Friday, February 25, 2005

I Want to Finish This

I want to finish what I brought up a few days ago regarding The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss or Theodor Geisel. This whole thing started when some people at Child_Lit started talking about how weird that book is.

Okay. Someone at Child_Lit linked to this article at The New Yorker, which related to the subject at hand. The first part of the article is all about The Cat in the Hat's connection to the Cold War. Wish I could explain that to you, but it shot right over my head.

No, the interesting part of the article comes after a brief discussion of how Geisel started to make a name for himself with his children's books from the late '30s through the mid-50s. At that point the way Americans learned to read in schools was coming under attack in a book called Why Johnny Can't Read, which I may have actually read back in my teacher ed days. (But, really, who knows?) The New Yorker article includes the following quote from Johnny relating to the quality of Dick and Jane readers: "horrible, stupid, emasculated, pointless, tasteless little readers, the stuff and guff about Dick and Jane or Alice and Jerry visiting the farm and having birthday parties and seeing animals in the zoo and going through dozens and dozens of totally unexciting middle-class, middle-income, middle-I.Q. children's activities that offer opportunities for reading 'Look, look' or 'Yes, yes' or 'Come, come' or 'See the funny, funny animal.'"

I really wanted to mention this because I loved, loved, Dick and Jane. And Alice and Jerry, too. I loved those primers about dads who wore suits to mysterious jobs and moms who did housework in dresses, high heels and pearls. I remember one story about the kids having a birthday party at which ice cream shaped like animals was served to the guests. I could not get enough of this stuff.

So then The New Yorker article goes on to say that Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) was engaged to write new school readers--with the assistance of vocabulary lists. His publisher gave him lists of words to use, words that were either recognizable by first graders or words that they could sound out given the phonics they had learned. The first book Geisel wrote in this way was...The Cat in the Hat.

Now, that was quite an impressive accomplishment. I'm not knocking it. Still, the whole idea of tens of thousands of kids learning to read from an array of books that exist primarily because of the words they contain rather than their stories or ideas me. Very brave new worldish. I wonder if this is still being done. Or, has Geisel, who was once cutting edge and the great new thing in education, now been been displaced, himself, by other methods/philosophies?

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