Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Statutory Reading

One of my facebook friends (one I actually know as a real person) posted a link to a blog essay decrying the way the joy of reading is destroyed in school in a kind of bait and switch move by educators who spend the first few years of school convincing students that "Reading Is Fun!" then assigning unappealing novels and dissecting them and over-testing. The author mentioned in particular, as I recall, two novels that often appear on high school required reading lists--The Scarlet Letter and Separate Peace, two novels I was also assigned to read in high school and two I have used in my classes as well.

On one hand, I believe there are so many wonderful novels from which to choose that it seems senseless not to pick the most appealing.  On the other hand, however, I know from personal experience that there will never be unanimous agreement on which books are appealing.  I know, too, that students--people in general--need to recognize the difference between reading for pleasure and reading to learn how to read critically, a life skill. Sometimes the only way to teach some reading skills --or at least the best way--is by using a common reading experience.

I remember author Ann Patchett speaking before the National Council of Teachers of English in support of teaching the classics--even instead of her own books. She said there are some books to which students should be exposed, even if you had to sit on their chests and cram them down there gagging throats.  (If I am paraphrasing here, I assure you I am close to her words.)  Former NC poet laureate Cathy Smith Bowers referred to teaching poetry in a similar manner as "Statutory Poetry," a term that made me smile.

In the opposite corner of this particular argument are those that say that when some of these classic novels are assigned to students too young or immature to appreciate them properly that we give them mistaken belief that they have actually read those works. With so many books are our disposal, even enthusiastic readers are sometimes reluctant to re-read a novel they loved, much less one they remember as boring or obscure.

I know some school systems prescribe the reading selections for students at different grade levels, but most teachers have at least some choice. I know those choices are often narrowed by book availability.  Gone is the day when students in most schools can be expected to buy their own books.  Teachers, too, have few discretionary funds for buying classroom sets of novels. Some get creative, writing grants to local or national donors. ( I recall turning to the excellent Donors Choose site when I was still teaching in the high school.)  Some spend their own money for books.  I know I built a decent classroom library in high school by handing out the Scholastic Tab book orders. Even seniors in high school bought books, letting me earn enough points to choose a few titles.

I believe teachers who bring our own enthusiasm about a work to the classroom, tempered by realism, allowing students to make valid criticisms even of the canon, can have a positive effect on readers. I think students should also have choice whenever possible.  By informing that choice, sharing a little about reading options, rather than relying on hearsay or a pretty cover, we can also lead students to books with the greatest potential to offer that most ideal of reading experiences--total immersion in a good book.

I know my own love of reading didn't come from multiple choice testing.  I think peer pressure to read had an early influence. After all, I even flew through those predictable stories about Alice and Jerry (our knock off version of Dick and Jane) back in the first grade,eager to see what books were next.