Response Two “We Can’t Teach Students to Love Reading”

August 14, 2011 — Leave a comment

One statement from the article by Alan Jacobs titled “We Can’t Teach Students to Love Reading” published in The Chronicle of Higher Education on July 31, 2011, grabbed my attention: “No novel or play or long poem will offer its full rewards to someone who consumes it in small chunks and crumbs. The attention it demands is the deep kind.”

I wonder if the authors of novels, plays, or long poems write with the intent of the reader receiving “full rewards”? What does “full rewards” mean anyway? I assume from the publication The Chronicle of Higher Education that Jacobs is talking about literature of the canon usually taught in at the college or college-prep level. At these levels, does “full rewards” mean the analysis, deconstruction and/or the synthesis of literature? Is the examination of his or her literature the goal of an author? I believe Jacobs cannot qualify what he means by “full rewards” because that quality cannot be standardized. I am also not convinced authors are seeking readers who read for “full rewards”. I think authors are seeking readers-all readers-any readers. Authors write for an audience.

There are audiences of middle and high school students who are required to read novels, plays, and long poems. The length and complexity of many of these works (ex: Catcher in the Rye, The Giver, Huckleberry Finn, All Quiet on the Western Front, Great Expectations, Of Mice and Men, The Scarlet Letter, The Odyssey, Death of a Salesman) in a curriculum means that units dedicated to a text can go for several weeks as teachers try to develop the kind of deep attention in their students for the “full rewards” that Jacob admires. For example, Shakespeare’s Macbeth takes a minimum of four weeks to teach. Consequently, by the end of the unit, everyone wants to kill Macbeth: characters, students and teacher alike. Yet, in those four weeks of intense study, students still will have not received the “full rewards” of the play according to Jacobs; they will have only grazed the surface of the tragedy in the “small chunks and crumbs” afforded by the school day calendar. Honestly, Shakespeare must roll in his grave over the plodding of innumerable classes trudging endlessly “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day…”. Was “full rewards” Shakespeare’s intent?

The goal of education should be to develop reading skills so that students should read successfully. Once students read successfully, measured by understanding the author’s message and appreciating the author’s style, then students may choose to read what they like, perhaps even what they love.

Teachers, myself included, tend to “over-teach” literature. Kelly Gallagher discusses the “over-teaching” of texts in his book Readicide, and poses the following question, “When you curl up with a book, do you do so with the idea of state mandated multiple choice tests? Do you pause at the end of every chapter so you can spend an hour answering a worksheet with mind-numbing answers?” He continues that adult readers would “never buy a book at Barnes and Noble if it came with mandated chapter by chapter exams….And we [adults] would never feel compelled to read if we [adults] had to complete a project after every book.” Gallagher maintains that these are the practices that are killing the love of reading; so, it is no wonder Jacobs can make the statement that the love of reading has been the pursuit of a limited number of adults.

I will concede that Jacobs does have a point, the “deep attention” that leads to his meaning of “full rewards” may be impossible to implement in a typical middle school/high school setting, but I would also venture that authors are not as concerned with “full rewards” as they are with communicating a message to an audience. By week two of Macbeth, most, if not all, students recognize that Macbeth has brought about his own tragic fall, that his wife is riddled with guilt, and the kingdom they have usurped cannot last. Shakespeare’s enduring legacy is his ability to communicate to a universal audience; “full rewards” may not necessary for students to appreciate the play, although “full rewards” could be an individual pursuit of a student who makes that choice.

Alan Jacobs’ theory of wringing the “full rewards” from a text is the reason middle school and high school students cannot be taught to love reading. Such teaching is fragmented and frustratingly slow for the teacher and student in school. Jacobs also recognizes that the love of reading has always been built on the choice of the reader; he discusses his own progress as an adult to develop his deep attention to reading. In contrast, Kelly Gallagher offers strategies to limit “over-teaching” and provide student choice earlier at the middle and high school level that may allow students to develop a love of reading on their own much earlier rather than later to develop “deep attention” to reading as adults. Love of reading should not be an out-of-school experience.

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