Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Emails from a student

This spring, the excellent Leafstrewn student newspaper (let's call it "The Pequod") ran a column about reading.  The column was written by a former of student of mine.  My former student said, more or less, that he didn't like the books his Junior-year teacher (that is to say, I) had assigned him, and that if students weren't forced to read boring books like My Antonia or Their Eyes Were Watching God (a "real stinker"), and had a little more choice, they might read more.  His nut graf: "I don’t believe that nobody today reads, but I think the problem lies in what students are being forced to read rather than why they aren’t reading. It’s time to revamp English class so that students discover a passion for literature instead of just deciding books aren’t for them."

This student has a point, and I had been worrying much the same thing.  In fact, after a so-so experience with his very class, and after worrying a lot about how many students managed to avoid the assigned reading, I built more choice into my syllabus, and I gave the students a bit more time to read in class. Also, though I have always had very mixed feelings about motivational lectures and the like (my recent conviction that schools should create a "reading culture" is a flower that grows out of a complicated bog of ambivalence), I gave a brief, passionate lecture about how important reading was, and how lame it was not to do the reading, how especially lame it was to use Sparknotes or other cheatsites. These are good  books, I said; read them!

I wasn't sure how well this had gone over, but I was going on the wise advice of my department chair, who had told me that I had to pretend I believed in what I said.  So I pretended. I was happy, then, to get an email from a student at the end of the year that read, in part, "i really enjoyed your class this year. To be honest, i dont usually read my english class books but what you said in the beginning of the year resonated with me and i am proud to say i really did read all the books this year. I am glad i did too because some of them were really great. You are a really awesome teacher. Thanks for the wonderful year!"

I discounted the last bit for the obvious reasons (she probably wants me to write her rec next year, etc.), but I was pretty interested in her admission that she doesn't "usually" read her English class books.  I wrote back and asked if she wouldn't mind elaborating.  (I didn't tell her I was going to be putting her response up on a blog, but I excuse myself by imagining that no one will know who she is--she could be anyone, really!)

I didn't think she would write back with much more detail, but she did.  Here is (most of) her second email:

"Freshman year i pretty much didnt read a single book. I read about 20 pages of ------. Sophmore year I read the beginning half of most of the books we read. i usually just ask one of my friends that have read the book to give me a synopsis and then i improvise from there. i think that there are a lot of people who just copy off of others or use spark notes but i find that i can use clues in the question to guess the answer. sometimes im totally off but for the most part i usually at least get partial credit. Before high school, i could finish all my hw within 20 minutes so i used to read at least a book a day for pleasure.. i used to read literally allll the time. since hs my pleasure reading has been reduced to about a book a semester and over the summers, although this summer i was assigned more reading than usual since I'm taking ----- so i didnt even both bringing any of my pleasure reading books to ----."

There you go.  The problem in a paragraph.  This is a smart kid, too--she was recommended for an English department award--but her ability in English class is probably due far more to the "book a day" she used to read, back when she wasn't given much homework, than to the hours and hours of work and explicit instruction she has received in school.


  1. High pressure high schools aren't conducive to recreational reading. College life probably isn't either. But she'll go back to being a reader, I bet.
    It seems more urgent to help the non-reader never-was-reader get some enjoyment, and maybe some skills, that might turn them into readers.

    1. Yes, true. This kid is not going to be hurt too much if we do a bad job, but others will. But this kid's experience is interesting because it points up the somewhat farcical nature of a lot of what we do. If THIS kid doesn't take school seriously, and doesn't read her English class books, how can we possibly expect kids who are not able readers to do the assigned reading?!

  2. A question I wonder about: is the work that a student must do in HS more important than reading for one's self? If a student took the four years off from classes (but not from socializing) and read instead, would they be prepared for college or life? Sort of a Thoreau-vian question, perhaps. How about guided reading? "You should really read the following books (a, b, c...) in the next four years; the rest is up to you"?

    A while back an intellectual hero of mine, Neil Postman, wrote a book called "The End of School," but which he meant not the termination but the goal. He offers a bunch of possible goals--and then rejects them, as he also rejects what have been the goes of HS in past eras. He concludes that before we can fix/change anything, we need to answer his question: what is the end of school?

    Once we answer that question, we would be in a position to ask, "would the time be better spent reading?" [Again, I'm not saying that kids should spend the four years alone, locked in a room. So much of what they gain in the four years involves learning to be with other people and to work collaboratively and deal with other points of view and perspectives. Instead, I'm asking about the school learning time.]

    At the very least, once we answer Postman's question, we'd be in a better position to ask, "Is the education we're providing suiting the desired end?"

    Thanks, as always, for a provocative post.

    1. Guided reading would be great--for interested students, that is maybe the best way to go. As wordnerd points out, different people have distinctly different needs. Postman's question is helpful, but also has many answers. As an English teacher, my answer is mainly: I want students to become more confident and able readers and writers. To achieve that goal, yes, I think this student might have been better off not going to high school. She is involved in lots of extracurricular stuff, so school overall has probably been good. But because reading and writing are THE key academic skills, and because the state privileges English class by requiring a full four years of it, we have a special responsibility, and we really should be making sure we are not wasting our students' time!