Slice of Life 25: First, Do No Harm

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.


slice of lifeThis 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.

15 thoughts on “Slice of Life 25: First, Do No Harm

  1. Some of my kids pick up “assigned” reading for their pleasure reading because they can’t wait to get to it. I do believe that we need to expose them to a few that many wouldn’t pick up on their own, but I’m happy to say we’ve gone almost an entire marking period without an assigned book!

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    • I agree – I actually think most students will naturally gravitate to “assigned” (more difficult) texts, simply because they’ve grown as readers. But they can only grow as readers when we give them the time and opportunity to do that both with a class and independently. I think – I hope – that independent reading opportunities allow them to learn what it means to be an independent reader outside of school and beyond.

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    • I agree that reading in and of itself can’t be the goal. My fear is that too many students no longer see themselves as “readers,” and may never make the move to classic or “bigger and global” stories if they don’t build the interest, stamina, and confidence in reading that sometimes independent reading/choice provides.

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      • Yes, you know, nowadays, there are more children who want to write rather than read. I’ve come across a group of nine-year-old kids in the street and one of them strongly urged his friends to check his blog. I wonder how much he has to share with the world; he had gone through tough times in his whole entire life… =)

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  2. I think it’s a fine balance between assigned and independent choice. It helps to point out the relevance in reading classic literature–in my elementary setting, “classic” often refers to fairy and folk tales, and I’m constantly amazed at how many students have not been exposed to those. I go on to tell them that a lot of current titles have the same themes, and knowing the classics enriches their experience with their independent choice books. I would think it is the same for high school-and-beyond literature.

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    • I know what you mean. Many times I’ve referenced classic texts or allusions that students don’t know. I guess it’s just about balancing cultural literacy with choice and authentic reading experiences for them.

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  3. I was speaking with some pre-service teachers. One asked the following question with quite a bit of frustration, “But what if the student just wants to keep reading something that you know is below their reading level and is not exposing himself to other styles of writing?” Only in my “advanced years” of my career have I gotten to a place where I could say a bit of what you wrote above. Even then, I tried to have her see her own answer for herself, instead of just offering what I believe after 20 years. I ultimately left her with, what if, by “judging” now, we create a non-reader in the future – a student we have turned off to reading by “our” choices and opinions. Thank you for this extremely thorough and thoughtful post.

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    • It’s funny because that I could easily see myself saying the same thing that pre-service teacher said not too long ago. For me, I think it comes down to a matter of trust – that I couldn’t trust that students would eventually push themselves to something different, but also that I didn’t trust my own ability to be able to get them to expand their reading other than simply requiring them to do so. I had a student this year, for example, who only wanted to read Tom Clancy. Devoured his books. After allowing him to read a few Clancy novels, I was able to get him to read Grisham, then Dan Brown, etc. Still within his genre, but expanding it.

      I also think that when you create a reading community in your classroom, students will be more willing to try other books or genres that they see their peers reading. I book talk a lot of titles, and many students read them, but my recommendation is nothing compared to the recommendation of a peer.

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  4. This post intrigues me. As a student, I probably would never have chosen to read what turned out to be pieces that changed me. I am grateful for the teacher who guided me to these pieces. Yet, I did not become an avid reader through these pieces alone. I read materials that I chose. Somehow a balance was what guided me to being a literate adult. Thank you for this thought-provoking post.

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  5. I agree that students need to read some core curriculum, but I strongly believe they need to choose what they read as well. It is up to us to introduce them to some different types of books so they know what is available. It’s a tricky path, but so important.

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  6. Sometimes the books chosen for literary merit are just the books that kill the pleasure of reading for our kids. It’s different in high school, but in middle school, we are all about choice. Thanks for this thoughtful post.

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  7. I love this: “They’re not adults, not in terms of life experience.” I don’t think there is a “right” answer for your question. Like most things in education, I think balance is the best answer.

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