When I was in 6th grade, my parents, displeased with my less than Stakhanovite approach to labor, signed me up to deliver a weekly local, the Parkway Transcript. To my surprise, I very much liked the job. Carrying the enormous canvas bag with its orange reflective strap made me feel important, and paid employment was, back then anyway, an appealing novelty. However, when I entered high school, my folks decided to promote me to a daily, the Boston Globe. This was quite different. Each day began much earlier than I preferred, and Sunday mornings meant pushing a shopping cart along streets whose inclines I hadn’t previously noticed. It was at this age I developed my enduring dread of Christmas season, for the papers, padded with shopping ads, were heavier. Ringing doorbells to collect subscription fees taught me a lot about interpersonal skills, mostly that I lacked them.
I never see paperboys anymore. As best I can tell newspapers are now delivered by adults in cars. But I’m a holdout, more than a quarter-century later. I pick up stacks of the free daily Metro at the subway station and order my 6th grade students to pass them out (my interpersonal skills remain much the same). I’m an English teacher in Boston (my location, you will soon learn, matters to this story), and I like to read the Metro with my classes at least once a week.[i]
One reason is that my students like it. Were I to say, “Here is a packet of nonfiction texts! Now let us read several together and then you will finish reading the packet independently!” you’d hear the groans from across the street. But when this packet is called a newspaper, it’s a different proposition. Put it this way: I’m often asked if I’ve brought in newspapers; I’ve never been asked if I’ve copied any nonfiction text packets.
Additionally, I find the Metro very useful. (And here I should emphasize that I’m not shilling for the Metro, it’s just what I happen to use due to its convenience and freeness.[ii]) It is indeed a packet of nonfiction texts: editorials, letters, interviews, reviews, horoscopes, entertainment, sports, etc. (And, yup, news.) It’s great for all the normal stuff a teacher does: finding the main idea, determining the author’s purpose, learning vocabulary in context, etc. But mainly I like it because it teaches kids stuff they need to know.
For example, several weeks ago a student raised her hand to ask what “the Hub” was. “Good question!” I replied, and put it to the class. No one knew. As it turned out, in all four of my classes, totaling about a hundred children, there were only a handful who could connect Boston to its nickname. Now, I – like many teachers, I suspect – have long grown used to my students’ lack of knowledge about the world. Still, this took me well aback. Our school is in Boston. All of our students live in Boston. Our school even has “Boston” in its name. As adjective or noun, “Hub” appears in pretty much each issue of the newspaper I bring in, and I’ve been bringing them in for years. So we did a quick primer on city nicknames: the Big Apple, Tinseltown, the Windy City, etc. Now we all know that Beantown is the Hub.[iii]
At the beginning of each year, we spend a whole class orienting ourselves to newspapers to understand how to read them. In addition to the “5 Ws,” I add what I tell them is the most important question one can ask when reading an article: so what? I think that’s a fair question for you to pose at this point. Most of my students hadn’t known what the Hub is: so what?
Well, most of my students do not read with the competence we should expect of 6th graders in the world’s richest country. And as E.D. Hirsch says, “We need to see the reading comprehension problem for what it primarily is – a knowledge problem. There is no way around the need for children to gain broad general knowledge in order to gain broad general proficiency in reading.” I wince when I think of the years of fog my students had been reading through, not knowing why articles kept mentioning a curiously capitalized spoke holder.
Whatever you think the purpose of schooling is, you would probably agree that anyone who earns a diploma should be able to perform basic civic duties. If you were on trial in Boston, it’s unlikely you’d want your fate in the hands of jurors who didn’t know their own city’s nickname. But “Major City Nicknames” has never been on any curriculum I’ve taught. Nor would it ever have even occurred to me to include it. Nor would I ever include it. Because it’s something you should just know.
Teaching, like delivering newspapers, can be a solitary job. Please lend this old paperboy a hand by putting old-fashioned nonfiction text packets in young readers’ hands. I bet you’ll be surprised by what you learn.
[i] Yes, old-fashioned printed newspapers. At least until they start leaving stacks of tablets at the station.
[ii] NB roughly half the issues I can’t use due to, uh, content issues. Let us draw the curtain of charity over the time I had to send home a hundred letters of apology for not spotting an article on a topic that is most unfit to repeat here. Or anywhere, frankly.
[iii] In the spirit of full disclosure, I should confess my own ignorance. I’d explained to the students that this term was from an old Bostonian boast about being the center of the universe. Then I looked it up and learned it’s from Oliver Wendell Holmes, who originally coined it as “the hub of the solar system.” I mentioned this to a colleague, who pointed out that the spokes on the Bruins logo are a reference to this. I had never noticed that, and not for lack of exposure: around here Bruins logos are as plentiful as potholes.