On Literacy Month and Memories of Shogun, Astérix et Obélix
24 Jan 2019

On Literacy Month and Memories of Shogun, Astérix et Obélix

Dear families and friends,

Hebrew Foundation School is currently in the middle of Literacy Month, in which the whole school has taken on the challenge of reaching a reading goal of 10,000 pages, in all three languages. Each time a student reaches his or her reading goal (pages, chapters or books, depending on their grade level), they receive a “bookworm” sticker which is placed on a Reading Tree opposite the library.

The tree was produced by our Fine Arts teacher Monique Bensadon, with the help of some of her younger students during art class. In less than 2 weeks the tree is almost completely covered with so many bookworms! Once Literacy Month is over on February 22, a special set of activities and celebrations are planned.

The school’s Literacy Month, which is organized by English teacher Ellen Shapiro and Principal Brian Seltmann, but supported all our faculty, has brought up a lot of memories for me. For as long as I can remember, reading and a love of reading has been an enormous part of my life, and my childhood and teenage memories are filled with wonderful reading moments, from both home and school:

– Every weekend, my mother would take me and my brother and sisters on the 129 bus on Côte-Sainte-Catherine to the Jewish Public Library. We would load up on books, read them vociferously over the course of the week, and head back again to the library the following week for new books. One of my favourite parts was while my siblings were looking for books, I would head over to the shelf that had all the Tintin and Astérix et Obélix comics and just disappear into their stories.

– In elementary school, we used to leave the house pretty early in the morning to catch the 161 on Van Horne to go to Hebrew Academy, back in the days when it was at the end of the bus route in Côte-Saint-Luc, on Mackle road. We’d wind up at school often far before other students would arrive, and we were allowed to sit quietly in the library, especially during the cold winter mornings. The librarian, Norma Matthews, would come over to me and my brother Mordechai, and with a warm smile would look at us and say: “You know, I have just the book for you”. And without fail, she would give us a book to read that captivated us (I distinctly remember the Choose Your Own – Adventure series).

– In grade 4, the Jewish Public Library brought in the author Gordan Korman to speak to all the students in the Jewish Day School system. This is a few years after he had published This Can’t Be Happening at Macdonald Hall (in 1978, when Korman was only 14 years old), and he was the closest thing we had to a rock star celebrity, he was that big in our eyes.  We read all his books!

– And finally, in grade 8, my class had its own reading challenge. I wasn’t a particularly strong student, but I loved to read – it was cathartic, it was my escape. We had to track how many pages we read over a certain number of weeks, and I went deep down that particular rabbit hole. I smuggled books into class, hid them under my textbooks, and read throughout the school days. In what is probably a textbook case (pun intended) of false memory syndrome (of which I am rather susceptible to), I distinctly remember pilfering James Clavell’s book Shogun (I was big into ninjas in grade 8) from the library and speed reading it in one day… in school. The paperback edition of Shogun is 1,152 pages long.

Reading was everything to me. Reading fed my imagination. What I read gave me nightmares, for years in some cases, or inspired dreams and ideas that last to this day. It opened my horizons, it built up my vocabulary and language to connect to the world, to this very day. It helped me become a better writer.

I wonder about what would be if I was a kid nowadays growing up. With all the distractions – the internet, mobile phones and tablets, apps, video game consoles, YouTube, Netflix, TV On Demand, I really don’t believe I would have read anywhere near the level that I did as a child or teenager. And if I did read, it would most likely not have been for pleasure.

Research shows that reading for pleasure leads to success in school, the workplace, and life. Reading for pleasure helps students empathize with their friends and classmates and reduces their stress levels. Research into the reading habits of kids is rather depressing – there is a clear drop in reading among all kids, especially adolescents, over time, and reading for fun drops off dramatically as children grow.

I don’t believe there is an easy answer to all of this, and I don’t know if you can ever really put the toothpaste back in the tube here – I do know that home and school need to make the conscious choice and consistent effort to implement strategies for helping children and students read for knowledge and pleasure, and to cultivate a love of reading.

So this weekend, maybe put the phone away for a while, find that paperback or novel hiding on your shelf, and curl up on the sofa. Let your kids see you reading.  Open the chumash, the one you got at your Bar Mitzvah, and read the parsha of the week.  Take your kids to the library, read with them.  Find your old collection of comics or Mad magazines, and stack them in the bathroom. Order the newspaper and read the sport section or the cartoons at the breakfast table.  Put away the quarterly report, or that best-selling management book. Read for pleasure, or read for fun, but not for work.  Show your kids they can have fun without a screen or an organized sport.

Just read.

Shabbat Shalom u’mevorach.

Mar Abba