Ever since I started teaching, I have struggled with the idea of how to get students to actually read the books I wanted them to read. It is no secret that sites like Sparknotes and Shmoop give students what they need to know from the reading. They trick us into telling them the details they didn’t get from the internet, and write papers that tell us what they think we want to hear: the same boring analysis of plot, characters, and theme that shows up on the websites.
We know many, if not most, of even our top students are doing it, but we don’t know how to stop it. We give quizzes on content in an effort to make sure they are reading. The reality is that it only encourages our students to find quick, easily digestible summaries so they don’t risk missing any details they might need for the quiz.
They have figured out how to succeed in English class without reading the literature.
Looked at that way, the content quizzes and analytical essays, even the choice to use classic works of literature in the classroom, appear counter-productive. As a result, almost every book I hand out is met with grumbles.
My students “succeeded,” by the standards of the common core and our high school curriculum. They had interesting discussions, in which they touched on all the relevant topics. They turned their thoughts into well-organized essays, and worked like busy little bees to complete every task I could throw at them. In short, they were learning. But they were learning the way they learned math or science. By rote, through practice, through production and productivity.
The question we should be asking is not how, but why do we make our kids read?
At first, the answer I came up with was simple: we want them to read so they can participate in discussions in class that grow their intellectual worlds. If they can do that by reading bite-sized summaries instead of the books themselves – which many fakers can – then maybe we shouldn’t care if they actually read.
The purpose of reading literature is to reflect and grow, to change, just a little bit, as a member of the human family. Literature changes you because it brings you close to an experience that you have not had. That experience can help you understand other people’s points of view, or can help you understand yourself a little better. That kind of reflection and understanding cannot be taught.
But I have also found that most efforts to funnel that experience into a lesson plan serve mostly to sap the students of any interest or motivation. I chose to be an English teacher because I want to facilitate the growth and maturity that comes with reading, not test students on how well they remember what happens in chapter seven of The Great Gatsby.
Why We Read
Almost a decade into my teaching career, with a better answer for why I want students to read, I knew that I had to come up with something more tangible than “reading helps you grow.” It was while struggling with that idea during a winter break and reading Seth Davis’ 2014 biography of John Wooden that something more tangible struck.
Reading about how Wooden ran a practice, I thought of a way that one of his drills could be adapted for lacrosse. It was a simple process, something that I did constantly, applying what I learned to my career as a teacher or coach, but because the question of how to get my students to read was in the back of my mind, this struck a new thought in me: I thought of that drill because I was reading the book. It was not something any of my students would have thought of, and it’s certainly not something that would show up on Shmoop or Sparknotes, if they ever created a page on that book.
That was when I realized, it was not thinking about the book that mattered, it was thinking because of the book.
I didn’t want students to come to class ready to discuss the events and characters; I wanted them to come ready to discuss ideas. Their ideas. The ideas that could only come from them because of their unique perspective. When I came up with that lacrosse drill, I did so because I was a lacrosse coach reading a basketball book, and what I thought while reading reflected my identity as much as it did the content of the book.
Each student has his or her own identity to bring to reading, and through that filter, each can have unique and exciting ideas about what they read, or ideas loosely connected to the book that they have because they read. Those are the ideas I want them coming to class prepared to discuss. Those are the ideas that will help them grow.
Teachers can help students see their reading experience more personally by creating a space to explore those ideas. Explain the difference between about and because, and let students spend time in the because world. It may be uncomfortable at first to allow discussions to move so far from the book, at times students might veer off-topic, but as long as the teacher keeps pushing their thinking, as long as the students are exercising critical thinking skills and analysis of text, self, and world, it should not matter that they are no longer talking about a book.
The best use of a high school English classroom is as a venue for academic discourse that starts with the book, encourages students to think anything, then moves beyond what they thought because of the book, to refine and develop original ideas about the human experience.
The next question is: what should students be reading? There is a strong movement in high school to abandon canonized classics in favor of high-interest contemporary works. In post 2, I explain why classics still have place in the classroom.
Davis, Seth. Wooden: A Coach’s Life. New York: St. Martin’s, 2014. Print.