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A guest post from English Teacher, Dan Van Antwerp.

Here’s an important question for teachers: how do you feel about Wikipedia as a research source? Do you believe that, since Wikipedia is open to editing by everyone and anyone, entries can easily be sabotaged and information fouled up? Or, do you embrace the hope that access to all means that anyone can fix or improve the content? The answer to this question may be more significant than it first seems, because it’s not just about Wikipedia: it reveals, at least to some degree, your assumptions about human nature.

Teachers, because we are human, make assumptions all the time. That last period class is sure going to be rowdy…that kid who gave Mr. Simmons such a hard time last semester is really going to challenge my classroom management skills… I shouldn’t smile until Christmas…

And, those assumptions have consequences: they influence how we act. If I fear a rowdy class, I may take a more highly structured, less creative approach. If I assume Mrs. Simmons’ challenging student will also challenge me, I may expect less of him, limiting his potential for growth.

But maybe the most potentially detrimental assumption we tend to make is that kids won’t do the reading unless we force the issue by prodding them with punishments and rewards. And as a result, we traditionally go to great lengths just to make sure that they “don’t not do” the reading. Reading quizzes that focus on nitpicky details, end of story “discussion” questions, double-sided reader-response journals: these are all products of such an assumption.

And what messages does this send to the students?

1)      We don’t think you’ll find this interesting enough to read it just for the sake of doing so.

2)      Books were written so that they could be analyzed, and discussed, rather than experienced and enjoyed.

3)      There’s something very specific that you’re supposed to get from reading this book. You should focus on finding that one thing as you read.

4)      What you read will be “used” in some very direct way in school.

This assumption, along with its related messages, tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we don’t think the kids will read what we give them, then our role becomes that of monitor and enforcer, rather than that of educator, and this impacts what we teach regarding reading, both in terms of specific-book experiences and overall outlook.

Ironically, when I hear colleagues discussing the possibility of easing up on “gotcha” type of reading follow-up assignments and quizzes, someone invariably asks the question: “But then how can we be sure that they are doing the reading?” Which exposes, of course, yet another assumption – that students have been doing the reading all along. Are we so sure that the methods we’ve been using for all these years have really produced the desired outcome?

Whether students do the reading or not, most are very adaptable, and can figure out quickly how to create the appearance of having done the reading, at least enough to successfully complete traditional “accountability” activities.  So, in the final analysis, what do we get? Kids who don’t really do the reading, and teaching strategies that don’t really do the reading justice. And for those kids who do read the assigned literature, we’ve created an approach to reading that interferes with the intended experience, and sets up the notion that, in order for reading to be meaningful or valuable, something (quiz, project, response, “points”) must be “done with it” afterwards.

Writing this piece got me thinking about my own reading. When I read a book, I enjoy it, as long as it’s interesting, well-written, or deals with some subject that’s personally fascinating. I don’t go into the reading experience looking for a specific point or the “author’s message.” I don’t try to figure out why the book is great (at least, that is, until I decide whether or not it’s great) or what the person who recommended it to me wants me to get out of it. When I finish the book, I don’t make posters or PowerPoints, take a quiz or write a character analysis. I don’t expect to be given points or any other type of recognition or external reward for reading the book.

When I finish a book that I’ve enjoyed or found interesting, what I do do is talk about it. I talk about it with my wife, my friends, my colleagues, my students. I also write about it – on my blog, maybe on Facebook or Twitter. And I have a feeling that this is the way that most real readers participate in the reading experience.

What bothers me, however, is that I didn’t learn this in school. Rather, I learned it despite school. And this realization really makes me want to re-examine the assumptions that I and many of my colleagues make about reading instruction.

At this point, I would argue that English teachers should adopt either of the following two assumptions:

a)      the students will do the reading

b)      nothing we do in the classroom will guarantee that the students will do the reading

Either way, these assumptions will free us up to stop worrying about whether kids will read, and spend more time thinking about how they experience the reading. In turn, this more relaxed approach may very well have the ironic effect of producing more serious readers.

Dan Van Antwerp teaches high school English in New Jersey. He discusses education using the Twitter handle @SluggoKDR, and he maintains a blog about pop culture at http://classicpopculture.blogspot.com/.

3 Responses to ““…But how do we know they’ll do the reading?””

  1. Damian says:

    With this in mind, to what degree should/do we allow students to direct their own reading in terms of education? I think that the existence of elective courses helps with this (i.e., who would sign up for a Shakespeare course unless they, you know, wanted to read/see Shakespeare?), but what about schools where there is a more general “English I-IV” curriculum? Could we structure English courses around general themes and provide a wide array of choices, including allowing students to bring their own suggestions to the table?

  2. stutz01 says:

    Fantastic question, Damian! While it’s still an elective course, you should check out Meg Donhauser’s posts about what she’s doing for Brit Lit – http://nobodydoesitalone.blogspot.com/. I’m trying out her approach in my 1-1 American Lit class this quarter as well, and so far, so good – http://cstutzlearn.edublogs.org/2011/02/21/what-is-a-text/. I think her approach could really apply to most survey courses, and I’m sure it could be adapted for other English I-IV types of courses.

  3. Dan V says:

    Damian,

    I really like your idea of providing thematic lists as a framework, and also of allowing for students to add selections of their own, especially if they can provide rationale for its inclusion.

    Even if we stick to more narrowly defined reading lists, we can open things up in terms of what we and the students do with the books. In my Honors Imaginative Process course, “Jekyll and Hyde” is a text that’s been in the curriculum for the past 10 years. It’s a good fit, given its relationship to the archetypal framework of the course, and it’s a decent read. I want to keep it in the course, but this year, I decided to solicit ideas from the students as to what type of experience they’d like to have with the novel. I’ve set up a forum on the moodle asking them to submit ideas. The only requirements are that the activities be
    a:) fun and engaging
    b:) something that will encourage an active reading of the novel.

    I just posted it today, and I’m looking forward to seeing what they come up with…

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