Recently, in a pretty typical high school hallway, I overheard two very different conversations about books.
“Hey, did you finish that book?”
“Oh my gosh, yes, I did, and I couldn’t believe the ending!!”
“I know! I cried so hard! I got makeup all over the pages!”
“Me too! But it was such a good ending, right?”
“Yeah. It had to end that way.”
“Hey, did you finish that book?”
“Yeah, I did.”
“What happened? I think we have a quiz today.”
“Well, the main character ended up…”
The first conversation was one between real readers. The second was a conversation between students just trying to pass their English class. It’s obvious that the kids who are already readers are the kids in the first conversation, while the kids who are being besieged by negative reading experiences are the kids in the second.
The day I heard those conversations, someone tweeted Natasha Vargas-Cooper’s “Why We Should Stop Teaching Novels to High School Students.” She writes powerfully about how some story mediums gave her “large and instant rewards for spending time with them,” but that reading novels and completing “deadening take-home reading comprehension questions” assigned to her did not. I recognized myself in this post, as I had much the same experience. It wasn’t until much later in my life that I began to read the classics, which I’d merely SparkNoted in high school. This is me we’re talking about, who snatched the Twitter handle @litreader in 2008. I, the kid who decided in 6th grade to read the entire public library, starting with author A and ending at Z, didn’t read what was assigned to me…simply because it had been assigned.
And then came Amy’s courageous and oh-so-right post yesterday about choice in AP and Honors level English classes. I wish she’d written that post 12 years ago, when I was being beaten over the head with The Scarlet Letter. Or 7 years ago, when I somehow, despite my own negative experiences, first began teaching and jumped into whole-class novels with gusto. Thankfully, I met Amy a few years after I’d realized that that wasn’t the best way to get kids to love reading, and she’s helped me strengthen my teaching exponentially since then. I’ve realized that it’s not the books that make kids love reading…it’s the experiences kids have with books, and it’s up to us to create conditions that foster the most positive of reading experiences.
When we value choice and focus our curriculum on authenticity and our students’ voices, we cultivate practices of lifelong reading. When we assign whole-class novels and base most of our coursework around them, we show students that we value books, not the act of reading itself. Further, this practice values the teacher way too much–while in Penny Kittle’s words the teacher should be the best reader in the room, the teacher certainly shouldn’t be the only reader in the room. Our students have excellent minds capable of making choices that will challenge their reading and thinking abilities. We shouldn’t make all of those choices for them.
While you may believe that it is important for every student to be able to recognize a quote by Shakespeare at a cocktail party, you also hopefully believe in the value and power of reading. The only way to get our students to read for the rest of their lives–and become informed citizens and thinkers as a result–is to look into our classrooms and see our students as readers hungry for knowledge and wisdom, and not students who just need to know about certain books. The second doesn’t matter, at all. It’s not why we got into this profession, I hope–or at least it’s not why I got into this profession. If we want to create readers who will think and hope and dream and change the world, we have to teach those readers, not books.
A student-centered classroom that places choice and authenticity at its center is the answer. The reading-writing workshop is a really effective format for that kind of classroom, and having it in place these last three or four years has made a world of difference in how my students and I view our time together. Teaching has become much less a job for me, and much more a pleasurable way to pass my time. I love talking to students about books, using my own expertise to help scaffold them up a reading ladder of text complexity. I love reading their amazingly diverse writing and getting wonderful, authentic ideas for activities from them in writing conferences. I love the sense of pride a kid shines with at the end of the year when he has defied an IEP and finished 18 books…but it breaks my heart when he fails senior English after a year of multiple-choice tests over Shakespeare.
And so, in the words of Natasha Vargas-Cooper, “To hell with Gatsby’s green light!” Let them ponder it on their own time (they will; I promise you…I did). Let’s teach readers…not books.