Help, help, I’m being reading repressed!

Sorry, contrary to popular belief, this isn’t what English class is like.

One of the protests I hear most often in the edublogosphere (is that even a term?) is that one of the problems with reading in schools is that students are forced to read things they don’t want to read and that turns them off to reading. Fair enough, I guess, even though I find it a little inaccurate, especially in the way that such protests are often phrased as petulant diatribes that make it sound like I’m strapping my students to their chairs and prying their eyes open A Clockwork Orange style. But your average school does have its reading curriculum and that does often mean that they might wind up spending an entire year studying literature chosen by the state, board of education, administration, department chair, or teacher.

In other words, on the surface, students don’t really have a say in what they are going to be reading. And apologies to Mrs. Taber, but if I didn’t have to read Ethan Frome in the tenth grade, I would definitely have not read Ethan Frome … and still wouldn’t (apologies also to my wife, who loves her some Edith Wharton, although I don’t know if she actually likes Ethan Frome). So sometimes they are “forced” to “read” things they “don’t like.” There’s a bit of a conundrum here. You want your students to be engaged and get into what they’re reading so that you can help better their comprehension and then move on up the chain to analysis, etc.

But at the same time, if you asked your average high school English class of 25 students what they would like to read, you’d get 25 different answers (assuming they want to read something in the first place). And it is possible to have 25 different reading assignments, especially if you are looking for a particular type of analysis or other product from your student; however, there’s also still something to be said about introducing them to new literature, perhaps literature that we, as English teachers like. I know that sounds counter to the whole student-centered learning thing but while I do know that students don’t necessarily want to read stuff they might not like, I don’t often really want to teach stuff that I don’t find interesting either.

So when I approach the idea of considering what to have the class read, I try to strike a balance between what they like and what I like–kind of a “what we like” type of thing. But what could “we” go for when the English textbook is full of … well, stuff “we” wouldn’t necessarily want to read? As this blog progresses, I know I’m definitely going to post on different works I’ve read or taught that are a little different or are surprisingly effective in high school. For now, though, I guess I have a confession of sorts to make and that’s until I was planning a reading unit that consists mainly of short stories, essays, and poetry, I had completely forgotten that it is possible to make those units fun for the students instead of something they have to do.

This realization came to me when I decided to chuck the novel that I usually do this time of year in favor of shorter works that are more conducive to changes in schedule because of things like snow days. I was flipping through our textbook as well as short story and essay collections at both home and work and I said, “Hey, why don’t I gather a few things that all have to do with the same topic or theme? And why don’t I choose a theme my students can relate to, like your relationship with your parents? And why don’t I start with something that is very straightforward and work my way up to something deep and complex?” “WELL, DUH!!!” my brain spat back at me. Maybe I’m cutting my fellow teachers too much slack or something, but I can see where English class can become dry because we often get stuck in a rut when we are so focused on other things that we are sort of half paying attention when thinking about what our students will be reading for our classes. And every once in a while, yes, we do need that “Shoulda had a V8!” moment where we realize how insanely boring or irrelevant a work of literature is to a sixteen-year-old. Which is why we often go back to the drawing board.

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