Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Teaching Stories

A colleague presented the syllabus for her advanced course in literature to her students. The students looked over the list of readings and asked:

"Erm. . . will we have to. . . like . . . read these novels."

"Yes, of course," said my colleague.

"Maybe you should just give us like little summaries of these books," one student suggested brightly.

"Yes! Totally!" everybody concurred.


Pagan Topologist said...


Clarissa said...

In my graduate and advanced undergrad literature courses, every time I ask whether the students would prefer to read the book or see a movie based on it, I hope that there will be at least one who will choose the book. Hasn't happened yet, but I keep hoping.

Lindsay said...


Kind of an echo of something I read in an article (in the current issue of Duke magazine --- it doesn't seem to be online!) about how humanities programs have been changing recently, partly to adapt to students' needs, and partly to avoid being thought obsolete.

The relevant quote:
"[English and German professor Thomas] Pfau recalls that when he began teaching in 1989, it was a given that students would be able to grasp a text of great length, perhaps six or eight novels in a Victorian literature course. 'If you did that now, you'd have zero enrollment.'"

Pen said...

It's really disturbing, the number of kids who don't like reading school materials. I see it every day in English, and used to see it in French whenever we were assigned readings (which were really only tiny little snippets).

I don't think most kids realize that by only seeing a movie or summarizing a novel, they aren't getting anything from it. They can only make surface connections, and the larger network of interconnected themes is unavailable to them. Try summarizing Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself;" you just can't do that and attain comprehension at the same time.

Another problem is that students don't realize how frustrating it is to both the teacher and the students who do the reading. I'm fortunate enough to have been placed in a discussion-oriented class, but that discussion is worthless if there's nobody who knows what's going on. And with oral commentaries in less than a week, it's even worse, because there's no one who can feasibly critique your analysis or add to your ideas.

The proposed solution (at least for high school--I don't know how much of a problem it is in college just yet): take away cell phones and the internet. I want to do this every day in English. When they protest, I can say, "Now you know how the rest of us feel when you don't read!"

Or, if their only complaint is that the novel is too long or takes forever to read, they should compare their amount of free time with that of somebody who maintains busier schedule. I go to school seven hours a day, complete what averages out to be six to eight hours of homework a night, including readings and two hours of instrumental practice. In addition, there's Marching Band, various applications, assorted competitions, lessons, extra rehearsals, volunteer hours, a few minor extra-curricular activities, and internal assessments (I still get more homework on top of them, so they don't count strictly as homework). I have no free time except to sleep. If I have to deal with that and I'm still capable of getting the readings done, then they can, as well. Really, how difficult is it to devote yourself to even a half hour of required reading a night?

Sorry for the rant. It's just something that's begun boiling over as panic-mode sets in.

Clarissa said...

Lindsay: it would have been funny if it weren't so tragic.

Pen: is there a place where I can get more students like you? :-)

Denny said...

Ack! As long as I don't mind the casting choices, I like seeing what a director makes of books I've read. And, there've been times when beautiful trailers have inspired me to read a novel -"Age of Innocence," comes to mind. But, even when I've enjoyed both the novel and the film adaptation, I really don't see how a person could equate the two media.

Pen said...

It's really disturbing, the number of kids who don't read. I deal with this in English all the time.

I think what most students don't understand is that they can't get anything from just watching the movie or making a summary. They can't make connections, misunderstandings about the text run rampant, and they miss the underlying interconnected themes within the literature. Try summarizing Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself;" you just can't do that alone and attain comprehension of the piece at all.

In addition, a lot of students don't seem to realize how frustrating it is to both the teacher and the few of their peers who actually complete the reading. Sure, it's great to be an IB student, but that means that classes are centered around discussion, and that discussion is worthless if no one will read. This is especially problematic if your oral commentaries happen to be in less than a week, and no one but a few people can critique your analysis and add to your ideas.

So far, I've come up with two possible solutions (I'm only dealing with my experience in high school, but I suppose this could be applicable elsewhere). The first: take away cell phones and the internet. I want to do this every day in English; when they complain, I can say, "Now you know how the rest of us feel when you don't read!"

Solution two: If the complaint is that a) there is not enough time to read; b) the book is too long; or c) the book takes too long to read, try comparing schedules with someone else. I go to school seven hours a day and complete an average of six to eight hours of homework (including both readings and two hours of instrumental practice). In addition, I also have Marching Band, assorted applications and competitions, lessons, volunteer hours, several other minor extra-curricular activities, and internal assessments (which generally add two to four hours to the homework total). I have no free time except to sleep. I do this five days a week, and always have more work to get done on the weekends. I know that very few people at my school go through something like this; if I can manage it and still do the readings, I'm sure they can, as well. After all, how difficult is it to devote even a half hour to required readings?

Sorry for the rant. It's just something that's begun boiling over as panic mode sets in.

FD said...

I can understand word fatigue - I've read twenty+ books since Christmas just for the one paper and I'm not done yet. So, really, I get feeling daunted by one's reading list. But seriously, how can anyone sign up for an advanced literature course and bitch because there is required reading? I'm utterly croggled.

fairykarma said...

A lot of people don't know how to read. Assigning them many novels is only going to amplify this fact.

Just assign one meaty novel and let them fight with it. Encourage them to read slowly, encourage them to write their thoughts down on what's going on in the novel. Encourage them to grapple with historical context in contrast to their own daily lives. I mean, even those are vague instructions. Just play with the novel, play with the words, play with the ideas.

The problem with this is the ideal literature student is one that has already read extensively.

When I read a book, I have many toys with which to play around with a book. I have knowledge of sociology, anthropology, biology, evolution, literary theory, political theory, psychology, and history.

In typical Kantian fashion, I will conclude that you can only read a book using the toys you have available. Hell, why even restrict this platitude to books. It's the rule of life. The more you have the better, and there's no need to reduce this to a strictly material sense.

The problem is students simply don't have that many toys. This changes the teacher-student relationship from the traditional master-apprentice to master-slave or mother-child. It's frustrating as hell for both parties because the child/slave wants to be free. Free to do what? The child/slave doesn't know. The master/mother simply wants to maintain order and progress.

meg said...

I have a sad story to tell. I am a mother who sheltered her son, born in 1993, from video games, television and computers. I thought his love of reading was so entrenched and irrevocable that, in 7th grade, I allowed him to buy a video game system and, by this time, home computers and the internet were ubiquitous. Although he has read more and better books in his 17-year-old life than I ever will (and got a perfect score on the critical reading section of the SATs), I'm sorry to say that - in the past year - he has given up all but assigned reading (and that's hanging on by a thread).
He is nearly an adult and making his own choices, but I'm disheartened that even he, the biggest lover of books I've ever met, has given up reading.

Clarissa said...

meg: I have a story that might reassure you. I was in charge of raising my sister when she was a teenager. She was also a great reader and a stellar student. But at the age of 16 she discovered the Internet chat rooms and started practically living there. She didn't read anything for quite a while after that. I was worried because we are a family of compulsive readers. But then eventually she grew out of it. She graduated from a great university and is now a successful businesswoman and a passionate reader.

My husband tells a similar story about his adolescence. His parents were extemely worried when at 17 he discovered martial arts and cared about nothing other then that. Years later, he got a PhD and now reads all the time.

It might really be just a stage that your son is going through.

meg said...

Thanks, that IS encouraging. It's hard for me to imagine someone who's read every children's and young adult book of any quality to not eventually make the transition to adult books. Although he's loved reading Kafka, Gogol, Aristotle, Shakespeare, etc when assigned, he's not cracked any adult volume on his own. Perhaps there's just too much else going on inside right now. Thanks for offering your hopeful perspective.

Liese4 said...

fairykarma said...In typical Kantian fashion, I will conclude that you can only read a book using the toys you have available. Hell, why even restrict this platitude to books. It's the rule of life. The more you have the better....The problem is students simply don't have that many toys.

Which is exactly why I homeschool. My children love to read and there is (almost) no better way to gain knowledge than to read, read, read. My son's new college prof. has them reading 2 chapters of their writing handbook per day (twice a week) which seems a bit low to me.

I expect my children to read books of substance, not fluff. They need to read books on History, Math, Science and more. When they read about Chinese art in art class, I am proud that they can associate that art knowledge with some ancient Chinese history (not to mention remembering the lion dance and Chinese dancers we saw on a trip.)

If you don't have the tools in your hand, you can't create a masterpiece. If you don't have the tools in your mind, you can't understand the world.

Liese4 said...

Meg, the love of reading and learning that you fostered is not gone, just hidden under layers of 'new' things in his life. When we get older we start to peel back the layers and find what was truly important.

Clarissa said...

Once again, I respectfully ask everybody PLEASE to keep the comments on homeschooling to the relevant thread. I want to keep other threads open for discussion on the issues related to the actual posts. Thanks!

No more homeschooling comments will be published in any other threads than the one on homeschooling. If you want to see your comment published please go to that thread.

Pen said...

@fairykarma: You're overgeneralizing. There are quite a few students who have read extensively, and a handful more who can make connections very quickly, which negates the effect of not reading all the time. Assigning one meaty novel and encouraging slower reading does nothing but hurt these people. I went through something similar in my freshman year of high school: we did most of the reading in class, and it was absolute torture. I spent the whole year bored to tears while the rest of the class caught up on their reading ability.

Any book, be it fiction or nonfiction, uses a technique called "suspension of belief." The philosophy behind this is that if the reader believes that everything, they will keep reading, even if they know it is false. There's a reason textbooks are absolutist; this is essentially how mob psychology finds a hold in society.

You don't need tools to believe in something, or even to know about something. Making connections is a must, but I don't need to know anything about anthropology to understand the concepts behind ancient cultures. I don't need to have studied political science to grasp a concept any more than I need to understand how to tie my shoelaces. Will this help a student make connections? Most certainly. But most of the knowledge I gain in school is not used when I read; it's used when I write. And even then, I don't have to have any knowledge of history or science to make a story come alive. I agree that it helps tremendously, but it's not the only force behind comprehension.

And once again, you overgeneralize. There are students who have the toys you mentioned. Every kid in my class is able to read and comprehend beyond just basic themes and connections. They just refuse to do so. I'm not saying every student has the same kind of background, but if a student has willingly enrolled in an advanced course, I'd expect them to at least be willing to make the effort. Freedom and power struggles have nothing to do with it unless a student refuses to put in any effort.

Liese4 said...

I would prefer to say tools, not toys and you can take the word 'homeschool' out of my post and it still makes sense. I wasn't saying that the reason my kids do read is because of that, I was saying that everyone needs tools such as those (i.e. knowledge from different places)to gain more knowledge.

patrick said...

Not to break your rule about 'properly posting on the homeschool blog', but you've closed comments for that particular post.

Also - this is a post about reading, and I'm assuming what motivates students to read. My 12yr old homeschooled son reads (for pleasure) Shakespeare, Tolkien, Salvatore, Lewis; as well as his assigned readings on history, culture, and science. Would he read as much if he weren't homeschooled? Not likely. My experience with public school children is that reading is used as a punishment - it's something you do during detention. They read only excerpts from novels, never a novel in it's entirety, therefore you lose context. And discussion about the readings are limited to factual events (example - "what colour dress is the hero wearing on page 47?") rather than delving into the meat of the text. I know this from my experiences with foster children, whom we had to send to school, and thus had to spend each night doing with the student what the teacher was suppose to do during the day.

Where reading in the elementary level isn't valued; when public school teachers take the easy way out, and show movies so they can have the afternoon off; when reading is seen as a disciplinary tool, rather than an educational building block, why are we surprised that college students don't know how to 'read', even if they are technically literate?

Pen said...

Patrick, I would like to point out that I, as a student who has attended public school since I was five years old, like to read. That when I was ten, I read all of Tolkien's books that I could find. That when I was eleven, I read a collection of Shakespeare's plays in its entirety. By fourth or fifth grade, I was reading--and testing--at a college level. As for in-school reading: we have always read full novels (with the exception of the Iliad in tenth grade, which was too long for our curriculum), and I've only ever watched either snippets of movies in English class.

From the time I was in second grade, my teachers focused on comprehension and understanding rather than detail and plot. And except for one quiz given to my non-talkative class last year, class discussions, while touching briefly on plot, are mainly concerned with concept.

And before you point out that I might just happen to be the anomaly: I'm not the only one. My friends are all avid readers, and my classmates at least read willingly. And guess what? They all go to a public school, too.

My point: reading ability has nothing to do with whether a student is homeschooled or public schooled. Depending on where you live, the quality of public school education might not be appropriate, but that's still no excuse to bombard everyone else with generalizations.

Patrick said...

Pen -
I certainly wish you and your classmates experiences could be construed as the norm. As I've witnessed in my nearly 40 years, it is not the case.

I was raised in the public school system. I've lived in 5 different cities, in 2 different provinces. I've coached youth sports for 20 years. I've interacted with literally thousands you kids (ages 8-18); and I can say with confidence that you are the exception, not the rule.

Our experiences through the foster system were the last straw concerning the homeschool/public school debate. At least 8 out of 10 public school kids that I meet HATE learning, and HATE school and anything associated with school (such as free reading). Teachers even despise school (they should be far more discreet on Facebook).

But this is not about homeschool/public school. It's about why kids (in general) don't read. And perhaps what we can do to help change that tide. My suggestions:

1) Let your kids see YOU read
2) Have a lot of books available in the home for the kids to 'just pick up'
3) Don't mock or denigrate what they choose to read. Building the habit is more important than the actual content. (Yes, this means letting them read Twilight. Ugggh)
4) Make trips to the library and book store, and allow them to browse
5) Make sure they see YOU reading! (Did I say that already? Probably - but it's that important, in my NBHO.)