Maxwell: The joy of reading, from father to son to daughter to grandsons

Parental involvement is key to teaching kids to read and appreciate education.
Published January 4

Finally, a few Pinellas African-American leaders, particularly St. Petersburg NAACP president Maria Scruggs, are showing the courage to publicly acknowledge that the lack of engagement by black parents in their children’s learning plays a major role in our children’s persistent academic failure.

During a recent NAACP meeting, Scruggs was unequivocal: “The (school) district has shown they just can’t do it. They have done what they can do, but now it’s time for the community to step in.” She also said that educating black children cannot happen only during the school day.

Getting the community involved is fine, but it is hardly enough. The key to closing the achievement gap is effective parental involvement. It is essential.

Let me share a few of my life experiences that illustrate the singular benefits of parental involvement.

My father, who died in 1999, dropped out of school in the eighth grade. For the rest of his life, he was a farm laborer. From ages 5 to 11, I traveled with him each growing season, planting and harvesting crops from Florida to Long Island, N.Y.

This uneducated man made all the difference in my life. An avid reader of comic books, Jet and Ebony magazines, he taught me to read before I entered first grade.

Each night after dinner, he would place me on a knee and read to me. I recall many of the titles – Green Lantern, Superman, Buster Brown, Captain Marvel, Captain America, Hawk and The Flash. With the patience of Job, he taught me to sound letters, syllables and whole words. I remember when I began to read complete sentences.

I recall reading an Apache Kid comic from cover to cover by myself. It was quite an accomplishment for a migrant kid. I was reading – and loving it – before I knew it was a formal activity.

My father’s attentiveness had other effects: It stirred my imagination and made life bearable in our isolated, violent labor camps.

Knowingly or not, my father fulfilled a sacred duty of parenthood: He was my first teacher. The love of reading he instilled in me led me to love all learning and to love school.

When I became a parent, I fully understood my role in my daughter’s academic life. I was fortunate in that my wife, a child of Mexican immigrants, and I were of one accord. When she was pregnant with our daughter, we read to the child in the womb. We had heard that reading to unborn children may give them a head start. That is what we wanted, a head start for our child.

After our daughter was born, we continued to read to her. We had books and other reading materials in every room. When our daughter was 2 years old, we would bring Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes and other colorful, big-lettered books to bed. We would place her between us and take turns reading.

The first advance-level book we read to her was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. She delighted in hearing the descriptions of scenes and characters and the clever dialogue. The next book we read to her was The Wizard of Oz. Same thing. She loved it. We moved on to The Hobbit and Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

One night out of the blue, we knew we had crossed over into a magical place when our daughter grabbed a book of her choice, crawled into bed with us and asked us to read to her. She did this regularly.

Reading had become integral to her life.

Today, my daughter is the mother of 8-year-old twin boys. They are avid readers. As far as I can tell, they love school. They perform well on all academic measures, and we have not received any reports of disciplinary problems.

The most important lesson I taught my daughter, which my father taught me, is this: Learning is free. Education – the formal process of attending classes at an institution, completing assignments and taking exams to earn a diploma or degree – costs money.

Learning, on the other hand, can be done by simply finding a comfortable, quiet place to sit and engage. There is nothing inherently difficult or mysterious about it. Just get parents involved. #

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