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OPINION: Reading for the love of it

Over the last few months, scores of people have approached me to commiserate over the budget cuts facing schools these days. I have appreciated that though I must also admit that making budget cuts is often times more of a technical problem than ...

Over the last few months, scores of people have approached me to commiserate over the budget cuts facing schools these days. I have appreciated that though I must also admit that making budget cuts is often times more of a technical problem than an emergent one.

By that, I mean that budget cuts is sort of a puzzle in which all the "side" pieces have already been laid out. The problem is framed and the extent of the damage is well known. This doesn't mean it isn't important or nasty or even very harmful to the educational process. It just means that the choices are pretty well known; it's a fairly simple matter of making certain choices among a set of alternatives.

"Emergent" problems are worse. These are problems which aren't framed, which are filled with every sort of imaginable ambiguity, and the solutions for which are essentially infinite. Such problems are just so darned complicated that they belie any solution which any sort of a majority can get behind. In the 1980s and even into the 1990s, reading instruction faced an emergent problem between the advocates of phonics on one side and those for ''whole language'' on the other. Looking back, phonics was the obvious choice but when you were in the middle of the chaos, conflicting research, and virtual continuum of possible reading instructional methods, the prognosis looked absolutely hopeless.

Teaching children to read is a fascinating process and I am proud to say that the programs at all of our elementary schools are rigorous, phonicsintensive, and wonderfully successful. Mitchell's elementary teachers will go to virtually any length to guarantee that their students are reading at or above level by the time they move on to middle school.

What still puzzles me, however, is why some students love to read while others never will. It's not about decoding or cognitive skills but affective ones. What makes someone love to read?

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When I was in elementary school, my mother, a saint walking, and Miss Johnson, my first-grade teacher, taught me to read but neither taught me to love to read. Carl Barks did that. If you're not familiar with Mr. Barks, he was the author-illustrator of Scrooge McDuck comic books and, yes, I wasted many an hour, summer day, and weekend reading Uncle Scrooge, first and foremost, with a bit of Richie Rich, and Archie Andrews thrown in when the Duckburg denizens ran out of material. I mention this because back then comic books were largely frowned upon as frivolous at best and vile at worst.

The situation is similar today with what are no longer called comic books but, instead, graphic novels. These are books which tell stories in a picture format and they have become wildly popular especially in the era of Japanese anime. And they represent the latest front in the reading wars. The nub of the controversy is this: Do graphic novels cultivate in students a love of reading which will then transport them into more challenging material later or do they instead stymie the natural maturation of a reader, thwarting their natural development and leaving them permanently in an adolescent literary dungeon?

To which the correct answer is yes. I know of many students for whom high-interest reading, like comics, was the key to their later reading success. But I also know of students who found their way into such cul-de-sacs and really never escaped.

I suspect the difference, even at that level, is what they read. If children are offered such fare that is well-written and well-illustrated, they will soon crave better. If they read the rest, the worst sort of pabulum, they will soon lose interest in reading altogether.

Which brings me, incidentally, to the issue of The Daily Republic's comic page. The recent decision to eliminate "Peanuts," the comic masterpiece of arguably the greatest cartoonist, Charles Schulz, who has ever lived, which regularly dealt with philosophy, religion, the human condition, and famous canine aeronauts of the First World War, and replace it with "Pickles," apparently an endless retelling of old-people jokes, instantly ad nauseum, is little less than an abomination.

Soon, Charlie Brown will begin slipping from our local consciousness and culture and children who would have otherwise been hooked by Snoopy's latest subtleties into the joys of reading will be repelled by the jocular void of mismatched socks.

Besides, cutting budgets is so much more painful without the morning "Peanuts" respite of both humor and the oddly reassuring knowledge that no matter how bad things get, someone, Charlie Brown, has it worse.

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