As a teacher, I read a lot about teaching, and that’s why I know that much of the best writing about teaching begins, “I have made a terrible mistake.”
For example, that’s exactly how veteran high school teacher Alexis Wiggins begins what for me is THE teaching essay, published by The Washington Post in 2014 as “Teacher spends two days as a student and is shocked at what she learns.” Wiggins writes, “I have made a terrible mistake. I waited fourteen years to do something that I should have done my first year of teaching: shadow a student for a day.” She realizes with chagrin that students hardly ever get to talk about what they really want to learn; and furthermore, they’re required to sit still virtually all day long. The institutionalized stifling of mind and body makes Wiggins rethink everything in a remarkably succinct reflection.
When this essay came my way, I made changes pronto. As a result, our classroom discussions always start with, “What do you want to ask or talk about?” We also rotate seats every half an hour or so (prompting never-ending debate about which way is clockwise and which way is counterclockwise). I am also proud to be a pioneer in letting teenagers get up to use the bathroom or get a drink of water without asking permission.
I thought this was enough, but it’s not. I’m an English teacher, have been at it for going on eighteen years now, and I just now realized that my students want to read books. I thought we were reading books, but according to them: no. My idea of what it means to read a book is not at all their idea. I have made a terrible mistake.
Even my own idea of what it means to read a book is not what I thought it was. I thought my idea of reading a book was the same as Alice Munro’s. I remembered her writing, in the Preface to her Selected Stories,something very smart and insightful about how she reads a book by starting in the middle and seeing if the first sentence that catches her eye strikes her as jaunty. If so, then she tests the jauntiness of the first page. If the book shows sufficient pizzazz, then she’ll go ahead and read it until she detects a flaw—any flaw—at which point she will set it aside in favor of the next book that shimmers, repeating the process until she’s charmed into reading cover-to-cover.
You, insightful reader, will have already recognized that this cannot possibly be Alice Munro’s actual method. The depth of her writing precludes such a shallow approach to reading. I am the one who reads all willy-nilly and quits at the first breach of my personal aesthetic. This could be chalked up to different-strokes, except that I have recently realized—because my students emphatically told me so in their end-of-the-year surveys—that my approach is not conducive to their learning:
I wish we would spend more time reading books. —Sheena
. . . Actually finish a book . . . —Lucie
We didn’t stay with something long enough to grow. —Vlad
There it is, and much more where that came from. There’s stuff I do that students like, but the way we read books is not one of them. The good news is, I have the rest of this summer to come up with a better plan.
Let’s start with what Alice Munro actually wrote:
. . . I don’t always, or even usually, read stories from beginning to end. I start anywhere and proceed in either direction. So it appears that I’m not reading—at least in an efficient way—to find out what happens. I do find out, and I’m interested in finding out, but there’s much more to the experience. A story is not like a road to follow . . . it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the rooms and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from the windows . . .
I totally forgot about the house analogy. I have been window shopping; whereas Munro moves in. She makes herself comfortable, staying long enough to wonder and discover and consider new perspectives.
That, I think, is what my students want. It’s tricky, because few of them read outside of class. Still, it’s not actually reading that they clamor for. It’s finishing, by which I think they mean finding out who the characters are and what happens, as well as absorbing the meaning of what happens. They want to gain vocabulary, knowledge of different times and places, writing tips, and life lessons.
Well, when you put it that way—sure! Here is the thing, though. Because so few students read outside of class, what I’ve typically done is read the opening pages of a book together in class. For example, this past year we encountered Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Woman Warrior, Moby-Dick, King Lear, and Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir, My Beloved World. By encountering, I mean, ideally, I’d share some background, then we’d read for seven minutes. We would then choose the most important line and write about why we chose it. By repeating that process two or three more times, we would theoretically have negotiated a provisional sense of significance, which the students would then theoretically develop by reading on their own for a few weeks and then write an essay to chronicle the evolution of their thinking.
In practice, the whole “read the rest of it on your own” approach really never caught on. Kids these days! They’re conditioned for pre-packaged experiences such as Disneyland; they have fleeting attention spans due to YouTube; they equate literary analysis with knowing who’s a Montague and who’s a Capulet. But all of that, it turns out, only intensifies the yearning for their English teacher to deliver Meaning.
Well, why didn’t you say so? Answer: don’t save giving the feedback survey for the last week of school. I just thought . . . I just thought . . . oh, never mind what I thought. It’s summer vacation. Time for reflection, which I’ve been doing for hours a day since school let out. My conclusion is that we can read a ton of books; gather a ton of meaning. I have looming stacks of reading, drawn mainly from two Lit Hub lists: A Century of Reading: Books that Define the Decades and A Book a Day on Climate Change. We can read a book a month, assuming I can get classroom sets donated, which is eminently do-able.
The actual reading of actual words on pages is the challenge, and now I know what to do. It’s simple. Instead of reading only the opening chapters; read excerpts from beginning, middle, and end. I can fill them in on the plot. This is called, in TV shows: “Previously . . . ”
Beginning, middle, end; essay. Oh, we’ll do activities in between. I am good at activities. We have built sperm whales. We have curated a gallery of aromas in King Lear. We have created the 1984 theme park, OrWorld. I just have to change my way of reading: not skip around; but instead, hunker down. In order to do this, I am going to have to forgive books their flaws. To help make that happen, I hereby give Big Hug to my own flaws as teacher and reader—with this promise to do better, starting with this summer’s reading and unfurling ever after.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.