Spark Notes exist and it’s all my fault

So last night, I was treated to a retweet of a video that was posted to YouTube back in 2010 called “Why Students Don’t Read What’s Assigned in Class.” It’s a video of high school students who are probably juniors or seniors talking about why they haven’t done the assigned reading throughout high school. The interviewer asked them what they did instead of reading the books, why they do that, and how to solve that problem. The answers basically were that they didn’t like being made to read books that they found boring and in order to get a better grade they usually used Spark Notes and b.s.’ed their way through discussions. Their solution to the problem came down to the simple concept of choice: when they were allowed to read whatever they wanted, they read more and it “made them better readers.”

While the video is nearly five years old, it’s presented in the same manner and with the same tone that I usually see or hear things presented from the average Connected Educator™: teachers are doing everything wrong.

Now, the idea of balancing a teacher’s interests, the curriculum’s interests, and the students’ interests is an excellent one and one that makes an incredible amount of sense; moreover, quite a number of English teachers will tell you that planning is often done with that in mind with varying degrees of success. Despite that incredibly obvious point, I think it’s important to explore this video a little more because the sentiments shown here are very often held in higher regard than anything someone who’s “just a teacher” could ever say.

1. Consider the source. The person who uploaded this video to YouTube is not a person at all; it is Heinemann Publishing, a division of Houghton Mifflin Hartcourt, which is one of the largest textbook publishing companies in the world. Heinmann specializes in professional development materials for teachers, including “Reading Projects Reimagined,” “Minds Made for Stories,” and “Reading Poetry in the Middle Grades.” In other words, this is not advocacy for a new method of teaching; it’s a sales pitch. It’s the equivalent of the Chewlees Gum representative giving an anti-smoking diatribe at the beginning of Clerks.

More appropriate to education, it’s the highly paid professional development speaker speaking to a packed auditorium about how the old methods are all wrong and there are new methods and he just happens to have books to sell that detail those new methods.

2. Everyone in this video is white and privileged. I took a very close look at the video the second time I watched it. It’s all shot in the same classroom because obviously, the person putting together was just talking to one English class. But the classroom is nice, clean, and modern with plenty of technology and access to technology as well as furniture that suggests someone spent money to create an Innovative™ environment and the teacher wasn’t stuck with desks that came with the school when it opened in the 1970s. Every student interviewed appeared to be the type of kid with money you’d expect to find your average upper-middle-class suburb. These students have the luxury of making this complaint, probably because none of them will struggle to pass a standardized test and all of them plenty of access to things like food, shelter, and clothing (let alone things to read). Furthermore, I can imagine the faculty isn’t under constant pressure from the administration regarding benchmark testing data and whether or not AMOs will be met, as well as a community that wants the budget cut even further because they view public education as a tax burden.

3. This is nothing new. Cliff’s Notes existed when I graduated high school twenty years ago. Plenty of people I knew used them. Furthermore, plenty of teachers knew they existed, had copies of them, assumed that students had access to them, and then planned around said Cliff’s Notes. I either own or have perused the Spark Notes and Cliff’s Notes of most of the works of literature I’ve taught and I challenge my classes to dig deeper than what’s in their superficial summaries and analyses. I’m not exactly impressed that a student can b.s. his way through a discussion; besides, knowing how to b.s. is an important skill you need to have.

I’ve also done independent novel units and it’s never as perfect as this video is trying to show. Many of the students who are excited about being able to read whatever they want are usually the same students who would have read the books and participated anyway. Students who were using Spark Notes or just not reading at all often found the way around choosing what they could read by simply picking something they’d read years before and remembered. Laziness is laziness, people.

4. There is a reason classic literature exists. The argument that “classic literature is dull” and that’s why you don’t read it is about as valid as saying you don’t listen to The Beatles or Chuck Berry because “It’s old” or you won’t watch a movie because it’s in black and white. I like my fair share of popcorn literature, but popcorn literature is called that for a reason and doesn’t stand up to a deep analysis or really show you anything incredibly insightful about human nature. If a teacher is giving you The Great Gatsby or The Odyssey, it’s because these are texts that have something about them that stand the test of time and still resonate with today’s audiences and it’s worth it to see why certain works of literature are timeless.

That’s not to say that we don’t reevaluate texts on a regular basis. There are books I read in high school that I don’t think hold up very well now (Great Expectations, for instance), but there are also books that I would readily share with my students and do every year (Fahrenheit 451). But the argument being made here is that classic literature is “long and boring” and that’s an immature view that is hard to take too seriously.

5. Stop being so deferential to students. Teachers don’t know every single want and need of their students, but we should try and do our best to find out and meet those wants and needs realistically. That being said, I should not be chastised for using my experience and expertise in my subject area when it comes to the materials that are used in my classroom. Relationships work two ways; so do conversations. That means that for as many great ideas that I can get from students, students should be able to get good or even great things from me.

Nobody benefits from a strict, rigid curriculum. Teachers need to be both open-minded and versatile in their planning. The thing is?  We know that.  What we want is to be given a little more credit.