Recently in Reflections on Literacy Category

The Pain of Reading by Luis Negron... sad sad sad...

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This is pretty unbearable... you have to follow the link to read through the whole essay.  But.... better the library to have been there, no?

One day, a library opened in town. There was a party with clowns and free books, and even the mayor was there. I didn't dare go in because my shoes were missing, so I was wearing flip-flops that belonged to Mami, and it didn't look right. Luckily my aunt went out and bought me some shoes. I was so happy that I put them on, gave my aunt a thousand kisses and ran straight to the library.

It had air-conditioning, reading tables, a puppet theater, records you could listen to with earphones, a globe. But what was most fascinating was an illustrated collection of literary classics: "Moby-Dick," "Les Misérables," "The Count of Monte Cristo," "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer." I read them silently, sitting at a table, until the librarian explained that I could get a card and take the books home with me. I was afraid to take them in case something happened to them, but I wanted the librarian to think I had a house and a normal family, the way it was in the books.

The first book I took out was "Little Women," by Louisa May Alcott. I had already started reading it in the library and I couldn't put it down. My aunt sat me in an armchair in the living room so that I could read in peace. I spent hours there, totally fascinated.

Incentives for prisoners in Brazil to read books

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From Tyler Cowen's Marginal Revolution

Brazilian prisoners are now able to shorten their sentences by reading books and writing essays about them.

...four days less for every book they read.  Inmates in four federal prisons holding some of Brazil's most notorious criminals will be able to read up to 12 works of literature, philosophy, science or classics to trim a maximum 48 days off their sentence each year, the government announced.

Prisoners will have up to four weeks to read each book and write an essay which must "make correct use of paragraphs, be free of corrections, use margins and legible joined-up writing," said the notice published on Monday in the official gazette.

The story is here, and for the pointer I thank David Zetland.  Here is the Reddit discussion.

So somebody thinks reading a whole bunch of books has some effects on a certain category of people.... pretty wild actually.   Wish they had designed this as a randomized experiment.

Importance de la lecture...

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Un élève a écrit, répondant à la question quel est le métier de ton père?


I took this straight from Wikipedia... use your "search intelligence" to find out what a caul is if you do not know... I didn't.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, published London 1850:

I was born with a caul, which was advertised for sale, in the newspapers, at the low price of fifteen guineas. Whether sea-going people were short of money about that time, or were short of faith and preferred cork jackets, I don't know; all I know is, that there was but one solitary bidding, and that was from an attorney connected with the bill-broking business, who offered two pounds in cash, and the balance in sherry, but declined to be guaranteed from drowning on any higher bargain. Consequently the advertisement was withdrawn at a dead loss ... and ten years afterwards, the caul was put up in a raffle down in our part of the country, to fifty members at half-a-crown a head, the winner to spend five shillings. I was present myself, and I remember to have felt quite uncomfortable and confused, at a part of myself being disposed of in that way. The caul was won, I recollect, by an old lady with a hand-basket.... It is a fact which will be long remembered as remarkable down there, that she was never drowned, but died triumphantly in bed, at ninety-two.
Encylopedia.jpgOne of my favorite book series as a child was Encyclopedia Brown, and my daughter and her friends are enjoying their new 3rd grade teacher who is a big fan.  The teacher reads chapters in class (each chapter is a "case") and the girls are all reading them on their own at night.  So earlier in the week, on the 20 min. drive to soccer practice, they all started sharing EB stories.  Then they started making up their own.  What struck me was the amazing role children's fiction was playing.  All of the girls loved the books, and had read a bunch of the cases, but they struggled to clearly summarize the key points of a case, and when they tried to make up their own cases their minds would quickly digress to details ("The Ipod that he stole was red... no yellow... no it was silver... and it had a leather case... and it was hanging on the doorknob...") and they would forget their train of thought, and then start all over.  I loved seeing how their brains were not yet capable of formulating a whole case as an "entity" in memory.... they just could not "see" in their brains the whole picture.  That, of course, is precisely the point... reading and retelling the stories is creating and enhancing that capacity to retain a complex narrative (and in this case a logical sequence.... what's amazing is the peppering of "if...then" statements when they talk about Encyclopedia Brown). 

A long ramble... I'm trying to be more observant of the fiction practices of my own children.

BTW, one of the common things we observe in the libraries is how people who have never done play puzzles take an amazingly long time to solve 10-20 piece puzzles.  The spatial sense is just not at hand without practice in childhood.  But it only takes a few practice sessions to get people up to speed.  Does it mean anything?  Dunno, and dubious, cause the same people always beat the pants off me in bottle-cap checkers or pebble Mankala.... But others have observed the same thing, and Chris Blattman says he collects a lot of data on puzzle solving so we'll see... hopefully he also asks if they have solved puzzles before, otherwise the variation doesn't reflect cognitive ability... maybe he should also have subjects play checkers...

IFLA poster on home libraries in Cuba

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How disadvantaged are people?

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A premise of public libraries is that they enable equal opportunity - people in a society who are not wealthy, or whose families may not value reading and education may still have access through public provision of books and reading.  The premise is that access matters.  And of course lots of things are rationed by wealth and parental taste: should everyone have access to live classical music? to live hip-hop? does a child have a "right" to go to Disneyland? to see a World Cup soccer tourney?  Important questions, all, but fortunately most people agree some kinds of access are more fundamental.  Like reading.

This brief reflection was prompted after reading the Janet Currie's Ely Lecture published in a recent issue of the American Economic Review.  Currie summarizes a variety of efforts to quantify how much unequal access there is (particularly in the United States) to good conditions in the womb.  She presents suggestive evidence, usually very current statistical techniques, that perhaps one fifth of the gap in the incidence of low birth weight between white college-educated mothers and black high school dropout mothers can be explained by the much greater likelihood that the black mothers live near to toxic-releasing industrial plants.  The gap is about 10 percentage points.  So two percentage points might be explained by the greater toxic pollution "imbibed" by black mothers.  The other eight percentage points presumably attributed to poverty/culture/nutrition etc.

Low birth weight, in turn, is correlated with all sorts of bad life outcomes.

When I read the article I couldn't help but wonder what the gap is in birth weight between American mothers generally and mothers in rural Africa.  And then what the life consequences of that still larger gap.  That gap won't be made up by public libraries, very much.  But one of the causes of the gap is a quiescent citizenry, etc.
The article cites no research or evidence on the impact of school libraries compared with "full-day" teachers.  Remarkable actually that a large-scale randomized experiment has not been run where one period a day students spend in quiet free reading time in the library, with helpful guidance about reading choices from a librarian.  My prior is that 2-3 years of that "treatment" would show that library reading time generates better reading scores and more "knowledge" than in-class time, which has to be marginally effective in its 7th hour, and that the variable costs are probably similar if not lower (libraries do have significant fixed costs, but the irony of the article - validated by our local experience here in San Jose- is that the public loves spending money on library infrastructure, while school officials love cutting library variable costs).

The schools superintendent in Lancaster, Pa., said he had to eliminate 15 of the district's 20 librarians to save full-day kindergarten classes. In the Salem-Keizer school district in Oregon, all 48 elementary and middle school librarians would lose their jobs under a budget proposal that faces a vote next week. In Illinois's School District 90, which spans several rural and suburban communities in the southern part of the state, parent volunteers have been running the libraries in the district's seven schools since September, in what the schools superintendent, Todd Koehl, described as "a last-ditch effort" to avoid closing their doors. And in New York City, half of the secondary schools appear to be in violation of a state regulation requiring them to have a librarian on staff, with the city currently employing 365 licensed librarians. "The dilemma that schools will face is whether to cut a teacher who has been working with kids all day long in a classroom or cut teachers who are working in a support capacity, like librarians," the city's chief academic officer, Shael Polakow-Suransky, said in an interview. In New York, as in districts across the country, many school officials said they had little choice but to eliminate librarians, having already reduced administrative staff, frozen wages, shed extracurricular activities and trimmed spending on supplies. Technological advances are also changing some officials' view of librarians: as more classrooms are equipped with laptops, tablets or e-readers, Mr. Polakow-Suransky noted, students can often do research from their desks that previously might have required a library visit. "It's the way of the future," he said.
"The way of the future"?  He needs to visit Martin Luther King, Jr. library in San Jose, or Joyce Ellington Branch library to see how nicely libraries fit into the future.
red biclycle.jpgSummer is here, which means I have a lot more time for thinking and reading.  I just finished a wonderful short children's book (4th grade level), Ride the Red Cycle, by Harriette Robinet, published in 1980, with illustrations by David Brown.  The writing is perfect, and the story straightforward: a disabled boy wants to prove he can do something by himself. 

The boy, Jerome, is double marginalized: African-American and disabled.  (Being 11 is also not too easy!)  What is nice about Robinet is the first marginalization is never mentioned.  Of course, that is one of Robinet's gifts, as an African-American writer who writes about the lives of African-American children in the United States the way anyone writes about the lives of children anywhere: as about their lives, and not overtly about the sociology of the larger world they live in.  The second marginalization is matter-of-factly presented as the subject of the story.  This is the way life is, the story says.  You are who you make yourself to be.  Robinet has an eye for detail and truthful observation that I love, e.g., when she observes the siblings who cannot resist hurting each other, verbally and physically.  (Do I see that everyday with Elliot and Sukie and their friends? Yes!)  Wonderful children, like Jerome, have their flaws too.

The book got me thinking about marginalization and libraries.  One of the major social functions of libraries, very difficult to measure, is to give access to alternative identities to the marginalized, who are often trapped in identities and communities that reinforce marginalization.  Hearing inspiring stories, envisioning alternative lives... these are the things that books do cheaply.  Sure, movies and songs do the same thing.  (I often wonder what it would be like to be a white Southerner growing up racist and parochial, and coming across My Morning Jacket.)  But books do that mind-expanding possibility much better, because all the work is in your mind.  Or so I think!  Whenever I come into one of the libraries in Burkina Faso and Ghana, which are well-stocked with African fiction and fiction from many other regions of the world, I always think about that one person in the village who never fit in, who always harbored doubts about local identity, and who found, with a shock, a character in a book who was just what they thought they themselves were: brave, different, and fully human.  Can you tell I'm a Reinaldo Arenas fan?

Anyway, Ride the Red Cycle is on its way to one of the Ghana libraries with two wonderful volunteers who will be there this summer.

By the way, Robinet has been a wonderful FAVL supporter for many years. 

Promoting reading... here at Santa Clara University

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Broncos Read - Fr. Michael Engh, SCU President
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Books, reading, and libraries relevant to Africa by Michael Kevane, co-Director of FAVL and economist at Santa Clara University.

Other contributors include Kate Parry, FAVL-East Africa director, Peace Corps volunteer Emilie Crofton, Krystle Austin, Elisee Sare, and Monique Nadembega.

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