approval. I really want this site to be a dialogue, and love hearing from those of you who are following... so please post again!

Thank you!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Power of Presentation

What a day!

A historic, mesmerizing, glorious, moving, powerful, joyful, triumphant day. A day we will remember forever. A new day.

And, alas, a day in which there was more poetry on the street than on the podium.

Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day” may actually be a better poem than most of us appreciated at the time. But when read aloud, a poem is only as good as its delivery... and Alexander’s delivery was, sadly, as wooden as her spoons on oil drums.

It's not my wish to be uncharitable, or cast any shadow on this wondrous day. And I do appreciate the pressure of the moment, and the fact that Obama is a pretty tough act to follow. But why, when in a position to transform millions of minds and hearts with the power of words, why resort to stilted, monotonous recitation? How can we expect our children to learn the joy, the value, the resonance of poetry if we can’t demonstrate it for them?

Elizabeth Alexander could take a page from Barack Obama’s public speaking manual:
  • Make eye contact – Sure, there are teleprompters, but the man learns his lines. He never looks down.
  • Let the points LAND – Give the key words and ideas the space, tone and emphasis to stand by themselves and breathe... BUT,
  • Move it along – Trust the audience’s intelligence, and their ability to follow. Most often, they're a beat ahead. And finally,
  • Let it FLOW – Stay open to the opportunity to get caught up in the imagery, the emotion, the message. PRAISE the song, the poem, the day.
Imagine if Obama himself said these words, maybe to Malia and Sasha as he tucks them into bed tonight…

“Praise song for the day.
Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each others' eyes or not, about to speak or speaking. All about us is noise. All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues. Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing the things in need of repair.
Someone is trying to make music somewhere with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.
A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky; A teacher says, "Take out your pencils. Begin."
We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; words to consider, reconsider.
We cross dirt roads and highways that mark the will of someone and then others who said, "I need to see what's on the other side; I know there's something better down the road."
We need to find a place where we are safe; We walk into that which we cannot yet see.
Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.
Praise song for struggle; praise song for the day. Praise song for every hand-lettered sign; The figuring it out at kitchen tables.
Some live by "Love thy neighbor as thy self."
Others by first do no harm, or take no more than you need.
What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need to preempt grievance.
In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp -- praise song for walking forward in that light.”

Monday, January 19, 2009

Obama and Reading

Great article by Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times today on how Obama's love of reading has shaped his values and his life: From Books, New President Found Voice

Lots of interesting comments posted on the Times' site as well. Here's mine:

"Clearly, Obama is already reading all the right books.

What I fervently hope is that he will convey his passion for reading to America's youth, and apply his gifts and resources to helping the next generation discover, re-discover or maintain a love of reading.

Obama is a stunning example of the direct relationship between reading skills and our ability to participate in the world with confidence as informed citizens, communicate effectively, succeed in our chosen career, enjoy rewarding relationships, achieve personal fulfillment and contribute to our society.

But America now ranks a distant last among eighteen nations with respect to literacy levels for high school graduates, and it is estimated that illiteracy costs businesses and taxpayers $20 billion each year.

Obama knows that our founders, living as they did in an age when the printed word was the primary means of communication, placed a high emphasis on protecting the “marketplace of ideas” so that public discourse could flourish. Today, that discourse is predominantly one-way... we “receive” information from our television sets, radios, computers, and iPods. Large media corporations pay vast sums of money to explore new ways in which we can be collectively massaged toward a certain purchase or perspective. And the more we sit and stare at the screen, the more we turn our back on the kind of thoughtful reasoning that interaction with the written word promotes…and, the more mute we become.

It’s abundantly clear that the digital age has radically altered the entertainment as well as the learning landscape for today’s young people. But according to the National Council on Teachers of English (NCTE), “in order to participate fully in society and the workplace in 2020 and harness the power of technology and all its implications, we will need powerful literacy skills – at levels currently achieved by only a small percentage of the population.” It would seem that our collective health, our capacity for reason, our very future as a connected, contributive society – and that of our fragile planet – depends upon it.

I pray that Obama shares the dream of reestablishing a society of readers- and by extension, a society of thoughtful, engaged citizens who play an active, positive role in their community and their world. I hope he makes it a priority to help kids access the innate joy and empowerment in exploring the ideas and insights of great writers, thinkers, artists, and philosophers, so that they can actually participate in their future world with active voices, informed opinions and the real hope of being heard.

Like him."

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Secretary of the Arts Petition

Secretary of the Arts Petition

Here's a favorite quote of mine from Katherine Anne Porter, about the importance of the arts, to our society and to our history:

“The arts live continuously, and they live literally by faith; their nature and their shapes and their uses survive unchanged in all that matters through times of interruption, diminishment, neglect; and they outlive governments and creeds and societies, even the very civilizations that produced them. They cannot be destroyed altogether because they represent the substance of faith and the only reality. They are what we find again when the ruins are cleared away.”

America is one of the few countries that doesn't have a Minister of Culture. When international culture ministers meet on global issues affecting the arts and artists, the best we can do is send the head of the NEA, if we send anyone at all. It's time to turn that around. Obama is an arts supporter, and Quincy Jones has started a petition for a Secretary of the Arts that has a real shot at making an impact. Let's all sign it!

Monday, January 5, 2009

Playful Learning

Just before the holidays I did an interview for the wonderful website and blog "Playful Learning." This site is run by esteemed educator (and Mom of two) Mariah Bruehl, who is a teacher, administrator, curriculum designer and principal. Mariah recently opted to work from home so as to devote herself full time to her two daughters. Fortunately we can all benefit from this decision as much as her girls surely are, since Mariah is now applying her wealth of wisdom about learning - playfully and joyfully - to parenting. In addition to her terrific blog, her site features scores of ideas, activities, resources, recommendations and interviews. Highly recommmended!!!