Sheri yesterday posted a blog entry questioning whether or not schools may end up discouraging reading, albeit unintentionally. In her post, she cited two examples of students she knows who had to put aside books they wanted to read in favor of books they had to read (and ones which they didn’t enjoy in the slightest).
And I suppose, as the dutiful English teacher, I should use this space to offer the “other side.” First, I could explain the reason we have all students in a class read the same book at the same time: so we could have a shared experience, a common text that we discuss. Does that mean we all have to have the same thoughts about this text? Of course not. In fact, it’s better if we don’t. But we need that common experience as a jumping-off point. And I think that’s true of all human relationships.
Yes, some schools are moving toward a different model, one that invites every student to read his or her own book. And while this intrigues me, I do have some very practical concerns: is the teacher required to read every one of those books? If not, how does the teacher know the kids are reading? And what about the other students? What do they talk about with one another? With no shared experience, don’t you just have a series of twenty-five book reports masquerading as a discussion?
Next, I suppose I could address the issue of why we’re still teaching certain books, especially ones that are 50, 100, even 500 years old. This is a little trickier to defend. Sure, these texts may be brilliantly written, and they may have engaging plots – but then again, a lot of modern texts are brilliantly written and have engaging plots. So why not upgrade?
I guess one answer is that we teach the classics because they are classics; we read them because everyone reads them. I’m not making a “cultural literacy” defense here; I’m not saying kids should read Romeo and Juliet so you can get the allusions in a Taylor Swift song. You should read Romeo and Juliet because it does things that most modern day teen romances can’t. Basically: we keep reading these texts because they are worth reading, because they can teach us things, make us better.
Next, I could talk about the virtues of raising awareness, of exposing students to a text they probably would never have read on their own. I personally never read The Crucible in high school; it was somehow never assigned. Now, in truth, I also never read a lot of books that were assigned, but that’s not the point here. The point is, had I not become an English teacher, I never would have experienced the paradoxes coursing through Arthur Miller’s masterpiece, nor would I have known the power of John Proctor’s climactic “Because it is my name!” speech. And I would be the poorer for it.
Finally, I could conclude by asking, “Since when does everything we do in school have to be fun, anyway?” Yes, they might not like Pride and Prejudice… but guess what? A lot of kids don’t like math. Does that mean we’ll just stop teaching fractions? Or what about the Periodic Table? That’s been done to death, right? Shouldn’t we just move on to something new?
I could say all those things, and I’d believe all of it as well. But even as I was saying it, I’d remember a passage I read, in a book called Better than Life by Daniel Pennac:
“It looks as though school, no matter the age or nation, has had only one role. And that’s to teach the mastery of technique and critical commentary and to cut off spontaneous contact with books by discouraging the pleasure of reading. It’s been written in stone in every land: pleasure has no business in school, and knowledge gained must be the fruit of deliberate suffering…. It is the nature of living beings to love life, even in the form of a quadratic equation. But vitality has never been listed on a school curriculum… You learn how to read in school. But what about the love of reading?”
And then maybe I’d remember the afternoons I’d to go into my sons’ classrooms, on “Mystery Reader” Day. All the second-graders would be so excited. They’d go over to the carpet, and I’d sit in the big rocking chair. And when I’d take out Green Eggs and Ham or the story about the Chinese brothers with the super-powers, they would be totally into it. Reading was an event back then, not a chore.
Do schools discourage the pleasure of reading? I don’t know. But I do know that, whenever I hand out a “classic,” some student in my class is possibly shelving some really good book—a fun, entertaining book, one that could re-ignite the long-dormant pleasure of reading in this student—in favor of some book that I imperiously think is good for them to read. And that’s a lousy feeling.