I’m super excited to finally publish my first discussion post for Bloggers in the Attic! This month we’re bringing you twelve different takes on required reading — and in my post today, I’d like to take some time and consider the teacher’s perspective.
The Bloggers in the Attic is a discussion chain. And what is a discussion chain? Well, it’s pretty simple.
Me and other eleven bloggers united together to discuss a common topic, covering the whole arc of February, and sharing our unique perspective. Camilla @ Reader in the Attic created the initiative with the wish to create a discussion space that could explore a normal topic for different parts of the world.
The rules to participate are pretty simple. So, if you ever wish to take part in future discussions, just comment under this introduction and first post. Topics will be discussed bi-monthly, so the next round will be up in April. There’s plenty of time to join in, but the best option is always to enter early.
Don’t forget to check out the aforementioned introductory post by Camilla @ The Reader In the Attic (which also includes links to everyone in the chain!), the previous post by Lara @ Naija Book Bae, and the next post by Fictionally Sam!
My Education Background
I’m a survivor of the U.S. public school system, and (perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who now runs a book blog and spends large amounts of time voluntarily reading and writing) English/Literature/Language Arts have always been my favorite subjects — in large part because I was privileged enough to have parents who would read with me and take me to the library often, and because I learn well under the traditional public-school teaching models. (I graduated high school before the infamous Common Core curriculum was really implemented, so all I can say on that front is that even after a year and a half working with elementary (primary) schoolers I still don’t understand it.)
I was also a Teacher’s Assistant for a freshman English class during my senior year of high school, and I’m going into my fourth semester working with academically-behind first through fourth graders (ages 6-10). Starting next week we’re actually implementing a new, more structured reading program — Leveled Literacy Intervention (LLI), in case anyone is wondering — and these experiences in particular inspired my approach to this post.
As you might expect, a lot of book bloggers have been or still are students, which means there’s already quite a few posts on this topic. Which is not to imply that it’s a “tired” topic, because everyone has valid opinions and unique experiences to bring to the discussion! However, I wanted to look at a less-explored side of the issue: the teacher’s perspective. So I reached out to some of the English teachers at my high school, and several kindly took the time to write back about their relationship with required reading.
The first responses I got actually asked me to clarify whether I meant a specific type of required reading, since the term could refer to summer reading lists, free-choice Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) time in class, small-group discussions (i.e., mini book clubs), whole-class-reads-the-same-book-at-the-same-time, etc. Just so everyone is on the same page — pun totally intended — today’s post focuses on the last two in the above list. The others absolutely have their own merits in the classroom, but in the interest of brevity and coherence we won’t go into them right now.
In the rest of this post I’ll be synthesizing their responses, indicated with quotation marks (but no citation, in the interest of relative anonymity / Internet safety — both theirs and mine), and my own understanding and research to explain some of what goes on behind the scenes, and hopefully give you all some food for thought.
It’s quite possible that in an ideal world we wouldn’t have required reading at all, but we don’t live in an ideal world — and teachers are only human, with only so many hours in the day and so many resources.
Having students read one (or one of a select few) books is therefore “economical, both in terms of bulk-rate purchases [of the physical books], teacher time (prepping the piece), and teacher-monitored discussions (common understanding of the material allowing for the full class to work on the same issues).” In other words, it’s more efficient, allowing teachers to focus on making the curriculum as effective as possible.
This doesn’t make lesson planning easy, though. Teachers still have to get students to “care about this text from another era by some long-dead writer written in a style they may not be used to” — sometimes even when they themselves don’t really like the book! They also have to comply with all the different requirements from the state, school district, and their department.
And we haven’t even started to talk about all the work that goes into creating, and then grading, assignments and assessments that ensure students actually pick up the knowledge and skills they’re trying to impart. (On a related note: have you thanked your teachers recently?)
What Students (Hopefully) Gain In the Long Term
Reading certain books, often written by the infamous “old dead white men,” contributes to a cultural literacy that allows students to participate in the “ongoing conversation about Western [civilization] and our place in it” and fully appreciate contemporary references to Literary Canon. It’s no fun being excluded from an inside joke; similarly, students who never read these “foundational” texts will never be able to contribute to the broader societal conversation on equal footing with everyone else. As one teacher put it, “How will you understand that Superman is just a re-telling of the magical, super-powered orphan found in the Bible and in Greek mythology if you weren’t exposed to those stories in the first place?” This is something I experienced firsthand when I finally read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for a philosophy & pop culture seminar: ever since, I’ve noticed references in so many books and movies, some more subtle than others of course.
Additionally, reading is an intensely interpersonal process. Science has shown that readers are more empathetic, which makes sense when you realize that “understanding characters and characterization is really about understanding what drives people, what motivates them, what frustrates them.” During “this universal rite of passage we call the teen years” (and at any other period, but especially this self-absorbed one), reading reminds us that other people exist and matter, and that we are not alone in our struggles — crises of identity and ethics and relationships date back to Shakespeare’s time, and even earlier.
Whether a student is reading the same book as the rest of the class or just the rest of their small group within the class, the text serves as a “common medium for discussion of analysis” of the aforementioned ideas, and of other texts too. And they do say that no two persons ever read the same book — so in-class discussion, focused through the lens of a specific literary context and colored with individual interpretation, facilitates critical thinking and communication. (Both of these are also skills used in writing book reviews and blog posts!)
Sometimes all this even leads to memorable moments, the kind you’ll remember years later and reminisce over with former classmates and/or teachers at your hometown Starbucks:
… a deep, long, and sustained conversation that wraps up too quickly before we’re ready for it to be over … occasional laughter … one or two “light bulb” moments … a feeling that what we’re doing or discussing is pushing us to think in a deeper way or a newer way, that it doesn’t feel like busy work.
In the process of writing this post, I ended up with a lot of interesting ideas that I want to look into further; I actually plan on revisiting this topic in a few months when I’ll have more of my own teaching experiences to add, and I’ll likely to reach out to more teachers at other schools and levels of education (i.e., elementary / middle / college) to get a broader picture.
Let me know if you’d like to contribute to or collaborate with me on this project, whether through contacting — or, with their consent, providing me with contact information for — your own teachers, sharing your teaching-related experiences, or forwarding links to articles / research that have already been published.
Thank you for sticking with me all the way to the end! I’d love to hear about your own experiences with required reading, and I invite you to come up with your “ideal” reading curriculum: the titles you’d choose, the themes you’d discuss, the types of activities/assignments you’d include.