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Category Archives: Katie Maguire

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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Who Else Have I Been Failing?

Among the countless ideas borrowed from the inimitable Penny Kittle are quarterly reading reflections (although by the time I got around to it with my sophomores, they wrote quarter(ish) reading reflections). I offered students a collection of reflective questions, generated from Penny’s work:

  • What has worked well for you so far in your independent reading?
  • What was challenging for you?
  • What might be helpful to overcome those challenges?
  • What reading goals will you set for next quarter/semester?

I love this work for the way it asks students to focus on themselves as readers, not just as students earning a grade. It also informs my plans, especially for students who are still meandering through workshop: fake readers and serial abandoners and the like. Much of what I found was unsurprising:

Students can be hard on themselves …

At home I read fairly inconsistently and met the goal of 2 hours a week infrequently. Looking back at this that is pretty pathetic; I did the math and figured out that reading that reasonable amount every week for me is the same as if I were to read just one minute for every waking hour.   — Robert P.

… and on their authors.

I have to say that Big Little Man was the most challenging because its story was quite confusing to me  … I had to piece events in order and figure out if it was a flashback or not. This confusing puzzle kept me up nights. I understand that he is adapting to the American life as a Filipino Man, but please explain it in order from Day 1.   — Dylan L.

Learning happened …

Even though I read only 2 books this quarter I feel that my habits are disappearing and that I’m becoming a better reader with each book. I feel that I am reading a lot faster and not stumbling on lines as much as I did all my life.  — Jacob V.

… and choice is emphatically good …

I’M NOT READING THE BOOK BECAUSE I HAVE TO. I’M READING THE BOOK BECAUSE I ENJOY IT AND WANT TO. [emphasis NOT added]        — Maluboo D.

… except when it’s not. 

Because I no longer have a criteria for choosing books, I no longer feel the desire to choose a book.   — Darielle W.

KeepCalmReadOn

Growing up in Delaware, Darielle had always chosen books by authors of color, “not because of their past, but because of their color, sadly. Although my past relates a lot more to an author of Caucasian, and privileged descent.” When she moved to Chicago seven years ago, her experience — and her understanding of her own identity — became more complicated. Reading books by African American authors became a way for her to “learn to be more like the people who looked like me … to appear more black, to fit in with them so that I could rid myself of the title ‘the whitest black girl I know.’ To understand how I am really seen by others.” Darielle’s book choices became even more fraught when she developed a relationship with a white boy.

I began to feel as if I was no longer black enough to read about these things. I’d suddenly felt guilty and unworthy of reading anything that had to do with the African American experience … which is very unfortunate because [these] books are all I’ve read or wanted to read since I moved here 7 years ago.

For all her reading life, Darielle had been trying to find a mirror. Amy Rasmussen deconstructs this reading metaphor in this post. Don’t we all search for mirrors in books, especially as young readers? What we read is about who we are. What others observe us reading tells them about who we are.

I thought about my past conversations with Darielle and realized how I had been failing her. Every time I asked her if she was still reading How It Went Down. Every time I asked her why it was hard for her to remember to bring her independent reading to class. Every time I playfully called her “the book sampler.”

Who else have I been failing? What is really behind the avoidance behavior of my other “fake readers” and “serial abandoners”? The answer, I see now, is far more complicated than finding the right book for them. The answer is about who they are, how they see themselves, and how they fear others will see them. 

In our RWW classrooms, students “get to” choose what they read. Shana examines the complexity of choice in this post. For some (read: many?) students, this freedom is heavy. What we choose to read sends a message about who we (think we) are. And what we choose not to read, or what we cannot decide to read, sends another message loud and clear. And now I’m listening. 

 

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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