Suzanne Fields

Conservatives and other parents won their point. President Obama dropped his lesson plan for the schoolchildren of America. He didn't ask what they can do for him, as he first intended to do, but what they can do for themselves and country.

"We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect, so you can help solve our most difficult problems," he said. "If you don't do that -- if you quit on school -- you're not only quitting on yourself, you're quitting on your country." Nobody can argue with that.

The furor that preceded the speech was rage against the "cult of personality," and the White House did a good job of changing the subject to misrepresent what the furor was about. But as the Bard would say, "All's well that ends well."

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A good follow-up question might be how many of the kids he talked to would know who the Bard is -- the bright young man who introduced the president at Wakefield High would know -- but a lot of American kids are getting shortchanged by what they're reading, and not reading.

A new method of teaching reading has taken hold in many classrooms, allowing children in middle school to pick their own books for literature class. No more assigned classics. If a child prefers to read a Judy Blume novel or the "Twilight" vampire series rather than "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" or "To Kill a Mockingbird," he can get credit as a happy, satisfied reader. The idea is that he'll develop a love for reading -- a love he wouldn't develop if told what he should read.

Lorry McNeil, who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade English classes in a suburban Atlanta middle school, tells The New York Times how as a teenager she devoured the novels of Judy Blume and Danielle Steel. She disliked Mark Twain, even though she taught Twain later. Now she teaches "gifted" students and lets them choose what they want to read. She says they're more excited about their personal choices than the classics they're forced to read. She boasts that her students score well on standardized state reading tests, but standardized tests tell only how well a student tests to statistical standards, not necessarily to substance.

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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