As I begin my twelfth year as a teacher, I find myself reflecting on the more absurd aspects of the profession—those practices that are continually implemented despite their demonstrable ineffectiveness—and how they are perhaps most prevalent in the teaching of literacy. The English Language Arts experience is, in many ways, a tale of two classrooms: while we often say that we prioritize the process of literacy, the vast majority of our assessments emphasize the product of reading. Ultimately, and despite our best intentions, we are “teaching books” instead of teaching reading, an approach that often conceals significant developmental deficits among our students beneath the slick veneer of presentations, projects, and papers.
To be fair, the “teaching books” approach is historically how the vast majority of English Language Arts curricula have been, and are presently, designed. There’s just something so orderly, so comforting, about it, isn’t there? The unit starts at the beginning of the novel, hits its stride around chapter 9, and builds to its arts-and-crafts crescendo as the conflict resolves and the protagonist learns a valuable lesson about growing up and what it means to be family. “It’s how I learned, it’s worked for me for the past twenty years, and gosh darnit, it’s how my students are going to read The Great Gatsby!” you say, possibly to yourself, possibly to your cat. And again, I can’t blame you; we feel a weighty burden every time we approach a text with our students: “This is their one chance to read Catcher in the Rye, or Hamlet, or 1984,” we reason, “and who am I to compromise that?” To do anything less than the book, the whole book, and nothing but the book, seems a disservice to both student and profession.
And with that thought, the absurdity of the situation rears its illogical head. Since we’re “teaching the book”, our students know what we’re looking for: plot, primarily, with some character analysis and theme study thrown in. They no longer have to read the book at all, just act as if they did, and provide the appropriate literary elements when called upon. Sparknotes, older siblings, and Google Docs cheat-sheets will meet these needs with nary a page of the novel turned. They aced the test, nailed the discussion, and wowed you with the quote selection in their essay, so they must have read. But they didn’t, and it’s because the priority in this book-based approach, either explicitly or implicitly, is not reading comprehension, engagement, or fluency, but trivia.
Instead, I propose an approach less adherent to the way things have always been done and more in line with developing literacy skills, an approach that focuses primarily on the process of literacy development rather than merely the completion of texts. In short, a classroom that prioritizes the act, rather than the result, of reading.
On Killing, and Not Killing, A Mockingbird
Let’s explore a seminal high school text, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, through this lens. This book, to be blunt, is thick, and its physical introduction to a classroom induces a panic among students typically reserved for when the Fortnite servers go down. An absurd approach would be to assume that, since the book is on the curriculum (and the curriculum was ostensibly designed with the students’ competencies in mind,) students will be able to complete the assigned readings, the proof of which will manifest through class assessments. The reality of the situation is that a significant number of students, finding the text too challenging, confusing, or time-consuming, will “hack” the reading using online summary sites (Sparknotes, Shmoop, etc.) in order to keep their heads above water. This “Whole Novel, Whole Time” approach may have been designed for learning, but it elicits sheer student survival mode.
Instead, a classroom that prioritizes reading rather than having read will engage in the reading live, in class. (I’m vehemently against homework in general, and reading homework in particular, for many reasons, not the least of which is its tendency to obscure symptoms of poor literacy from teachers.) Of course, this class could never cover all four hundred pages of Mockingbird, so why pretend? Perhaps students only read chapter one. Or chapter fourteen. Maybe only excerpts of Lee’s narration. Or just her choices with dialogue. Maybe (and this tends to be my favorite approach as of late) the class arrives at a random page (using an online number randomizer, for example) and works through that page together. The choices are unlimited when the teacher removes the expectation of covering the whole novel.
The upshot of this framework, when looked at as a year-long approach, is a significant increase in the number of texts covered, marked growth in students’ reading comprehension and recognition of authorial strategies and patterns, a greater appreciation of writing as craft (books such as Roy Peter Clark’s The Art of X-Ray Reading dive into this further), and, perhaps most tellingly, a decrease in reading avoidance strategies (i.e. “Sparknoting”) among students.
Real Reading (Really!)
Of course, many educators will balk at the notion of not teaching a novel in whole as too great of a compromise for their students. While this is an understandable concern, it is based more out of an assumption of what their students are experiencing when “taught a book” and not the reality of the approach. Those students, by and large, simply aren’t reading whole texts any more than mine; they’re just operating under an approach that assumes they are. We must acknowledge the absurdity of this practice and focus instead on the act of reading, rather than the seductive, but erroneous, belief in our students having read.
I encourage you, in your classes and with your students, to reflect upon the absurdity of an approach that gives children books they will not read in the name of How We’ve Always Done Things. In ending this dangerous charade, and shifting to critical in-class literacy development, we can focus instead on helping our students grow by embracing the process, rather than product, of reading.
Tim Kelly / September 27, 2018
Thanks for this. I spent three terms this year reading the entire book with my students ( often to them but I have other good readers) and it is clearly the best way of promoting and achieving the goals of the unit. Interestingly, once the novel is read ( actually read) the randomiser approach reaps a massive harvest because students stand a chance of actually succeeding at the language arts elements: nuance, symbol, irony, character distinction, ambiguity, cultural reference and relevance. Great article, spot on and very clear.
Matt Morone / October 1, 2018
Thank you, Tim. So much of the “absurd” practice that I mention in this post is brought about by assuming our students authentically read a text on their own. I think that the best way to both minimize variables and promote authentic reading is to actually do the reading together.
It’s amazing how much more comfortable students are discussing a text when they’re acting in good faith- that is, when they’ve genuinely read the expected texts- even though they inherently will have had to do more of the heavy lifting. What it does demand, however, is for teachers (and administrators) to trust the process and allow students the time (several consecutive days, as my students are presently doing with Siddhartha) to read, and read, and read.
It’s a rethinking of What an English Class Looks Like, sure, but in my mind, a necessary one. I am grateful for your feedback. Good luck!