Because you are reading teachers, I do not need to convince you that everybody must read. I do not need to explain to you why everybody must read. I do not even need to tell you how everybody must read. That is what you do every day as reading teachers.
What I want to talk about today is what everybody must read. That may sound a bit odd to some of you, because reading is reading and very often, as long as we and our students can read, we are happy. Reading is a skill, and like many skills, it seems to be irrelevant what we read. We think of reading like driving. As long as we can drive a car, we should be able to drive an SUV. We might take a little time learning how to drive a truck, but we surely can, as long as we know how to drive a car. Driving is a skill. Reading is a skill. If we can read today’s newspapers, we should be able to read a book. That is what some of you believe. I have news for those of you that believe that. You are wrong. Boy, are you dead wrong.
Driving is indeed a skill, but it is not true that you can drive anything if you know how to drive a car. It depends on where you are driving. If you learned how to drive in, say, Midwest United States, where the speed limit is 40mph in small towns, I think you will have big problems driving in Los Angeles or New York or worse, in Manila. Yes, given a little time, you can adjust to the way people drive in places where traffic rules are routinely violated and speed limits hardly ever respected.
Swimming is also a skill, and if you know how to swim in a swimming pool, you can indeed swim in the ocean. But I don’t think you can swim the English channel or even Manila Bay, except after a while.
After a while. Given a little time. That is what I want to talk about today. If we know how to read a newspaper, we could read a book, after a while, given a little time. But time, my dear reading teachers, is what our students do not have. Time is what we do not have. We have time only to read newspapers. Most of us, most of our students, do not have time to read a book. If you learned to drive in Dumaguete, where the only thing you have to avoid are the tricycles, you will die if you drive to Baguio from Manila, because you will not know how to avoid the big buses driven by drivers taking shabu. If you learned to drive in the Midwest in the United States, you will die when you get to the Los Angeles freeways. If you swim only in swimming pools or in tourist beaches, you will drown when your cruise ship capsizes. True, after a while, given a little time, we could learn to survive on the North Luzon Expressway or LA or in the middle of the ocean, but we don’t really have time.
You know why we have to read books and not just newspapers. I don’t have to go into some philosophical discussion about the need for everybody to converse with the great minds of the past that produced the great books. And yet, many of us have neglected the most important element of reading, namely, not how or why to read, but what to read.
I will break the mold of a keynote speech by asking you to do something now. Take out a piece of paper and write down the numbers 1 to 5. List the titles of 5 books that you think all human beings should read before they die.
Now we will make another list. Write down the numbers 1 to 5. List the titles of 5 books that you think all Filipinos should read before they die.
Now we will make a third list. Write down the numbers 1 to 5. List the titles of your 5 favorite books.
Okay, now you have a list of at least 5 and perhaps as many as 15 books. Encircle the titles that you think your students, at the level you are teaching, should read.
If you did not encircle even one, you know what your problem is. None of the books you are teaching to your students are your favorites. How can you teach something that is not your favorite? I leave that to your teaching conscience.
If you encircled at least one, you know what you have to do. You have to redo your syllabus or even your curriculum so that, by the time your students finish the year or the term with you, they would have read that encircled book or those encircled books.
What to teach. Let me challenge you now by asking you to compare your list with that done by others, particularly those that make lists. When you go home, go to Amazon.com or any such website and look for lists. There are thousands, maybe millions of those. Compare your list to a couple of those. Better, compare your list to the one done by the Core Knowledge Foundation.
The theme of this seminar is “The Teacher as Reader and the Reader as Teacher.” You cannot be a reading teacher if you are not a reading teacher, a teacher who reads. You all know the old adage, you cannot teach what you do not have. You cannot teach the skill of reading if you do not have the skill of reading. You cannot teach the love of reading if you do not have the love of reading. You cannot expect your students to love reading if you yourself do not love reading. You cannot expect your students to read something new to them every day if you yourself do not read something new to you every day. Since you have read all those books in your three lists, otherwise you would not have been able to list their titles, then you must read books other than those. You must read something new every day. I am not saying that you must finish a new book every day, although I used to do that before my eyes deteriorated. I still finish a new book every week and sometimes more than one. What I am merely saying is that you must finish or at least start – in case you cannot stand the book – a new book at least every week.
A physical education teacher plays basketball or swims or whatever she or he teaches every day. A piano teacher plays the piano every day. A math teacher solves equations every day. A cooking teacher cooks every day. A reading teacher reads every day. Otherwise, you should not be a reading teacher.
It’s as simple as that. You teach reading, you read. If you cannot stand reading, if you hate reading, if you do not want to read, if you do not have time to read, my goodness, please find another job. Everybody else teaches what they do every day. You must read every day.
Now, to go back to my metaphor about driving and swimming. We learn to read using paragraphs and newspapers and easy stuff like that. But in real life, newspapers are not enough. You know this. You know why everybody has to read books. To survive in this world, which is very, very complex, everybody has to read books. They may read them now on the Web or on handheld computers, but they read them. We reading teachers like to point to the Harry Potter books as proof that everything is not lost for books, because more people bought those books than bought computers. But if everyone read only about Harry Potter, the human race would be in big trouble. We need to read the Great Books, and I don’t think even Rowling would consider her books Great Books. There is a danger that our students will consider her books Great Books. That is the danger that is facing us today. That is the challenge that we have today. We must get our students to read all those books that you have in those lists that you made. They may not read them in our classes, but they have to read them sometime before they die, or believe me, they will die. They will die not only spiritually or intellectually, but even physically. For only those that have learned the lessons of the past will survive the present, and there is only one way to talk to the people in the past, and that is to read what they wrote.
Tell me what you read and I will tell you who you are. Teach that to your students and you have become a truly reading reading teacher.
(Keynote address at the “Seminar on The Teacher as Reader and the Reader as Teacher” of the Nilda Sunga Training Center in Quezon City, Philippines, on 16 May 2008.)