The Upside Down of SparkNotes

My ninth period class sometimes feels like the Upside Down, you know, the terrifying parallel universe kids get sucked into in the Netflix series Stranger Things. They seem to keepcalm_shutupfunction in perpetual chaos. Every day I whack-a-mole them into their current book, notebook work, mentor text, draft, or just away from their phones.

In another teaching universe, I might anticipate 9th period with fear and loathing. But I don’t. Despite the daily ruckus, there is no malice in their behavior. In the universe of RWW, we can muddle through these chaotic moments together, (mostly) with humor and (mostly) without the rank-pulling that commands student compliance. And sometimes, these moments even provide a portal to the universe of important conversations.

This class has a number of self-proclaimed non-readers. Luke considers reading a “hobby” that some people enjoy and others don’t (and shouldn’t have to do). Lani regularly describes herself as “not much of a reader.” Miles’s stance is more ambivalent. He wants to know stuff, but sees reading as inefficient for doing so. I ask, “What ruined reading for you?” He answers without hesitation: “SparkNotes.” He elaborates, “It’s just a faster way to get the information.” Classmates nod their heads in agreement.

INFORMATION?!? I recoil.

By “information,” they mean what they will be held accountable, by quiz or discussion. When I remind them that we don’t do that in RWW, they explain — gently, mercifully — that now it’s just a habit. They look genuinely sorry for me, as if they just told me there is no Santa Claus. Or that SparkNotes is Santa Claus. Which maybe it is: the Santa Claus of the Upside Down, that parallel universe where reading resides for many of our students.

In their practice-revolutionizing book Disrupting ThinkingKylene Beers and Robert Probst distinguish between “aesthetic” and “efferent” reading. The former is about how a text affects our thoughts and emotions and the latter about the information we can extract from it. In classrooms where the efferent is favored over the aesthetic, SparkNotes is a useful substitute. Miles and his classmates have learned to reside here, to the extent that efferent reading is their natural stance in their English classrooms.

Beers and Probst do not discount efferent reading out of hand. It certainly has its place when information or efficiency is the goal. SparkNotes is a means to this kind of extrinsic end that drives so much of how we measure “success.” Can we blame our students for using a resource to reach that end more efficiently?

Aesthetic reading doesn’t lend itself to extrinsic reward, making it incompatible as a means to the end of racking up points toward the reward of an A. But here is the very reason why we must stand by its importance: the aesthetic stance is what invites the emotion and empathy that brings qualitative value to students’ reading experience, that honors the power and the beauty of the written word, that opens a window into the lives of others. And, which encourages the “compassionate thinking” that Beers and Probst define as so critical to our students’ reading lives.

My 10th-grade RWW students were given the option of book circles. In planning for rolling out their choices, I tried constructing elaborate lessons to reveal the beauty of a text so that students would have to admit to its aesthetic power. What I should have realized sooner is that a lesson like this was beside the point.

SparkNotes_F451_screenshotThat day, the SparkNotes summary of the first chapter of Fahrenheit 451° (one book circle choice) was their writing prompt. There was some confusion: Were they supposed to write about whether they were going to choose that book? Or to predict what the book might be about? This prompt is like any other daily writing, I told them. Just write what it brings to mind.

I’m not creative enough to make a lesson into a mystery. When students finished writing to this (rather uninspiring) prompt, I told them straight up: Now, here’s the source text for this SparkNotes summary. Please, just listen.

And I read aloud the beginning of Fahrenheit 451°. 

It was a pleasure to burn. 

By the time I reached the description of Guy Montag as a “conductor” of the symphony of flames that silenced the voices of the books he burns, there was also silence in the room. More students than I expected opted for the book circle, reading Fahrenheit 451°. I don’t know whether these choices resulted from an aesthetic reading of the book’s opening, but isn’t it pretty to think so?

Kathleen Maguire teaches Sophomore English, Senior Advanced Writing, and AP Language & Composition in Evanston, a suburb just north of Chicago. When she’s not grading papers or reading books to recommend to students, she tries to keep up with her yoga and her 10-year-old son, Jude (not in that order). She tweets at @maguireteach.

 

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5 thoughts on “The Upside Down of SparkNotes

  1. Anonymous February 19, 2018 at 4:00 pm Reply

    When you read Louis Rosenblatt’s practice-changing transactional theory of reading, in which she puts forth gorgeous, nuanced distinctions between aesthetic and efferent reading, it’ a thing to behold.

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  2. Sara Watkins February 19, 2018 at 3:31 pm Reply

    Thank you…I love the simplicity of this lesson, and what it can (hopefully) teach the students. So often I read about amazing awe inspiring lessons that I just can’t find the brain power or creativity to fit into my existing lesson structure, but this one can seamlessly replace/slide in.

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  3. blog0rama February 19, 2018 at 3:19 pm Reply

    About three years ago, I had them do their own writing about The Hobbit, and then compare what they wrote and learned to Sparknotes — they liked what they thought more.

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  4. Amy Estersohn February 19, 2018 at 8:08 am Reply

    Yay Evanston! I lived in Chicago for seven years (Hyde Park) and made several day trips up on the Purple Line Express.

    I admire how open you are about the fact that yes, SparkNotes exists. I think denying it or somehow restricting access to it cuts out its allure. But reading SparkNotes is more boring than reading. the. actual, book.

    Last time I taught high school I was amazed by how many students felt SparkNotes was a more efficient way of doing their novel reading. I was also astonished that they weren’t that ashamed about it – they saw novels as information, and SparkNotes as effective delivery of information.

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  5. mrsturnerblog February 19, 2018 at 7:52 am Reply

    Great post! I’ve got one class that struggles to connect more than others. I responded by starting to read out loud from Jason Alexander’s Long Way Down. They begged me to keep reading it to them and several of them went on to finish it on their own. Sometimes they just need to hear books to get hooked. 😊

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