A few days ago, I asked my 9th graders to set a reading goal for themselves. For many of them, this goal could have been something as simple as staying focused while reading or stopping periodically to assess their understanding.
“What’s your goal, Mrs. Ebarvia?” a student asked.
Good question. I told her that one of my goals has been to read books that I think would appeal to my students, books that I could then recommend to them. But then I also added that I wanted to be a more diverse reader. I don’t read much non-fiction, for example, so I want to stretch myself a little in that area.
Thinking about this now, I’m reminded of something that Donalyn Miller shared at the Ignite session at NCTE in November. “We cannot allow our reading biases to ruin our students,” she said plainly, clearly, forcefully. I’ve given a lot of thought to this, which is why I think I find myself reading all sorts of books I wouldn’t normally pick up. I’m trying to read from my students’ point-of-view and not from my own biases.
Of course, as teachers and as generally literate people, we make decisions about what’s important for students to read in school. That’s our job, our professional responsibility.
But the more prescribed our decisions become, the more I worry that we take discovery out of the reading experience. Can students discover new worlds in the books we assign them? Of course. That’s surely one reason we assign certain books. But let’s be honest, aren’t those decisions fueled by our own preferences as readers? And what happens when our reading preferences—or as Miller calls them, our “biases”—begin to interfere with our students’ reading?
I tell myself that my students don’t need to love every book I assign; they just need to appreciate what makes it interesting, artistic, or meaningful. They need to read it from a point-of-view beyond their immediate, egocentric selves. This is what I tell my AP Lang students whenever they consider the audience in a piece of published writing. If they—the 16- and 17-year-old students they are—don’t find the piece terribly compelling, that could be because they weren’t the intended audience. They need to step outside themselves and imagine how the intended audience might be affected. The same is true, then, for the books we assign.
But isn’t there something wrong if 7 out of 8 books students read during the school year weren’t intended for them?
Most of the books we assign in schools were written for adults, for a literate and educated public. And while our students may be more literate and educated today than adults in the past, they’re still kids. They’re not adults, not in terms of life experience.
This is not to say that our students couldn’t read and identify with books like The Scarlet Letter (my 16-year-old self did, as I wrote elsewhere). I tell myself that some students will connect with some of the books, though not all, and that’s okay. After all, we have different reading preferences. And at least by reading what I assign, they’re reading works of literary merit.
And so I find myself wavering. But the more I think about how we become readers, I think about how we learn most things in life… through first-hand experience. How can students learn what kinds of readers they are when they are given little opportunity to practice discovering the types of books they want to read, and not just the books I think they should read? And how can they discover what they want to read if they’re not given the time and guidance to do so?
It’s times like this—when I find myself going back and forth, back and forth—that I think of the Hippocratic Oath. First, do no harm. Do we do more harm by forcing students to read books they don’t find compelling but have literary merit? Or do we do more harm by allowing them to read whatever they want but then limit their exposure to books of literary merit and the opportunity to read great literature? But who’s to say that students wouldn’t choose compelling books of literary merit on their own?
I don’t know. These are the things that keep an English teacher up at night.
This post is part of the “Slice of Life” series, organized by the teachers at Two Writing Teachers, whose goal is to give teachers a place to write and reflect. This March, more than 250 teachers have committed to daily writing. If you’d like to read more “slices” (from other teachers and even some students), visit twowritingteachers.wordpress.com/challenges.