"A book is the most effective weapon against intolerance and ignorance."--LBJ

"There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them."--Joseph Brodsky

“Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”—Groucho Marx

"The man who does not read good books is no better than the man who can't."--Mark Twain

"Give me a man or woman who has read a thousand books and you give me an interesting companion. Give me a man or woman who has read perhaps three and you give me a dangerous enemy indeed."

--Anne Rice

December 7, 2012

Los Libros de Paco X. Dominguez

Francisco “Paco” Dominguez is an El Paso attorney practicing employment and civil rights law.  A native of Ciudad Juarez, Paco graduated from Socorro High School and attended Oberlin College in Ohio.  He and his wife Lynn currently live in the Newman Park Neighborhood in Central El Paso, where they are raising their two children, Oriana and Kiki.  

What book(s) are on your nightstand?
Ha!  Que es un night stand?  We have books all over the place.  Right now I'm trying/hoping to finish Malcolm X: A Life of ReInvention (Manning Marable) and Gustavo Arellano's Taco USA.

What book(s) are on your children’s nightstand?
Kiko (9 y.o.) -- Andrew Clements books and The Hardy Boys.
Ori (11 y.o.) -- Twilight series (she started that without our permission), and the Clique series by Lisi Harrison.  
(They both already went through the entire Harry Potter and Rick Riordan series, as well as the Sisters Grimm series.)

What was/is your reading ritual with your children?
We've been reading to them since the day they were born.  Every night, no matter what, no matter how tired, no matter how late, we would read something.  At first, it was board books (Goodnight Gorilla, We're Going on a Bear Hunt, Sandra Boynton books, etc.).  Then a myriad of books that I could go on and on about (Papa Do You Love Me; Please, Baby, Please; Click Clack Moo, etc.; Don't let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, etc.; The Quiltmaker's Gift, etc., etc., etc.).  But it all changed when we started the Chronicles of Narnia.  Oriana must have been about 6 years old.  We were reading one or two chapters per night.  I stayed at the office late one night and didn't get home in time for the bedtime reading routine.  The next night, when I went to pick up where I left off, Oriana, in an extremely repentant tone (and look), tells me, "Daddy, I'm sorry, but I couldn't wait and I read without you last night."  It was bittersweet.

The same happened with Kiko.  One day, he couldn't wait and went on reading without me.

They read every night before they go to bed (except now that she's in Middle School, Ori has nights where she stays up way too late with homework and doesn't read), but they both read at breakfast.  

Occasionally, I still get to read to them, particularly in Spanish.  They both really like that.  They both also love to read to us now.  Last summer Kiko discovered Calvin & Hobbes, which he still constantly reads to me.

One of my favorite things about the kids' reading habits is that they love to re-read the same books.

 What book do you absolutely need to make sure your children read?
Do you mean when they are older?  Autobiography of Malcolm X; A Season of Adventure; I Am Joaquin; One Hundred Years of Solitude; to name a few.  (I know you only asked for one.  If it's limited to one, it would probably be Malcolm or Garcia Marquez)

What were your favorite books growing up?
As a little kid?  Encyclopedia Brown, Oscar Otter, Sydney Hoff books, and comic books from Juaritos.  Middle school, books about supernatural events and mysteries.  Sadly, I didn't read much in high school.
What was the last book you gifted to your children?

Do you encourage your children to watch the movie or read the book first?
Always read the book first.  That's their choice too.

What’s next on your reading list?
I'm the only one in the family that hasn't read The Hunger Games.  That's probably next.  Also, Aristotle & Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

June 6, 2012

The Giving Tree and Graduations

The Giving Tree and Graduations
Carlos Gallinar

A man has made at least a start on discovering the meaning of human life when he plants shade trees
under which he knows full well he will never sit.—D. Elton Trueblood

June brings with it the warm weather, the cool southwest nights, and the myriad of high school graduations; all those young souls helplessly ignorant but overtly confident.  This also means it’s time for the proverbial “set out and conquer your dreams” children’s inspirational books as gifts.  A Google search for “best children’s books as graduation gifts” results in a long list of sites with most of them indexing “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” by Dr. Seuss in the top ten.  The Huffington Post has it right before Appointment in Samara  by John O’Hara  and Amazon’s “Great Graduation Gift Books” list has it at number three after The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran (one of my favorites; the chapter “On Children” is a must read for every parent).  Surprisingly, not many include the classic “The Giving Tree” by the prolific Shel Silverstein, certainly one of the best children’s books, period.  And yes, perhaps the best one to gift (no pun intended) to aspiring adults. 

(from the New York Times)
Sheldon Allan Silverstein who died in 1999 at age 67 was a talented man.  Known mostly for penning some of the coolest and wittiest poetry in the kid’s books A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends, Silverstein was also a songwriter for Johnny Cash, a playwright, and a cartoonist for Playboy.  He was also an art school dropout.  “The Giving Tree” was published in 1964 and has been translated into 30 languages; in Spanish it’s called El árbol generoso. 

True to form, I was first “given” this book by a dear friend back in 1998 when I graduated from UTEP.  It was a great time in my life and I appreciated the message.  And back then—as I do now—I remember having mixed feelings about the book: it made me both sad and happy at the same time.

Most recently I was reminded of the book by another dear friend Richard Pineda, a professor in the Communications Department at UTEP.  Richard is a phenomenal individual and one of the coolest professors at UTEP; he’s a Chicano that wears bow-ties and a lovely and decent man; just a classic bad-ass.  At the end of the spring semester, Richard makes it a point to read the book to his graduating seniors.  I’ll get back to this in a second.    

My wife Janine checked out the book for us from the El Paso Main Public Library during one of her mid-week visits w/ our kids.  Olivia, Joaquin, and I huddled in my bed last week to read the book right before bedtime.  And while I once again really, really enjoyed the story (as did my kids) I was still left wondering: “so what the heck is this book about?”  Is it about this selfish boy who takes and takes?  Or is it about a Buddhist tree that is only happy by giving and giving?  Is it about reciprocity?  Is it about childhood?  Or more about adulthood?  Is it about man vs. nature and how man takes and takes for all its material wants?  Is it about parent-child relationships? Are we to identify with one or the other? Or is it really just about a boy beloved by a tree and I, like others, am reading too much into it? 

For those of you who haven’t read it, the story goes like this: there’s a tree and a boy and at first they have a great relationship built on reciprocity: the tree gives the boy a place to climb, leaves for a crown, apples, and shade and in return the tree is happy.  They even play hide-and-seek.  But then, as the boy grows older, he visits the tree less and less but the tree still continues to give the man-child its gifts, including its branches for him to build a house.  Subsequently, the man’s visits are seldom and sporadic and really only when he needs something.  The second to the last visit is when the boy is a depressed and tired old man and asks the tree for a boat that will take him “far away from here.”  The tree’s offer to the man is to be cut down so he can build a boat to “sail away and be happy.”  So the boy—I mean man—does just that.  Finally, the boy returns as a very old man in the twilight of his life that only needs “a quiet place to sit and rest.”  So the tree—now a stump—offers him a place to rest.  And once more the tree is happy. 

Did you get all that?  Can you try explaining this to your kids when they are older and might be able to rationalize and differentiate between healthy and psychotic relationships? 

Here’s some info from Wikipedia: 

“Some academic readers describe the book as portraying a vicious, one-sided relationship between the tree and the boy; the tree is a selfless giver, and the boy as a greedy and insatiable entity that constantly receives, yet never gives anything back to the tree. The boy has a selfish love that could be misrepresented and imitated by its young readers. Indeed, some of these speakers single the tree out as an irresponsible parent whose self-sacrifice has left the boy ill-equipped. Other readers argue that the tree gives everything to the boy freely because it loves him, and its feelings are reciprocated by the boy when he returns to the tree for a rest. In this way, the relationship between the tree and the boy as he grows up could be viewed as similar to that between a parent and child; despite getting nothing in return for a long time, the tree puts the boy's needs foremost, because it wants him to be happy. Indeed, the only time the tree ever seems to be sad is when it feels that it has nothing left to give the boy and that the boy might never return.

As Timothy P. Jackson, a former professor of Religious Studies at Stanford University put it:

Is this a sad tale? Well, it is sad in the same way that life is depressing. We are all needy, and, if we are lucky and any good, we grow old using others and getting used up. Tears fall in our lives like leaves from a tree. Our finitude (sic) is not something to be regretted or despised, however; it is what makes giving (and receiving) possible. The more you blame the boy, the more you have to fault human existence. The more you blame the tree, the more you have to fault the very idea of parenting. Should the tree's giving be contingent on the boy's gratitude? If it were, if fathers and mothers waited on reciprocity before caring for their young, then we would all be doomed.
Jackson, linking the story to the human condition, asserts that readers ought to identify with both the boy and the tree (Wikipedia).”

So maybe we are to be both tree and child.  To be both roots planted and free spirited.  As parents we face this dichotomy every single day; how much do we give and how much do we hold back.  Certainly, we have no choice but to be the lovers of our children; to give and give knowing that the value of our investment won’t be known until twenty years from now, or maybe never.  We might never know what good we’ve done our kids. 

Richard reading The Giving Tree to his class.
Back to graduations.  When I asked my friend Richard why he reads this book to his departing students, he said:

“So my high school debate coach picked a book for each of her senior classes; that was ours.  We were her last class at Eastwood so that was a big deal.  I think the tree is a lot like the student’s education: always there no matter what.  I started reading it [to students] in Cali and have kept it on since then.  About a year ago and half ago, one graduating student asked to come back to hear it.”

And in there might be the answer.   

May 3, 2012

"Los Libros" de Eric Pearson

“Los Libros” de Eric Pearson

Eric Pearson, Puro El Paso.  My sons, whom I hope can come up with the same love for this town, are Patrick, who is almost 9, and Maximo, 7.  I grew up here, came up through public schools and UTEP, and had a lot of travel to round out my education.  I worked as a broadcast journalist in the 80's and 90's, and came to work at the El Paso Community Foundation in 2004.  

What book(s) are currently on your night stand? 

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, Spark by John Ratey, and The Magician by W. Somerset Maugham.  I have been revisiting Radical Evolution by Joel Garreau, because the subject of the book is about how to keep a human perspective amidst wild and exponentially faster advances in technology.  My friends who have lately become interested in what I'm reading think I'm all about science reading.  This is a long way from the truth, but lately, for reasons you'll see in a minute, I'm hitting the science books.

What book(s) are currently on your kids’ night stand?  

Patrick is reading The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling, and he always has something by Rick Riordan (Percy Jackson series) in his hands.  Maximo is going through the Flat Stanleys right now, and loves (in spite of my cringing at the poor spelling and grammar) the Captain Underpants books.  Together, we are reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain-- complete with a lot of Dad's historical context lessons-- and we just finished Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne.  I'm told I MUST read Now We Are Six to follow up.

What was/is your reading ritual with your children?
After school once or twice a week, they read in my office while I work.  Nightly, they get about a half hour to 45 minutes independently to read.  I read to them once or twice a week when I put them to bed.

What book do you absolutely need to make sure your children read?  

The Little Prince by Antoine de St. Exupéry should be read at least 50 times throughout their lives.  I just want them to read a lot of things from a lot of different points of view.

What were your favorite books growing up?  

When I was small, it was all about The Velveteen Rabbit.  Later, I loved In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash by Jean Shepherd, and anything by Jack London.  I just pulled out a box of old Hemingway and Steinbeck novels from my college days, and I really enjoyed them again.  Tortilla Flats, Cannery Row, The Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bell Tolls.  Also in my early adult life, I enjoyed Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko, Bless Me, Ultima and Albuquerque by Rodolfo Anaya, and the essays of Jose Antonio Burciaga.  It's important to have some local ties.

What's your earliest memory of reading a book?  

About 5 am, generally (it's a joke).  The memories themselves are of reading in a little guest house out in the back of our place, with my sisters.  I had a favorite poem about "Custard the Dragon," which I am sure I have not seen in a while.  I'm looking it up in about 47 seconds.

What was the last book you gifted to your children?  

A collection of short stories by Kipling, which we read together.  For them, I have spend an inordinate amount of time reading science books, such as Parasite Rex by Carl Zimmer and Packing for Mars by Mary Roach.  My eldest's long-time favorite was A Field Guide to North American Bugs and Insects before he found Harry Potter and Percy Jackson.  Go figure.  

Do you encourage your children to watch the movie or read the book first?  

Book.  It's hard, though.  The movies they see are more child-oriented material than the books they read.  My kids' books become PG-13 rated movies, for which I'm not ready (even if they are).

What’s next on your reading list?  

I have a few queued up, mostly old classic stuff lately.  A friend has recommended Aristotle's Ethics.  I just moved, and found an old photocopy of a list of "the 100 greatest novels in the English Language," so I'll keep that on the wall.  I'm trying to be more cultured, I guess.  Always looking for recommendations.

April 29, 2012

A Rival For Pigeon In Willems' New Duckling--By NPR News

A Rival For Pigeon In Willems' New 'Duckling'

April 24, 2012
Pigeon image

For a certain set of readers, one need only say the word "pigeon" to set off a frenzied outburst of delight. Pigeon is the star of a series of best-selling children's books, including The Pigeon Finds a Hotdog! and Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! He's not much more than a stick figure with two circles for eyes, but he can still get huffy and display all the melodrama of a 4-year-old.

Author Mo Willems says the character of Pigeon first appeared in the margins of other projects, and demanded to be written about.
Pigeon's creator is Mo Willems, whose latest book, The Duckling Gets a Cookie!? co-stars Pigeon's oh-so-adorable little web-footed friend. Pigeon isn't mentioned in the title of the new book, a situation he does not appreciate. Willems tells NPR's Renee Montagne that while his books are funny to young readers, they're often a tragedy for poor Pigeon. "On the first page, I think, Pigeon says, 'I do not like the look of that title.' "

Author Mo Willems says the character of Pigeon first appeared in the margins of other projects, and demanded to be written about.
Willems says Pigeon is the only one of his characters that he didn't create himself. As an aspiring picture book author, he spent a month in Oxford, England, hoping to improve his craft. It didn't work. "And I made all these really terrible books," he says, "and in the margins, I started drawing this pigeon who was complaining about the other books."

The fowl-tempered pigeon commanded Willems to stop working on his other books and pay attention: " 'Don't write about them. Write about me. I'm funnier,' " he recalls the pigeon telling him. "So ... I turned him into a sketchbook that I did for clients and friends." That sketchbook ended up in the hands of an agent.

"Now look at the mess I'm in," Willems says wryly.

Like novelists whose characters seem to develop an independent life, Willems says his Pigeon ends up somewhere in every book he writes. "And he just hates it when I'm not writing about him!"
Duckling, the star of Willems' newest book, is the polar opposite of cranky Pigeon. "Duckling is really the sweetest, kindest, most adorable little duckling. Duckling gets everything, and Pigeon doesn't," he says. "It's just part of another injustice that is around the pigeon. He doesn't get to drive the bus, he doesn't get to stay up late, and now he has to deal with this super cute, adorable thing that seems to be getting all the attention."

Duckling cover image

Pigeon's frustrations reflect the experiences of young children. "When you're a little kid, it just, it stinks," Willems says. "The furniture's not made to your scale, you can, literally, if you're having fun and somebody wants you to stop, they can lift you up and fly you into another room, they can take you away. You have to ask permission to go to the bathroom. And so here, I think, is the chance for you to stick it to the pigeon," which, Willems says, is just human nature. "If we're being trodden down, we're really looking for an opportunity to do it to somebody else."

Willems doesn't shy away from big issues, like loss, injustice and death. We Are in a Book! features his characters Elephant and Piggie, who realize that not only are they characters in a book, but that the book must soon come to an end. "This is the great thing about writing for kids, is the things that really matter to us as humans are heightened as a kid," he says. "It's love, it's jealousy, it's justice, it's wanting to drive a bus — these core, fundamental philosophical issues."

Willems has written for television as well as print; he won six Emmy awards for his work on Sesame Street. He says he's used to writing words that will be read aloud, whether by actors or parents telling a bedtime story — people he calls his "orchestra."

"And I have to make sure that my orchestra is engaged, that they're maybe being sillier than they normally are, that they're yelling and jumping around, so that that's what's going to make the book work better," he says.

"I want parents to be engaged, and I want them to laugh, because then it's cool," he adds. "I think that sometimes parents forget that they are the coolest people in the world to kids ... so if they're enjoying reading a book, suddenly the kid is going to say, 'Wow, reading books is awesome!' "

April 25, 2012

Mrs. Harkness and the Panda

Mrs. Harkness and the Panda
Written by Alicia Potter, Illustrated by Melissa Sweet
 Blog Post By: Carlos Gallinar

The first time I saw a real life breathing panda was in 1998 in Mexico City’s Chapultepec Zoo.  I was on a university field trip and my first time to Mexico City.  Having grown up with Mexican immigrant parents, I had often heard my mother talk about the pandas of Chapultepec, the national zoo mostly known for housing three donated female pandas from China in the 1970s.  Xiu Hua, Shuan Shuan and Xin Xin—along with subsequent panda bears (both propagated and loaned)—have made this national attraction one of the most visited places in Mexico City paralleled only to the pyramids of the sun and moon in Teotihuacan. 

With limited time and a full agenda filled with lectures, site visits to various historical and archaeological sites, I arrived at Chapultepec with the sole mission of seeing the famous pandas.  It seemed that many visitors to the zoo had the same idea as a large mass of people hurried towards the direction of the panda biosphere, all pulled by the anticipation of seeing one of the world’s most enigmatic creatures.

The idea of having captive pandas in Chapultepec and other zoos across the world can be traced to one adventurous and determined woman named Ruth Harkness who in 1936 brought to the United States the first live panda.  In Mrs. Harkness and the Panda, Alicia Potter retells the story of a New York City dress designer and wife who sets off to China with the sole mission of finding and capturing a live panda, seemingly inspired by her dead husband’s original and failed mission to do the same.  A year earlier, William H. Harkness, Jr., a zoo biologist died in Shanghai on the onset of a panda seeking expedition.  Determined to carry out his goal, with no experience with animals of her own and never having traveled abroad, Ruth set out to the remote and largely unexplored border region between China and Tibet, the same area where her husband had failed.  Mrs. Harkness is a good story considering that most little girls reading this would not be familiar with this woman and her story.  Amelia Earhart, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Dolores Huerta, and other notable women’s lives are retold ad nauseum at schools across this country; this is a refreshing and mostly untold story of this New Yorker.  

The story is not without fault.  Potter’s blithe description of the baby panda’s capture (named Su Lin, which means "a little bit of something very cute") and ensuing forced diaspora to the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago as a “home away from home” made me shriek a bit.  It made me pause mid-sentence wanting to explain to my children that it probably wasn’t all that great for Su Lin to have lost her mother and been pulled from its original habitat as a blind and helpless infant weighing only three pounds.  I guess they’ll be plenty of time when my kids are older to explain this in a different light.  For now Olivia and Joaquin seemed content listening to me read the text juxtaposed with the beautiful images of maps, sepia pictures of boats, and bright watercolor drawings on pages with varying shades of maroon and saffron-yellow accented textures customary to the Orient. 

Written for the 5 to 8 year old range, Olivia who is four seemed much more interested than by two year old Joaquin.  This observation, coupled with the message of the book aimed towards girls—and frankly, my own fatherly bias of wanting to instill in my daughter a sense of intrepidness and a desire that she travel the world a hundred times over—made me direct my intonations and facial expressions more towards Olivia than Joaquin.  My wife had to remind me that “Joaquin wants to see too daddy.”  And so yes, my son, and all other boys and young men would be well served learning about a woman who with little hunting or expedition experience but with a lot of heart and courage, set out to fulfill a dream when so many dubious people discouraged her and during an era when women were expected to be docile and diffident.  

Reading this book took me back to that time in Mexico City.  Hurrying along with others to catch a glimpse of the pandas, I arrived expecting to see them filled with brio and bouncing around like children, as I had seen in many documentaries.  Instead they were like many other zoo animals, lethargic and ostensibly bored.  The black ovals around their eyes gave them the perpetual look of sadness.  And now, tonight, after putting my children to bed and reflecting on the story of Mrs. Harkness, I can’t help but wonder if, a long time ago, before human eyes had ever seen this magical creature’s face, those eyes were once vibrant and happy.    Unfortunately this book  does not say.                                                              
(IMAGE ABOVE RIGHT: The body of Su Lin now on display at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago)


"Teach the Books, Touch the Heart"


Teach the Books, Touch the Heart

FRANZ KAFKA wrote that “a book must be the ax for the frozen sea inside us.” I once shared this quotation with a class of seventh graders, and it didn’t seem to require any explanation.

We’d just finished John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” When we read the end together out loud in class, my toughest boy, a star basketball player, wept a little, and so did I. “Are you crying?” one girl asked, as she crept out of her chair to get a closer look. “I am,” I told her, “and the funny thing is I’ve read it many times.”
But they understood. When George shoots Lennie, the tragedy is that we realize it was always going to happen. In my 14 years of teaching in a New York City public middle school, I’ve taught kids with incarcerated parents, abusive parents, neglectful parents; kids who are parents themselves; kids who are homeless or who live in crowded apartments in violent neighborhoods; kids who grew up in developing countries. They understand, more than I ever will, the novel’s terrible logic — the giving way of dreams to fate.

For the last seven years, I have worked as a reading enrichment teacher, reading classic works of literature with small groups of students from grades six to eight. I originally proposed this idea to my principal after learning that a former stellar student of mine had transferred out of a selective high school — one that often attracts the literary-minded offspring of Manhattan’s elite — into a less competitive setting. The daughter of immigrants, with a father in jail, she perhaps felt uncomfortable with her new classmates. I thought additional “cultural capital” could help students like her fare better in high school, where they would inevitably encounter, perhaps for the first time, peers who came from homes lined with bookshelves, whose parents had earned not G.E.D.’s but Ph.D.’s.

Along with “Of Mice and Men,” my groups read: “Sounder,” “The Red Pony,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Lord of the Flies,” “The Catcher in the Rye,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Macbeth.” The students didn’t always read from the expected perspective. Holden Caulfield was a punk, unfairly dismissive of parents who had given him every advantage. About “The Red Pony,” one student said, “it’s about being a dude, it’s about dudeness.” I had never before seen the parallels between Scarface and Macbeth, nor had I heard Lady Macbeth’s soliloquies read as raps, but both made sense; the interpretations were playful, but serious. Once introduced to Steinbeck’s writing, one boy went on to read “The Grapes of Wrath” and told me repeatedly how amazing it was that “all these people hate each other, and they’re all white.” His historical perspective was broadening, his sense of his own country deepening. Year after year, ex-students visited and told me how prepared they had felt in their freshman year as a result of the classes.

And yet I do not know how to measure those results. As student test scores have become the dominant means of evaluating schools, I have been asked to calculate my reading enrichment program’s impact on those scores. I found that some students made gains of over 100 points on the statewide English Language Arts test, while other students in the same group had flat or negative results. In other words, my students’ test scores did not reliably indicate that reading classic literature added value.

Until recently, given the students’ enthusiasm for the reading groups, I was able to play down that data. But last year, for the first time since I can remember, our test scores declined in relation to comparable schools in the city. Because I play a leadership role in the English department, I felt increased pressure to bring this year’s scores up. All the teachers are increasing their number of test-preparation sessions and practice tests, so I have done the same, cutting two of my three classic book groups and replacing them with a test-preparation tutorial program. Only the highest-performing eighth graders were able to keep taking the reading classes.

Since beginning this new program in September, I have answered over 600 multiple-choice questions. In doing so, I encountered exactly one piece of literature: Frost’s “Road Not Taken.” The rest of the reading-comprehension materials included passages from watered-down news articles or biographies, bastardized novels, memos or brochures — passages chosen not for emotional punch but for textual complexity.

I MAY not be able to prove that my literature class makes a difference in my students’ test results, but there is a positive correlation between how much time students spend reading and higher scores. The problem is that low-income students, who begin school with a less-developed vocabulary and are less able to comprehend complex sentences than their more privileged peers, are also less likely to read at home. Many will read only during class time, with a teacher supporting their effort. But those are the same students who are more likely to lose out on literary reading in class in favor of extra test prep. By “using data to inform instruction,” as the Department of Education insists we do, we are sorting lower-achieving students into classes that provide less cultural capital than their already more successful peers receive in their more literary classes and depriving students who viscerally understand the violence and despair in Steinbeck’s novels of the opportunity to read them.

It is ironic, then, that English Language Arts exams are designed for “cultural neutrality.” This is supposed to give students a level playing field on the exams, but what it does is bleed our English classes dry. We are trying to teach students to read increasingly complex texts, but they are complex only on the sentence level — not because the ideas they present are complex, not because they are symbolic, allusive or ambiguous. These are literary qualities, and they are more or less absent from testing materials.

Of course no teacher disputes the necessity of being able to read for information. But if literature has no place in these tests, and if preparation for the tests becomes the sole goal of education, then the reading of literature will go out of fashion in our schools. I don’t have any illusions that adding literary passages to multiple-choice tests would instill a love of reading among students by itself. But it would keep those books on the syllabus, in the classrooms and in the hands of young readers — which is what really matters.

Better yet, we should abandon altogether the multiple-choice tests, which are in vogue not because they are an effective tool for judging teachers or students but because they are an efficient means of producing data. Instead, we should move toward extensive written exams, in which students could grapple with literary passages and books they have read in class, along with assessments of students’ reports and projects from throughout the year. This kind of system would be less objective and probably more time-consuming for administrators, but it would also free teachers from endless test preparation and let students focus on real learning.

We cannot enrich the minds of our students by testing them on texts that purposely ignore their hearts. By doing so, we are withholding from our neediest students any reason to read at all. We are teaching them that words do not dazzle but confound. We may succeed in raising test scores by relying on these methods, but we will fail to teach them that reading can be transformative and that it belongs to them.

An English teacher at a public middle school in Manhattan.