Friday, August 28, 2009

At the End of the "Rainbow"

I grew up watching Reading Rainbow, and of all the PBS shows I remember it holds one of the fondest places. I wanted to be one of the kids LeVar Burton presented at the end of each episode and review my favorite books. I wanted to go on the field trips: the publishing house, the farm, Hawaii, wherever the story was taking place, and most of all, I wanted the books -- all the books. Most of the time, I couldn't find the Reading Rainbow books I most loved in the local library or bookstore, and so I would wait for the repeats so LeVar could read them to me again.

Today, Reading Rainbow ends its 26-year run, and with it goes the end of an era. According to this article on NPR, funding has been pulled from this influential programs to make way for shows that promote phonetics and spelling, which under the Bush Administration have become the bywords for teaching elementary school students the skills they need to pass the national exams. Schools no longer seem to be the place where students find and pursue their interests; rather, they are test factories where students are prepared for the national skills assessments and teachers and schools receive the pass or fail. How can this encourage students? What investment do they have in their own education if they never face the fact that they must study or else they will fail, thereby losing privileges or perhaps not even passing to the next grade?

Education has lost its thrill and adventure in today's mediocre, anti-competitive school systems. I wasn't a perfect student, and I had my moments where I absolutely abhorred school, but I saw each new lesson as a new adventure. As the second verse of Reading Rainbow's theme song begins, "I can go anywhere," and learning has always given me that thrill. Unfortunately, it seems that education in the United States no longer wishes to encourage the adventure and exploration of books, knowledge, and personal growth through active participation in a great and powerful culture that lurks inside the covers of dusty tomes. NPR presents the following view from the network:

Linda Simensky, vice president for children's programming at PBS, says that when Reading Rainbow was developed in the early 1980s, it was an era when the question was: "How do we get kids to read books?"
Since then, she explains, research has shown that teaching the mechanics of reading should be the network's priority.
"We've been able to identify the earliest steps that we need to take," Simensky says. "Now we know what we need to do first. Even just from five years ago, I think we all know so much more about how to use television to teach."
Research has directed programming toward phonics and reading fundamentals as the front line of the literacy fight. Reading Rainbow occupied a more luxurious space — the show operated on the assumption that kids already had basic reading skills and instead focused on fostering a love of books.

What a shame that the program that so captured my childhood imagination has been relegated to the rubbish pile of "luxury." Has our population changed so greatly in 20 years that we can no longer focus on encouraging the inner bibliophile in each of us and now we have to regress to the most simple levels of education? I remember my grandmother reviewing a few simple phonetic rules with me and instructing me on the sounds that letters make, but for the most part we focused on whole word reading. We read for content, and we read for enjoyment. When I got to kindergarten, I was frustrated that we were still studying phonetics. After our class had "learned" our vowels and the letter "C," I tired to the slow pace. I raised my hand and informed the teacher that we needed to hurry up and get to "W" so we could spell "cow." I also corrected adults' pronunciation and lectured my teachers on the historical significance of Laura Ingles Wilder and Little House on the Prairie. I cannot give Reading Rainbow the entire credit for my precociousness, for I came from a family who highly valued a well-rounded education at home as well as in the classroom, but I know that the correlation between reading at home and what I watched on TV made a pronounced impact on my childhood.

According to Simensky, we no longer can allow children access to that land of luxurious imagination and getting kids to want to read is apparently not an obtainable goal. We must simplify our approach and teach them how to put a word together; every word will be sounded out, every letter will be a point of conscious effort, and reading, while achieved in the ultimate solution, will be a task for most rather than an escape. I don't think that is what Reading Rainbow aspired toward. I believe the initial object of this beloved relic was to show every child how great an adventure reading can be. I used to want to teach, but I'm beginning to think that my efforts would be lost in the politically correct teaching of The Test. I guess we no longer want people to read with enthusiasm and enjoyment; we'll cover the mechanics and pass the test and anything else is superfluous.
But don't take my word for it.

1 comment:

Rebekah said...

I saw this today and it made me sad, too. I've always loved Reading Rainbow- and still watch an episode now and then! I regret that it will not be there for Ginny when she begins to read on her own. Reducing reading to simple mechanics sucks the life out of the experience.

Are they no longer interested in retaining children who already know how to read as a part of the PBS audience?