Reading in school

Reading in school

People reading is a good thing.

That seems obvious to me…although, whenever I realize I have that feeling of a “self-evident fact”, I want to challenge it. I want to test it, to look at it from different perspectives. In some cases, it survives and comes out stronger. In others, I may actually change my idea. Even if I don’t change my opinion, just the intellectual exercise of having considered it is both fun and, I believe, valuable.

That ability to look at things from different points of view is part of what reading does. Whether it is fiction or non-fiction, you end up inside the book looking back out at yourself. That’s the only way to understand what the author is saying. You have to put yourself into the author’s place, because you need to understand not just the words, but the thoughts and feelings behind (and next to and in front of) them.

That’s part of why I question the traditional concept of assigned reading in school.

Let’s look at the model as this:

  1. The teacher (often mandated by a school, district, state, or in the case of Common Core, even Federal list or guideline) assigns a particular book to a class of students
  2. A certain amount of it has to be read by a certain time
  3. The teacher then tests that the students have read to that point. That test may involve questions about specific facts (“Who is Kris’ sibling?”)
  4. There may also be discussions about what has happened in the book, and writing assignments. Students may be discouraged from reading ahead of the assignment, so that their foreknowledge doesn’t impact those discussions

Certainly, some wonderful insights may come out of reading something which you would otherwise have not read. Analytical thinking skills can be developed, and you can learn a great of historical context in order to explain what is happening and how the culture of the time.

However, I’m not convinced that doing that sort of “particulate examination” actually encourages someone to be a reader in the future. It is much easier to score a test if you ask for facts. It’s a daunting task for a teacher to measure whether or not a student has understood the feelings of a character. First, even scholars may debate for decades the inner life of a fictional being, particularly when it isn’t explicitly delineated. Second, students may have different levels of ability expressing how someone feels…particularly if some students have similar life experiences to the character and others don’t.

I had a gut-wrenching and epiphanic moment in high school when I realized that all of the emphasis on measurable fact extraction was slowing my reading speed. It made me doubt the value of the classes, and to actually see them as a negative.

Now, that wasn’t the case with one of my favorite teachers. I was lucky enough to be able to take a class specifically in science fiction. This teacher would introduce a topic to us, or a sub-genre, and explain the history of it, and the driving forces behind it. Then, we would be given a list of books…although we could also submit our own, as I recall, and the teacher could approve it or not.

We were not all reading the same book at the same time.

We did not have detail-oriented tests.

It was much more discussion driven, and sometimes with just me and the teacher, but sometimes in a group.

For example (and I’m not sure any of this is “historically accurate” for what we actually did), we might have a presentation on time travel literature. Then, we might pick a time travel book to read. In class, we might have a discussion about the “grandfather paradox” (if you go back in time and kill your grandfather, you won’t have been born…so how could you exist to go back in time?). The books we read (at our own pace, of our own selection) would inform that discussion…but it was the idea, and the books relationship to the idea, that mattered. It wasn’t about remembering names or what came first in the book.

Right away, I know there are teachers who read this who know that it was an an0malously generous situation. Teachers aren’t usually given that kind of freedom in assignment and measurement of performance. I think we only had about ten students in the class, and we were all high performers. We could be counted on to pick legitimate books that fit the topic. It would be different trying to do this with a class of thirty, of whom we’ll say ten have never read a book before.

I don’t have an answer here as to how to proceed. I just do feel like the way we assign reading in school now does not produce the optimum results. I’ve had many people tell me that they hated a book which was assigned to them in school…but realize they might have liked it if they had discovered it on their own.

I’ve very interested in your thoughts on this, and I’m going to encourage you to comment on this post. Let me first, though, use a poll to establish a more general picture:

Obviously, I haven’t listed all of the possibilities…and I’m sure some of you may see my choices as leaning towards a negative opinion of assigned reading (part of that will depend on how you interpret the questions).

Definitely, though, feel free to tell me and my readers what you think/feel about it. Β I don’t expect any changes to come out of this, or even grand plans at this point. This one is just at the level of playing with the idea, and looking at possibilities.

You know, like you do when you read a book… πŸ˜‰

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in theΒ I Love My Kindle blog.

18 Responses to “Reading in school”

  1. Connie Says:

    And now, federal mandates. I can’t really think of anything good about some guy in Washington telling me what to read.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Connie!

      Just to be clear, Common Core isn’t a mandate. It’s a standard, and it does affect federal money, as I understand it, but schools could opt out of both the standard and the money, if they wanted.

      I’ll leave the specific politics out of it, though. πŸ™‚

      Edited to add: I see I did use the word “mandated”. For me, the list being mandated by the school and a “Federal mandate” are two different things…your comment reasonably addressed the terminology I had used. πŸ™‚

  2. Zebras Says:

    I had to check both loved it and hated it. It really depended on the book and teacher. It pushed me to read harder books that I was accustomed to. Loved Tale of Two Cities and Grapes of Wrath, but since I changed High Schools, I got stuck re-reading Julius Ceasar!

    Since I changed schools, I did take the equivalent of 5 1/2 years of high school English classes. My most cherished one was also a sci-fi/fantasy class. It was much less structured than the other class, so I think I read a lot more. The discussions were interesting. The teacher even got one of the guys to teach us Dungeons and Dragons one day. I don’t remember if one of our writing assignments was to deliberately write a story that included ourselves, but one of the guys threw me out of his bomb shelter during his nuclear war story! (Gordon, I didn’t forget!) πŸ˜‰

    Whatever they are learning, students need to be engaged. The process shouldn’t be chosen based on how easy it should be for a teacher to grade. Its much easier for the teacher to test children on the content of a book if they all read the same thing at the same time, but it would be much more valuable to the students, if they had to write an essay about the book they had read, or re-tell a scene from another character’s point of view, or write a chapter to add on to the book, etc. Also books that tie into current events would make kids more interested, too.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Zebras!

      I expected a lot of people to check both of those options, as you did.

      It’s interesting that we both liked a science fiction(/fantasy) class! I’m curious: was yours an elective, and would you say you had more advanced readers in it?

      Sounds like you had a good teacher!

      Oh, I know I have feedback that says I’m a good trainer, although that’s not the same as being a school teacher. I do understand engagement. It’s just that if someone has to look at your accomplishments as a teacher, it’s easier to do that if there is a test to show that something has changed in the students…even if it’s just the accumulation of rote knowledge.

      I think we don’t see the impact of the best school teachers until years after the students have graduated…and it’s hard to base salary on that. πŸ˜‰

  3. Bailey Says:

    I probably have a different perspective on this than most people, because I’ve been homeschooled since 10th grade and went to ‘online school’ since 7th.

    When in online school, I don’t remember particularily caring about the books (most were Newberry winners, which I’m now doing a self-challenge to read all of them.) I was deffinately more stressed about the essays/tests and now that I think about it, I didn’t like it… but knew I didn’t have a choice so I just did it.

    In homeschool, things worked differently. My mom had a million and one things that she wanted me to read (most of them classics). Maybe it was the fact that it was my mom and I was a teenager, but I /hated/ it. Absolutely hated it. Didn’t matter what the book was, I resented being told what to read and when to do it (hmm, similar thing happened with violin practice. Guess it was teen rebellion after all.)

    Eventually I dug in my heels enough that she sorta gave up and just put down that I was doing a children’s literature class πŸ™‚

    (And lo and behold, most of the books she wanted me to read have now made it to my TBR list πŸ˜‰ )

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Bailey!

      Temple Grandin has some interesting things to say about animals and novelty…they like it when they can approach novel items, and don’t like it (fear it) when the novel items are out of their control. I suspect that’s part of people’s reactions to being assigned reading, although we don’t interpret it as fear.

  4. Tuxgirl Says:

    Some was good, some wasn’t. When I was in the book report grades (elementary school), it was more like what you describe. We each chose our own book in the genre, then read it, and wrote up a report on it, then presented to the class. I read some really great books that way. I also read some great books that were assigned reading. And then there were books that I never would have chosen to read. Catcher in the Rye is one of those. I am pretty conservative, and do *not* like hearing (or reading) swearing. I don’t swear, my immediate and extended family doesn’t swear, my close friends don’t swear. Catcher in the Rye was… Way outside what I was comfortable with, and I didn’t appreciate it.

    Where I think school ruined things was first, poetry, and second, history. We spent so much time analyzing poetry in my classes, and I am still utterly convinced that the poets did not intend most of the inferences that our teachers claimed were likely. And… For history, I think there’s some crazy conspiracy of history teachers to ensure that nobody will ever actually willingly read a book about history ever again. Teachers seem to pick the most utterly boring book they can find, then test on the irrelevant things from it.

    I remember finally having a teacher who asked smart questions in history. Instead of “in what year…?” Or “who did ….?, this teacher asked questions that started with “why”. Why was the American revolution successful and the French Revolution unsuccessful? That is what is important to learn. Names, dates and locations are useful in a broad sense. But the ability to ask why things happened the way they did… That is priceless.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Tuxgirl!

      I don’t swear personally, but my family does, to varying degrees. πŸ™‚ Catcher in the Rye is one of those interesting cases: it gets assigned frequently, when it seems like the kind of book that might be more likely to be banned in school libraries.

      I understand what you mean about poetry! I loved, loved, loved having a Shakespearean analysis class…but that was when I was an actor, not when I was a student. It’s important to understand some things…like when Shakespeare is deliberately parodying another poetry style.

      However, I also have to believe that Shakespeare sometimes just wrote a line because Shakespeare thought it was funny. πŸ˜‰

      As to history, one of the best class days I had in high school was when I really hadn’t read the assignment for some reason. We were going to talk about the causes of the American Civil War, so I asked the teacher if I could lead the discussion. πŸ™‚ That worked very well…I think everybody in the class learned a lot, not just me.

  5. liz Says:

    “Assigned reading” brings back some very negative memories, so I answered the poll on the negative side, but after some further thought, I must admit that certain assignments were quite good. Those positive instances generally were from classes where the teacher/professor encouraged student interaction and discussion of topics such as how the literature related to the events that were current at the time. Two instructors stand out prominently in my mind as great examples of this; I’m sure it took a bit more time and effort to develop teaching plans that engaged the students, but they had a great impact on my understanding and appreciation of literature (especially Shakespeare, in the case of one of my University professors).

    The bad/good experience I had with literature instruction was repeated with history classes – the vast majority of my instructors taught us to memorize NAMES and DATES, but didn’t bother discussing connections and impacts of events. Finally, in college, I had the opportunity to take a history class with a theme (History of Technology and Civilization). History suddenly was fascinating – I went from an attitude of “loathe it!” to “love it!” which has stayed with me until today.

    I happen to love math, but I know many people who hate it; I suspect that they never had a teacher who was passionate about the subject, and just made them memorize things like “times tables”. Some of my friends admit that they sat in the back of class, counting the minutes until they could leave. They don’t understand how I could actually enjoy solving a challenging problem, especially since I’m an adult and don’t have to worry about grades.

    Instruction in any subject really needs to engage the student in a way that encourages engagement and independent thought. Otherwise, you’re only teaching your students to memorize stuff and spew it back on a test … and then quickly forget it. If a real connection has been made in the student’s mind, then the material has a better chance of not only “sticking” in the memory, but also really making a difference in the way the person thinks in the future.

    Which for me begs the question: why do we bother with school at all, if the instruction doesn’t have a lasting impact on the students?

    (Ok, I admit there’s a lot more to this whole thing than just the instructors, but I think that all students of at least moderate intelligence can be motivated to appreciate all subjects and obtain lifelong knowledge if properly taught. I lost interest in reading for a while and nearly never gained any interest in history due to inadequate instruction for many years. And I suspect many students who say they hate school probably would love it if information was introduced to them in the right way.)

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, liz!

      Great comment!

      I think one reason that a lot of school classes are taught the way they are is because of the ease of measuring the teachers’ performance…

      I’m glad you had that experience with history! If you think about it, why is it that so many people love gossip about people that they’ll never actually know, yet don’t think they like stories about dead people they won’t actually know?

      As to math…there was an interesting controversy years ago, when the first Barbie who talked with a chip (giving a lot of phrases) was introduced. One of the things Barbie said was, “Math class is hard.” People complained about the stereotyping, as I recall, and Mattel changed it.

      People tend to think I’m good at math, but I did take an incomplete in geometry in high school. I do love spreadsheets, and I like numbers better than pictures. However, I just don’t always go through the process to get the answer that many people do…I just know it. I could go through, say, a division test and put down all of the correct answers. Then, the teacher was asked me to “show my work”, and I’d say, “I didn’t do any.” I just looked at the numbers and knew the answer…I didn’t “carry the one” or anything like that. That didn’t sit well with the teacher.

      That might be connected to the way I don’t typically visualize when I read. I know many people, if verbally asked to do a math problem, actually see the numbers in front of them. I’ve seen them moving their fingers as though they were writing the answer on paper. I don’t do that, either…

      As to why have school…I will say that, years ago, I said that if the choice was between closing schools or closing libraries, I’d close schools…and put literacy teachers in the libraries. Free reading seems more valuable to me than structured reading (although both are good). However, there are a lot more things going on in school than just academics, including socialization and learning to satisfy authority. Those are important, too. πŸ™‚

  6. Lady Galaxy Says:

    I have loved reading all my life. That’s why I wanted to become an English teacher. I was lucky enough to have really good English teachers in high school who chose books that I mostly liked. My only frustration was that I can’t just do the one chapter at a time thing. Not much was known about learning styles back in my high school days, but I’ve since discovered that I’m a “whole to part learner” which means it’s hard for me to deal with the individual parts until I’ve seen the whole picture, or read the whole book, or read the end of the book first and then gone back and read the rest of the book. [We whole to parters are the ones who have trouble following step by step directions, so we never read the manual!] I knew from previous students which books were on the reading lists of each teacher, so I read them the summer before. The bad thing about that was my teachers knew I did that, so I rarely got called on in class discussions for fear I’d reveal too much too soon. My favorite books read in HS were ‘Huckelberry Finn,” “A Separate Peace,” “The Scarlet Letter,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and “Tales of the South Pacific.” I’m wondering if I would have enjoyed them as much if I’d had to read them one chapter at a time to keep up with the class.

    In one way, college was better because at least we were expected to have read the whole book or play, in whatever style worked for us best, by the next class. Unfortunately, I found myself lacking interest in most of the books that were assigned during those first two years of required classes. I forced myself through “Moby Dick” and “Jude, the Obscure.” [Just because a book is a classic doesn’t mean it’s going to speak to everybody!] Maybe that was when I vowed to never again read a book I didn’t like! But the last two years, I could start branching out and taking classes in the regions and genres that were more of interest to me. I loved Shakespeare, Contemporary Lit, American Regionalism: the South, and best of all, “Independent Studies.” That’s when I discovered writers like Eudora Welty and Kurt Vonnegut. But with books I loved or books I hated, there was the endless analysis. Sometimes it seemed as if we analyzed the live right out of the books. I still shudder to think of writing papers with titles like, “The Effects of Platonism on Shelley’s Alastor!”

    It took me awhile after getting that BS.-ed in literature before I could actually read for pleasure again!

    Then I started teaching, but I suppose that’s a whole different chapter, and I’ve already written more than anybody wants to read.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Lady!

      Personally, I’d love to read more of what you have to say. πŸ™‚

      I like your solution to the “read one chapter at a time” thing…you cheated. πŸ˜‰ Oh, I know you were within the rules, and it wasn’t really cheating…but you gamed the system. How Captain Kirk of you! πŸ˜‰

  7. Zebras Says:


    It was an elective. I really don’t remember the level of other readers in the class. It was the 1/2 in my 5 1/2 years of high school English!

    I love how you explain how you learn things differently. Me, too. It took success as an adult to make me appreciate my differences, and understand that I was actually smart!

  8. Lady Galaxy Says:

    From a teacher’s viewpoint, I can tell you that assigning books and then finding a valid, interesting way to verify that students actually did read the book and even better, understood what they read was challenging. For starters, there are very few books that are going to appear to all readers! I did not subject my students to the novels that were included in the literature anthologies because the publishers tend to pick books that high schoolers would not want to read and would not enjoy.

    I also had to accept the fact that there are people in this world who do not enjoy reading and will never enjoy reading no matter what book would be assigned. My students were all required to choose one book per grading period to read independently. I allowed them to choose the book the wanted to read. My only requirement was that I had to approve of the book in advance. Every Friday, I would save the last 15minutes of class for independent reading, and I would use that time to discuss the books with as many students as possible. I gave them one paragraph to tell me the plot summary, then I would ask questions and they could choose which ones to answer. They were questions designed to get them to think about the characters and setting and themes. If the book they read was based on a movie that they had seen, I would ask them to list ways in which the books and the movies were different. Another option was to imagine they were in charge of making a movie about the book, what changes would they make and why. [Computers were just coming into the building the year after I left the HS. I took my creative writing students to the “Computer Lab” filled with teeny, tiny Mac Classics that year to give you an idea of the state of the art.!]

    Even when students could choose their own books, there were always a few who still communicated to me that they hated to read. I think we tend to assume that students who hate to read just don’t read well, but that’s not always the case. When I asked why, I got as many different reasons as you can imagine. Sure there would be the kids who would tell me it was just too hard, in which case I would try to guide them to easier books; but I think the most helpful answer came from a kid who asked me what leisure activity I hated. I thought about it and replied I hated noisy ATV’s and motorcycle riding. He asked me if there was anything anybody could ever do to make me want to ride one, and I told him there wasn’t. He replied, “That’s how I feel about reading, but I love motorcycles and ATV’s!”

    Still, there was always that one student who had never read a book before, who with my guidance finally found the right book, and got hooked. Since I live in the community where I taught, I still encounter former students who will sometimes tell me of something I did that got them hooked on reading. One girl who had been a confirmed book hater in HS told me that she had started dating a guy who loved to read and couldn’t understand why she didn’t. He asked her if there had ever been anything she’d read that she liked, and she told him about the King Arthur unit I’d done when she was in 10th grade. So he suggested she read the Rings books, and that got her hooked on fantasy reading.

    And my favorite encounter was with a young man who had been in one of my first Title One reading groups when I moved from HS to elementary school. I was such a fish out of water those first few years that I feared I hadn’t been much help to those early students, but he came running up to me and gave me a big bear hug. He had graduated from HS and was going to community college. I told him I hoped I hadn’t left a lot of bad memories, and he said what he remembered most was that I had made reading fun. As he rejoined the group he’d been with before he spotted me, I could hear him saying, “That’s my teacher. She taught me how to read!”

  9. EJC Says:

    I was a reader before reaching grades with assigned reading. What I disliked was the choice of some of the books and the tearing the books to pieces. The most painful assigned book to me was “The Yearling”. Long and boring!

    Does anyone really think that the original authors really thought about the minutia that the curriculum claims is in their books? I am of the personal opinion that Fitzgerald ended Gatsby with the green light because it sounded good and not because it had any actual meaning. It is very difficult to know what Shakespear’s motives truly were when adding any specific passage to his writings.

    Can’t we just enjoy the novels, plays, poems and more without ripping them apart?

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, EJC!

      I think you can enjoy them without ripping them apart…but analyzing them can also be fun. πŸ™‚ However, I do think that forcing someone to analyze it is where the problem is. I remember reading a description years ago that there was a certain type of person who could analyze the spectra of a rainbow…and still enjoy the magic of it. Those are few and far between, though, I think.

      I also agree with you that people assign all sorts of meaning that might not be there. Certainly, I’ve seen many meanings assigned to The Wizard of Oz. I still get people who will insist to me that it is an allegory on monetary policy…despite the evidence that that only came from a paper written decades after the book, and that nobody seems to have written that in a review or anything at the time. Oh, here’s some information on that:;f=95;t=000494

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