Thursday, November 15, 2012

Why our students don't do the reading

I started posting on this blog about six months ago.  My first post was about how kids often don't do reading homework.  I had an experience yesterday that brought that issue home to me again.

My students are doing some independent reading of pre-civil-war literature (Moby Dick, Walden, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Poe, etc.), and yesterday I gave them time in class to read.  After twenty minutes of perfectly quiet, focused work, I asked how many of them had read, in the twenty minutes, between 5 and 10 pages.  Over half of the class raised their hands.  Over half of the class, then, was reading at a rate of about two and a half minutes per page.  At that rate, a twenty-five-page reading assignment would take them over an hour.  If there were written work that went along with the reading, the homework would most of them take an hour and a half.  The homework for four such classes would then take six hours.  Few kids are going to spend six hours a night on homework.  If they play a sport or write for the newspaper or have a job, they will often be getting home at five or six, eating dinner, and then starting homework after dinner.  If they start their work at seven, they would then finish at one in the morning--even if they were not distracted by Facebook.

What I think this means is that many of our Honors students are faced with such a constant flood of work that they are essentially doing a daily triage--and that their reading homework for English class is what they are most likely not to do.  If your history notes are getting checked, you are going to do your history notes, even if they take you three hours.  If your written response to the reading homework is getting checked, you will do the written response.  But unless we start taking the AP History route of requiring reading notes that take hours to complete, many of our students, like many students everywhere, are not going to do their Dickens reading, or their Wuthering Heights reading, or their Scarlet Letter reading.  Is this okay?  I don't think so, but maybe it is.  Maybe reading isn't really "the work."

In any case, I went back and re-read what I wrote last May, when I started this blog.  It still seemed relevant:

"This is the work; that was just reading" (5/4/12)

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.

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