When I think about reading, a lot of positive emotions fill my head, and my heart. I grew up in a time without Netflix, cell phones, Snapchat, and a lot of other distractions. This is a world my students do not know.
Last week, my students chose books to read after a quick book pairing activity. They were meant to narrow down choices from the classroom library by taking into consideration: setting, plot, characters, text complexity, among other things. But, for some, it really just boiled down to a satisfactory answer to the question, “How long is it?” They know they will get a few assignments (learning opportunities) to undertake with their book. Of course, they will also have a chance to earn a grade for these assignments.
I told the students I didn’t want them choosing books that were significantly below grade level with regard to Lexile level, but then I had to re-think that, because some books, like Milk and Honey, use uncomplicated language to convey complex ideas. So in the end, everyone was paired with a book they chose, and theoretically “wanted”. These are some of the books: The Diary of Anne Frank, The Autobiography of Gucci Mane, The Secret Life of Bees, The Boy in Striped Pajamas, American Street, Long Way Down, All American Boys, Hunger, The Color of Water, Always Running, Milk and Honey. That’s quite the variety, isn’t it? Still, for two students, not a single book, in my classroom library with over 200 titles, held any appeal.
One of these two students, we’ll call her Crissy, chose Paper Towns by John Green. Her reason? “There’s a movie, and I don’t read books, so…” In that moment, I didn’t push, because choice, and agency are key components of this unit. I hoped, worst case scenario, she’d watch the movie and then want to read the book. Another student, we’ll call him Rick, looked miserable, then picked a random one, as one would pick up a dirty diaper, so he could fulfill the directive to “get paired with a book”. I inferred from his body language, and the way he threw the book around, that he wasn’t into it. So, while the other students settled in to read, I tried my best to “sell” him on a book other than the one he chose at random. He asked me questions about the authors (one of whom I have met). He had me read my favorite page. He asked me what it was about, to which I replied, “Read the back, then let’s talk.” I respected the way he showed curiosity, and tested how much I really believed in the book I was offering. Slowly, but finally, we turned a corner and I got him to agree to give the book a chance. I find it helps never to seem too eager. After all, they are teenagers…
When I was about 12 or 13, I became addicted to various books written as a series. First, it was feel-good adventure in The Babysitter’s Club, then gritty-realism mixed with fantasy and Julia Sets (of course) in Piers Anthony’s Fractal Mode series, then painstakingly detailed history and a kick-ass female protagonist in The Clan of The Cave Bear series. To this day, I love a good book series. Reading is my escape, my mental exercise, my relaxation. In short, tell me to read a book, and I’m instantly curious, perhaps eager–ready for adventure. I’m aware that for many students, that is not the case. They feel about reading the way I often feel about grading.
For too many of my students, reading is a painful chore. There are many reasons for this, which include: lack of reading material that reflects their interests and lived experiences, no family culture of reading for pleasure, living in a book desert, no library and/or librarian at school (we have had neither for the past three years), multilingualism–which has not been respected, valued, or nurtured in our educational system. In short, tell them to read a book, and they feel instant dread, distaste, or just plain overwhelmed.
I teach AP English. So, I believe it goes without saying that my students know how to do school. Many of them are used to being “A students” and getting “easy As” in all their classes. I have had students who are at the top of their class brag to me about not ever having read a book in high school. A lot of students growing up in this digital age really believe that reading is not fundamental for success, and that it is rarely, if ever, enjoyable. Not every student feels this way. Just as there are many teachers who love getting in to a stack of papers to grade because it allows them to collect data, and dive more deeply into what’s needed to better serve students, there definitely some of my students with developed reading identities, who read for pleasure. Unfortunately, of the generally disenfranchised students I teach, these are a distinct minority.
I get it. Our feelings are often tied directly to life experiences we have had, creating associations with positivity or negativity, threats or security, punishments or rewards.
When it comes to grading, in our current system, my associations are mostly negative. I don’t like commodifying learning. Assigning a percent value and/or letter grade to everything, in my opinion, diminishes the value of what happens in that esoteric space of radical reinvention, also know as the classroom. I see far more students become obsessed with how much assignments are “worth”, and refuse to learn unless a “reward” is attached to a task, than I do who are inspired or motivated to learn to enhance their lives. Still, no matter how I feel, every week, for the last decade or so–every place I have taught–the professional expectation is that teachers export grades for “eligibility purposes”. The punishment for not doing so has been anything from my name (listed among others who didn’t export grades) sent out to all staff in an email list of shame, to emailed appointment “requests” for follow-up meetings about why I didn’t export grades on time. I have learned to avoid punishment and/or embarrassment by exporting my grades on time.
I won’t get into the train wreck I experienced this year when an “oversight” resulted in my having to keep six separate grade books for one of my sections, but there is a part of me that really resents the rigid way that teachers are asked to track and report student achievement. I also think it is a mistake to make grading something teachers control alone and absolutely. This inevitably results in too many students feeling like grades are rewards or punishment, and something being done to them, rather than a tool for measuring achievement. There is a real, emotional and psychological cost for commodifying learning the way that we do, which embeds itself in the psyche of learners, can distort their image of themselves–and limit their potential.
Shout out to Sarah Zerwin and The Paper Graders for their revolutionary work in this area.
So, when I encounter reluctant, or disenfranchised readers, I do understand where they are coming from. Still, as an avid reader, and someone who loves all things literacy, I feel like it is a hollow life indeed one lives without books. I also believe my students without reading identities will be at a disadvantage that some folks in power are banking on. It is hard not to let my bias toward reading impact my approach to the situation.
I told this to Crissy, and the look on her face told me that her block to reading had everything to do with never having had a good experience with a book, and perhaps doubting her ability to do so. Rick’s face, words, and body language, told me the same story. With both students, their test scores indicate they know how to take tests. They know how to do school–to play the game, and perhaps win. My observation was that both students took books, and were unable to begin reading them during sustained independent reading time–I watched. Still, both students have been programmed to believe that to get good grades, you have to do what the teacher tells you to do and maybe, fake it til you make it.
So how do I help remove these emotional blocks? How do we, the students and I, shift our thinking? Experience tells me that the best way to confront situations like this is, paradoxically, head on, and one step at a time.
This year, I am introducing and tweaking the idea of grade justifications so students can grade themselves and present their best evidence for why they should receive such a grade. We will also collaborate, as a class, to really understand what grade marks and levels correspond to learning and skill mastery levels. We will actively work to decolonize our thinking around how we measure and evaluate learning.
Catch some of my thoughts on this in this Twitter Moment
In my mind, a similar process can happen with regard to students in urban schools reinventing reading identities toward the end of their 13 year school experience. A reading identity should be formed, and nurtured much earlier. But, teaching in this landscape of digital natives has taught me that my expectation often does not match reality. We have to reimagine what reading looks like for our students who have all the challenges and considerations I mentioned earlier to wrestle with. We’ll have to begin with students deciding how they most enjoy encountering text, what kinds of reading they like to do, in what languages, and what real (and online) spaces. Perhaps most importantly, we’ll have to ask a question only they will have the answer to; how is reading necessary for health, and happiness in your lives?
I’m going to have to be open minded. I’m going to have to consider new possibilities. I’m going to have to depart from the idea that I, as the adult, know what is best for everyone. I’m going to have to grow, and so will they.