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Student Literacy in Washington Spotlighted in PEN/Faulkner Panel Discussion

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What does it mean to be the nation's most literate city, particularly when 80 percent of that city's 8th graders are struggling to read at grade level?

That's a question that Washington Post book critic Ron Charles and three panelists--Leslie Cockburn, a writer and filmmaker; Daniel Kois, a senior editor for the online magazine Slate; Alissa Repanshek, a marketing event manager with  PricewaterhouseCoopers; and  Mary Kay Zuravleff, an author and educator--considered  this week during the Scottish Rite Freemasons' annual PEN/Faulkner dinner.

Among other issues, they discussed how new nonfiction-reading requirements in the Common Core State Standards could affect student literacy and classroom-assigned novels.  

An educator and bookseller at renowned D.C. bookstore Politics and Prose, Zuravleff asked what constituted nonfiction reading for students. "Are they reading Sports Illustrated? Are they reading Facebook posts?" Zuravleff asked.

Kois noted that the common standards "brings out a literate versus a literary city," while Charles said "the nonfiction shift makes it so that students lose out on the city's literary culture."

Repanshek addressed the standards' effect on educators: "Because of educational requirements, teachers are so focused on core curricula and teaching to the test that they don't have enough time in the day to teach novels, which is no fault of their own."

As the discussion progressed, Kois and Repanshek weighed in on how reading is more socially accepted by young people today than in the past. Dubbing the love of reading "nerdery," Kois explained the degree to which his children and their friends view reading as acceptable.

"'Nerdery' as a way of being is a lot more accepted than it was 30 years ago," he said, to which Repanshek added that reading is not only accepted but deemed "cool."  

"One of the reasons reading is cool is technology. Technology has given kids more access," Repanshek said, who also noted that reading "brings value to the classroom and excites the kids."

So how can struggling students improve their literacy skills? For Cockburn, it starts with the adults that surround them.  

"To be exposed to and to be around adults who write and read is key," she said.

--With contributions by Mary Hendrie

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