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Jacqueline Woodson: What Is The Hidden Power Of Slow Reading?

Sep 20, 2019

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Teaching For Better Humans.

About Jacqueline Woodson's TED Talk

Novelist Jacqueline Woodson is a slow reader. Taking her time lets her savor each word, brings her closer to each story, and it lets her pay respect to her ancestors who weren't allowed to read.

About Jacqueline Woodson

Jacqueline Woodson is the author of nearly thirty books for children and adolescents, including many award winners like Brown Girl Dreaming and Miracle's Boys.

From 2014 to 2016, she served as the Young People's Poet Laureate. She is currently serving as the Library of Congress's National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, and is an occasional writer for the New York Times.

Woodson is the recipient of the Kurt Vonnegut Award, four Newbery Honors, two Coretta Scott King Awards, and the Langston Hughes Medal.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

OK. For the past hour or so we've been hearing about the formal and informal ways that we teach and how we can reassure kids that it is OK to look beyond academics and to value more than good grades. And I want to end the show on a little personal note, my 9-year-old daughter. My daughter loves to read, but she's not quite as fast as some of the other kids in class. And she was feeling bummed out about her slow reading until the day that author Jacqueline Woodson visited her school.

JACQUELINE WOODSON: Oh, really?

ZOMORODI: Yeah. And you talked about slow reading. And she came home, and she said to me, it's fine, it's just me. It's how I read. And I love reading, and it's fine. And she just sort of skipped across the room and looked lighter. The burden was lifted because you told her it was OK to be different. So I want to thank you personally for giving her that gift.

WOODSON: Thank her for hearing me. That completely makes my day. It's so...

ZOMORODI: Jacqueline has written dozens of books for children and young adults, including award winners like "Miracle's Boys" and "Brown Girl Dreaming." And my daughter's story reminded Jacqueline of her own slow reading.

WOODSON: You know, my sister was brilliant. My brother was brilliant. They were off-the-charts readers. And here I was coming along, and they're like, OK. What's wrong with this - what's - why is she reading differently? Why is she struggling with reading? And I read slowly, with my finger following beneath the words. I read the same passages over and over again and really just inhaled narrative in this way that it was part of all my senses. And I never saw it as a struggle. It was how I read.

ZOMORODI: Yeah.

WOODSON: But, you know, when you're a child and someone is saying, this isn't how one should do this, you begin to question because it's adults and it's their gaze. That's the mirror for you at that age.

ZOMORODI: Here's Jacqueline Woodson on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

WOODSON: The deeper I went into my books, the more time I took with each sentence, the less I heard the noise of the outside world. And so, unlike my siblings, who were racing through books, I read slowly - very, very slowly. I was that child with her finger running beneath the words until I was untaught to do this, told big kids don't use their fingers.

In third grade, we were made to sit with our hands folded on our desk, unclasping them only to turn the pages then returning them to that position. Our teacher wasn't being cruel. It was the 1970s, and her goal was to get us reading not just on grade level but far above it. And we were always being pushed to read faster.

But in the quiet of my apartment, outside of my teacher's gaze, I let my fingers run beneath those words. With each rereading, I learn something new. Years later, I would learn of a writer named John Gardner who referred to this as the fictive dream or the dream of fiction. And I would realize that this was where I was inside that book, spending time with the characters and the world that the author had created and invited me into.

As a child, I knew that stories were meant to be savored, that stories wanted to be slow and that some author had spent months, maybe years writing them. And my job as the reader, especially as the reader who wanted to one day become a writer, was to respect that narrative.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: Do you think, like - I mean, obviously, you are in touch with a lot of teachers, and you do work in schools. And is that something that you're seeing being taken on board - this idea of reading slowly, of savoring words, of not rushing kids?

WOODSON: I wish I was seeing it more. But when my kids were in fourth grade, their fourth grade test scores determined where they go to middle school. Their seventh grade test scores determined where they go to high school. And even now at the specialized schools and all the work we have to do around that, kids are stressed out. And I think that it's hard for teachers who have this curriculum that they have to adhere to to then say, well, you know what? Go take an hour with that book.

So I think that reading slowly needs to be expressed at home more. And kids should know that, at the end of the day, they can linger and they can relax somewhere. But I know a lot of those young people are reading slowly and probably getting flak for it. And to just kind of show up and be a mirror and say, look, I read slowly, too.

ZOMORODI: Yeah.

WOODSON: And I'm here. And there are going to be many, many people saying, this is not the way - and push through that.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

WOODSON: My finger beneath the words had led me to a life of writing books for people of all ages, books meant to be read slowly, to be savored. My love for looking deeply and closely at the world, for putting my whole self into it and by doing so seeing the many, many, many possibilities of a narrative turned out to be a gift because taking my sweet time taught me everything I needed to know about writing.

And writing taught me everything I needed to know about creating worlds where people can be seen and heard, where their experiences could be legitimized and where my story - read or heard by another person - inspired something in them that became a connection between us, a conversation. And isn't that what this is all about - finding a way at the end of the day to not feel alone in this world and a way to feel like we've changed it before we leave?

Sometimes we read to understand the future. Sometimes we read to understand the past. We read to get lost or forget the hard times we're living in. And we read to remember those who came before us, who lived through something harder. I write for those same reasons.

Before coming to Brooklyn, my family lived in Greenville, S.C., in a segregated neighborhood called Nicholtown. All of us there were the descendants of a people who had not been allowed to learn to read or write. Imagine that - the danger of understanding how letters form words, the danger of words themselves, the danger of a literate people and their stories.

As I began to connect the dots that connected the way I learned to write and the way I learned to read to an almost silenced people, I realized that my story was bigger and older and deeper than I would ever be. And because of that, it will continue.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WOODSON: We come from a history, as African Americans, of people who are not even allowed to read in this country, right?

ZOMORODI: Right.

WOODSON: And then there was a high rate of illiteracy because of that not being allowed to read. And then slowly, you know, people came to reading. And we're hungry for it or we stole reading, right? We read even under the threat of death. We taught ourselves even under that threat. So it makes so much sense for me to take the time.

ZOMORODI: And presumably, the way that someone who comes from a very different history or background can empathize or imagine or connect to what you went through and what your ancestors have gone through is through story, and frankly, those books didn't really exist when I was growing up.

WOODSON: The books like the ones I write?

ZOMORODI: Yeah.

WOODSON: Yeah. And that's part of the reason I write them because they didn't exist when I was growing up, either. You know, I grew up in Bushwick. And it was like, where were the books about a black girl growing up in Bushwick and in the home of a single mom and whose, you know, best friend was Puerto Rican and who - so - who grew up speaking Spanish and English? Like, I wanted to tell those stories.

ZOMORODI: Right.

WOODSON: I was indignant. Like, how dare the world not have my narrative in it.

ZOMORODI: I'm impressed that you were indignant, that you were that - who gave you that sense of, like, hello, you all need to hear my story, too?

WOODSON: I think what it was was my family saying, you matter.

ZOMORODI: Yeah.

WOODSON: I mean, I came out of Jim Crow South, right? So I came from South Carolina to New York City. And so I think somewhere along all those lines, people were saying, you matter. And then to hear all your life that you matter and you're amazing and you're brilliant and you're beautiful, and then to not see that in the world is like, wait a second. Like, I know my people weren't lying.

ZOMORODI: Right.

WOODSON: So America must be lying.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

WOODSON: So as technology continues to speed ahead, I continue to read slowly, knowing that I am respecting the author's work and the story's lasting power. And I read slowly to drown out the noise and remember those who came before me who probably carried with them the history of a narrative, knew deeply that writing it down wasn't the only way they could hold onto it, knew they could sit on their porches or their stoops at the end of a long day and spin a slow tale for their children.

They knew they could sing their stories through the thick heat of picking cotton and harvesting tobacco, knew they could preach their stories and sew them into quilts, turn the most painful ones into something laughable, and through that laughter, exhaled a history of a country that tried again and again and again to steal their bodies, their spirit and their story.

I read slowly to pay homage to my ancestors. Each time we read write or tell a story, we step inside their circle, and the power of story lives on. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

ZOMORODI: That's Jacqueline Woodson. She's a novelist. And she's also the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. You can find her full talk at ted.com

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SCHOOLDAYS (RING! RING! GOES THE BELL)")

CHUCK BERRY: (Singing) Up in the morning and out to school, the teacher is teaching the golden rule, American history and practical math. You studying hard and hoping to pass, working your fingers right down to the bone. And the guy behind you won't leave you alone.

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I have had such a great experience doing this show. I'm Manoush Zomorodi in for Guy Raz, and you've been listening to ideas worth spreading here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.