Turning Sparknotes and Shmoop into Allies in the Educational Process

Kevin Siedlecki

Kevin Siedlecki is in his 8th year as an English teacher at Daniel Hand High School. He also coaches freshman boys football and varsity girls lacrosse.

Students are going to great lengths to avoid reading literature. Rather than read classic texts, they will spend hours reading using Sparknotes, Shmoop, Gradesaver, and other internet sites that offer students a shortcut to understanding.

For a long time, I considered the sites traitors to academia: academics writing short, easily digestible summaries and analyses and posting them on the internet. A quick internet search provides students with the information they needed without going through the process of reading and thinking about literature. Teachers have been fighting those traitors, and losing to them, for my entire career.

I wonder if, like I often tell our students about their writing, am I using the wrong verb?

English teachers cannot fight the internet; we have to learn to work with it.

The Truth Behind the Answers

For years I avoided internet sources about the texts my students were reading in the classroom. Part of the reason was simply that I did not want students to think I was just getting information from there. If I am honest with myself, though, I was also turning a blind eye to how much my students were getting from the internet.

Too often, when I check, I find that a student’s “insight” was a recited from Sparknotes, Shmoop, or some other internet resource. That explains why they are so often unable to answer many of my follow-up questions with any acuity. It’s not because my questions are too difficult; it’s because they haven’t actually read the book.

They know how to succeed in English class, if success is measured in grades, but they are selling themselves short by using the basics reported on internet sites, instead of their own interpretations, as their reference point for discussions. While I still do believe most students do read the books, it’s no secret that many do not.

Let’s Stop Resisting Reality

Instead of resisting the internet, why not make it part of the study of a text?

Let’s make the internet the starting point, not the reference point, of conversations.

Before students begin a novel, they should scour the internet for information … at our direction. Instead of students sneaking behind our backs to get their information from Sparknotes, we should make those resources available — in fact, required.

Start by getting everything on the internet out in the open, and then make it clear that nothing we found there will count as an insight. This can benefit all students. For the low student, all that front loading will allow them to read for more than just plot. It is common practice to frontload the themes to look for, and sometimes the conflicts. If we use internet resources to introduce the text, they will also know the plot, the main characters, and some important passages. They can read with an eye on any focus the teacher wants to give them, and not be tripped up by just figuring out what happens.

For the top students, the possibilities are even better. They can use the internet sites as a voice in their discussion of the novel. At best, they can analyze the analysis. They can extend and counter the information on the sites to come to even richer, more interesting and more personal interpretations.

If Sparknotes is on the table as an expected resource, then students can stop playing the game of pretending they thought of those things, and can instead be held to much higher standard of interpretation and analysis. That work will have to be more personal because all the general, sterile analysis has already been done for them.

An Open-Ended Essay that Begins with Internet Research

That has been the case for my entire teaching career. Sparknotes, Shmoop, Gradesaver, etc. are not going away. They are lurking on the internet, just one click away for students: enticing them with secret information they think their teacher does not want them to have. Now I am acknowledging and accepting that, instead of ignoring it and hoping for the best. I am turning Sparknotes and Shmoop into allies in the educational process.

With my mind on preparing students for the AP Literature and Composition open-ended essay, I created an assignment that starts with internet research. Students will have to report on what the internet says about their book before they read it. They will write a report and analysis of the internet resources, then write about something that they find on their own … something that is not on the internet.

From there, students will continue to extend their interpretations, using literary lenses that we will cover in class, and then — finally — putting it all together in a major essay. Using the language of Joseph Harris, which students in AP have read, the prompt for the essay is: “What can you contribute to the conversation about your text?”

Using the Internet as a Springboard

My hope is that when everyone knows that everyone has read the internet sites, and no one is trying to hide it, the conversations will go in deeper, richer, more personal directions. Students will not be able to get away with pointing out something that appeared on the internet and hoping the teacher thinks it was their idea, so they will start with what the internet gives them, and forward and counter (more Harris terms) those resources to come to their own understanding of the text, and their own commentary about it.

The project I created is a beast intended for AP students, but I’m sure the internet could be used as an ally with other levels as well. Have you done anything like this? Do you have an idea of something you could do? Post in the comments!

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