Friday, May 4, 2012

"This is the work; that was just reading"

I'm a high school English teacher in a town I'll call Leafstrewn.  For a while now I've been considering keeping a blog, as a way to clarify some of my own thinking about reading and school. Today I had an interaction with a student at my school that provided a neat little introduction to what I'm worried about, so I decided to start blogging today, and not next week. Here's the story:

Once a week I help out in our school's "Tutorial" program, which offers in-school academic support for students who need it.  I sat down to help a student with his English homework.  His class was reading a novel; this assignment was to read a chapter and then to write a journal entry about a particular aspect of the chapter.

"So," I said to the kid, "did you actually read the chapter?"

“Well," the kid said, with a wry smile, "that’s a completely different issue." 

"What do you mean?" I said.

"This is the work," he said, pointing to the journal. "That was just reading.”

Struck by his words, I asked if I could write them down.  "This is the work. That was just reading."  To this student, reading is not seen as legitimate homework, not seen as homework that has to be done.  No doubt the teacher doesn't see it this way, but the student is far from alone.  Many, many other students seem to feel the same way.

I've been working in this tutorial, which has ten students, all year; only a few times have I seen a student actually reading, and that was almost always because I, the reading specialist, was in the room.  The students in this tutorial seem to like me, but they have not been eager to read with me, and I think it's because they see the reading as a waste of their time.  They must produce the journal entry, or the answers to the reading questions, because those they have to hand in, but in order to produce those you certainly do not need to read the chapter itself.  Or kids are learning to produce pieces of paper, but I'm not sure they're learning to read better.

This fact that many students are not actually reading the assigned reading, or not doing any reading at all, has come to seem more and more like the most important challenge we English teachers face.  If my students don't do the reading, much of my work is simply farcical.  I'm pretending to teach kids who are pretending to learn, but in fact we only meet on a plane of pretense and illusion.  And even more important, perhaps, than whether our classes are absurdist farces is the fact that if our most needy students are not reading at all--and I think that for ten to twenty percent of our students this is more or less the case--then they are probably not going to get much better at reading or writing.

I'm not sure what the solution is, but I know we need to find one.  Increasingly we are asking our students to journal, or answer questions; last year William Broz published an article in English Journal about the problem in which he suggested that journaling was the answer.  I myself, despite my reservations, have been asking my students to comment on a class blog.  The problem is that then the blog comment or the journaling becomes "the work", and the reading is, well, "just reading."

To finish my story: I asked the student to explain, and I reached over to my computer to write down what he said.

“As long as you can find a few words that are related to your assignment," he said, enjoying the attention, "then it’s all good, especially if its interpretive, cause then you can interpret it in any way you want.  You can make it about cheeseburgers, and the teacher can tell you you’re wrong."  It took me another few seconds to finish typing, and when I reached the end he said,  "Now put a smiley face.”  So I did.


My anecdote should really end there, with the cheery emoticon (ironicon?) but I feel I should add that despite the kid's cheeriness about his M.O., I did suggest that the reading was the work, too (feeling, with the "too," like both Gatsby and Daisy at once), and that reading was worth his while. 

I'm not sure I convinced him.


  1. A frightening tale, indeed. Let's hope that the teacher doesn't "count" homework of this nature very much and has several other ways of encouraging students to read for the enjoyment of the story.

    I'd love to hear more about what you've discovered when you sit and read with your students, or have them read to you and discuss their reading. And, how you think we can redesign English classes to have students reading more and talking/writing about what they are actually reading (even if, as you seem to believe) it is much less, in quantity, than we teachers think they are reading.


  2. Sometimes I wonder if the problem is that we (English teachers) live at the intersection of two (false) truisms that dominate eduction:

    1. "School is your job; just as adults work at a job, you [student] are expected to work at school."
    2. "Sometimes you have to do the work even if it's not fun or interesting. Sometimes life is not all fun and games."

    We lower our standards ("do your work!") and teach kids important (read: "horrible") lessons about life: that you have to work hard at things you don't like without a personal reward, and get ready, because this is how post-school life may be. It sucks, but that's how it is. That's life.

    So I guess I'm nervous about using the term, "the work," to refer to reading. Yes, sometimes reading is hard and laborious; but most of us only do this sort of reading because we anticipate a pay-off: we'll learn something new or have a new (reading) experience or be able to understand something we've not understood before. It's not simply that we believe in delayed gratification but that we know, from experience, that this delayed gratification will give us pleasure in the end. We labor because it will lead to pleasure (emotional, intellectual, etc.)

    "Work"--as it's too often defined in school--refers to what we do (and even have to do) for others. "Work" (in this cosmos) is understood as the very opposite of "pleasure." In school, we have a name for "reading for pleasure." We call it, "outside reading." Extra. The OTHER reading that we ask students to do.

    I'd like to see us shift from the vocabulary of "work" to the vocabulary of "pleasure"--and pleasure as not simply "taking it easy" or "goofing around" but pleasure as the drive the motivates many great things. A Platonic pleasure, perhaps, or the form of happiness that J.S. Mill writes about when he describes the "greatest happiness."

    The vocabulary of "work," it seems to me, is a remnant of late-19th - early 20th century public schools. We need a better vocabulary. It's not that we don't want our students to work hard; it's that we need to find a way to get them to think about "work" as a synonym for (or, perhaps, a step towards) "pleasure," not as an antonym.

    Keep blogging. THIS is how the conversation will advance. It's a pleasure to read and think about your musings.

    1. I agree! So maybe the kid was saying that reading wasn't "work" at all? (On the other hand, he clearly hadn't read the chapter.) But if we follow your thinking about the term "work", where does that thinking take us? Anyway, thanks for your very thoughtful comment.

  3. I wrote a long comment yesterday and thought I published it, but don't see it here now. Oops.

    In short, I likened the student's approach to the way I use an instruction manual when I hook up, say, a TV. I don't read the whole thing, even though I know the company would advise me to. Instead, I try to do what I can using my common sense, my past experience, whatever, before resorting to the instruction manual on a need-to-know basis. Then I skim to find what I need. To read the entire manual seems a waste of my time when I know "the work" is to get the TV hooked up. Of course, if I did read the entire thing, I would no doubt learn something useful, but I frankly can't be bothered. The cost/benefit trade-off just doesn't seem worth it.

    Unfortunately, I think that's the way some students "use" the reading we assign. It's a means to an end, not an end in itself. In our desperation to get students to do the reading, we assign reading questions that will force students to "use" the text to answer. For some students, the fact that they HAVE reading questions or worksheets to fill out just reinforces the idea that the reading is a means to an end and not the end itself. After all, it's the worksheet we grade, right?

    How do we emphasize the reading as an end in itself? Yes, maybe we can couch it in fewer "labor" terms, but what else? Having students read in class does emphasize reading as an end in itself, but what do we do with the reading that must be done outside of class? Maybe we don't give any worksheets or questions but ask students to start each day answering a prompt about the reading -- either verbally or in a kind of reading journal. Maybe it's a mistake to send them home with any "work" besides the reading. But then the question becomes, will they do the reading AT ALL?

    Thanks for the great blog. I look forward to working toward some possible solutions... --MB

    1. That's a very, very funny analogy; I have a smile on my face still, thinking about the hundreds and hundreds of pages of instruction-manual pages I have thrown away unread.

      It's also, I would say, like the endless "terms and conditions" that you have to click a box to say that you've read all of before you do anything online, and that no one ever reads, or the hundreds of pages of mortgage documents that, when you are closing on a mortgage, you have to initial to signify that you've read, even though of course you haven't, you've just had a lawyer summarize them in two seconds. How many other times are there when the adult world essentially requires that we attest to having read something even while making the text so long and involved and really unnecessary that almost no one will actually read it? I guess that's what our students must feel like.

      So how DO we emphasize reading as an end in itself? I'm not sure, but I'm hoping to explore different aspects of the issue in future posts.

      Sorry about the commenting problems; many thanks for the thoughtful comment.

  4. You might ask the question, "Why would someone read this blog?" That, I think, will help us move towards a better answer to the question, "How can we get kids to read as an end in itself?"

    It's easy to say, "Well, blogs are different from books/literature." It's more interesting (I think) to say, "What if they're not so different...."

  5. Yes, and if I understand where you're going, part of the challenge is exposing kids to different kinds of reading and helping them to find their own "ends." I think that was part of our thinking here at Leafstrewn when we thought it would be a good idea for freshmen to be exposed to different literary genres: horror, sci-fi, magical realism, humor, etc. But that didn't include blogs, of course.

  6. Gosh, why WOULD someone read a blog? Probably for work...