This week has been the reality check for me: They aren't. Even the "high achievers" either aren't doing the reading or they are doing it and not understanding it. Even the AP students in some cases. These are kids who get A's in everything, who can write and articulate intelligent arguments. And they aren't reading what we assign.
These are the kids who are getting accepted left and right to Purdue and Brown and Cornell and UCLA and Cal. These are the best kids from the best school in the best area.
The real tragedy is that these are the exact kids who need the beauty and the breath of fresh air that comes with a good book. The bookroom is filled with titles that I would have killed to teach at previous schools - Kite Runner, Me Talk Pretty One Day, Sula, The Things They Carried, Things Fall Apart, The Namesake, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Indian Country, Slaughterhouse Five, Pride and Prejudice, Man's Search For Meaning...our bookroom has hundreds of choices.
Hundreds of choices that our students pretend to read or understand for most of their four years here.
I'm not pointing fingers at my colleagues - I assigned reading homework last semester, and many of my students told me they didn't read all of those books either. And some of them got A's from me too. So we're taking kids who love reading, who read for pleasure, who will do homework, who are compliant, and churning out students addicted to Sparknotes, trained to jump into the point in the discussion where their failure to read or understand will be noticed least, and who think that literature is just an excuse for a treasure hunt for symbols that they can identify and spit back out on a test.
So what's going on? And more importantly, how do we fix it?
If we believe that teaching through literature is the Right Way, and that the skills developed through beautiful literature can help students see their own life more clearly, analyse more carefully, and engage with the world more actively, then it's imperative we figure this out. And I'm the least capable person to figure this out, because I did all the assigned reading in high school and college, loved it, and understood the vast majority of it.
So I asked my students. In a previous post, I outlined the process we went through to ascertain what would be the best reading strategy for them. I would encourage you to read that before continuing with this post.
So here's are some of the take-aways from that mini-unit.
First of all, it's different for every group of students. That makes sense - any teacher can tell you that the climate of one section can be wildly different to another section of the same class. But how often have we treated them the same in the method we use for reading? I know I have.
Secondly, it will be a system of trial and error. When we came up with the plan, I had a student ask, "What happens if we end up not liking this, or it doesn't work - are we stuck with it?" NO! The whole purpose in giving them voice and choice is to make it work for them. Why would I force them to stick with something that wasn't working just because "they chose it"?
Thirdly, students are not used to being asked these questions. They haven't thought about it either, on the whole. They never think to question their teachers. They said to me, when I asked why they don't question what we're doing, "But we just assume that either you have a reason or that it would be rude to ask. So we don't ask why." I died a little inside on that one. Any student, regardless of age or ethnicity or grade level or ability, should be able to respectfully ask the teacher for rationale behind any assignment. And if the teacher doesn't have one, it should prompt some serious reflection on the teacher's part. I told my students that I would never ask them to do something for which I couldn't articulate a reason.
Finally, it's not enough just to have class discussions or to have students reflect on what they're learning and why. Students need to be given far more voice and choice than they usually get in factory-style education. I've found, over and over, that when I ask them for input, their ideas and cognitive process are amazing...often better than what Andrew and I came up with. Most of the plans are a result of students advocating for what they need, and trying to take ownership over their education. I'm confident that more students will be reading the assigned novels for these courses. And it's not because they like me. It's because they feel like it was their choice, and that if they have something to say about the process, the product, or the text itself, they have the freedom to say it. They don't have to hide the fact that they hate the book - in fact, sometimes that's the start of the best discussions in my classroom. And if they honestly aren't reading at home, how is it helpful to act out a farce in which we all pretend they ARE reading? It's teaching them that education has shortcuts. That they can get all of the answers off the internet.*
Is that really what we want to be teaching them?
*side note: When I said that many of my PLN agree that "if you can google it, it's not a good question to include on a test" they just couldn't understand what a test would look like with information that wasn't googleable. I gave some examples, such as: instead of memorising the dates of the Civil War (googleable), argue whether or not Lincoln did enough to prevent the war (not googleable). Their words: "Yeah, that second option is way more interesting and useful." Yes. Yes, it is.
Below the fold are the specific plans that we worked out in each of my three classes that have started a novel.