Misreading Readers

shutterstock_561669964My youngest daughter is a wonderfully spunky first grader whom people often call “headstrong,” using that tone that suggests they’ll make sure and say a prayer for me later.

People make those casual remarks and we all have a good laugh, and I quietly cross them off the family Christmas card list. Just kidding. They’re right about her and I’m glad for it. She knows what she likes and doesn’t like, and she’ll never waste a moment of her life letting someone else tell her how to live it.

All of this is to say that she gave me a heart attack a couple nights ago when she announced at bedtime, “I don’t like reading.” I challenged her immediately by pointing out that she’s constantly reading Mo Willems books and Dog Man and all sorts of graphic novels.

Which led to this exchange:

“No, daddy, I don’t like reading THESE books,” Taylor said, tossing her bag of leveled-reading books at me in disgust. These are books she brings home at least a couple times a week to help make sure she’s reading in the right difficulty range and to help her continue growing. They’re good at that job, I think, but they’re about as interesting as potato salad.

“Oh. Buddy, those are to help you get better at reading! They don’t have to be your favorites,” I said.

Her response: “I don’t like them and I’m not reading them anymore.”

We eventually talked things out. But not before the episode got me thinking about Taylor as a future student in high school, and by extension, my own current students.

Willful Reading and Forced Reading

I suddenly imagined Taylor as the sort of student I see all the time–the type who lights up conversations and writing assignments when a text catches her fancy. Passionate about their favorite readings, these kids are equally passionate about their hatred for what they consider forced labor–any assignment related to a text they aren’t into.

No sooner did this “nightmare” occur to me than I realized my hypocrisy. I LOVE these sorts of students. They’re unwilling to “play school” but are more passionate–and much more knowledgeable–than students who do the work without slowing down to consider the value of anything beyond a grade.

shutterstock_568776415There are lots of conversations to be had about this intersection of student interest and assessment. But let’s come back to my daughter for a second. Imagine her ten years from now. Or just look around your own classroom and pick the half dozen or so kids this description fits: She continues to love a good book when someone hands it to her, but she shrinks from most of what a teacher assigns, assuming wearily that it’s more literature that someone else has decided has value–or is being used to test her. If she’s learned to “do school” then she’s compliant but uninterested. If she decides that there are better things to do than complying with assessments, then maybe she’s taking a pass on most of what’s handed to her in an English class.

Taylor will be fine–she has two teachers for parents and a reading-centered household. I worry more about the students I have in class now. How often do we give them opportunities to demonstrate their skills as readers and writers, unshackled from the separate (much less useful) skill of compliance?

Our curriculum’s standards help expose students to seminal works of literature, but we are often slow to recognize that analytical reading and genre exploration are absolutely NOT tied to those same texts. If a student is reluctant to engage with Shakespeare or Krakauer, have we accurately assessed their reading abilities when we write them off, based on an effort we know wasn’t indicative of them as readers?

Balance for the Forced

It would be enormously insulting of me to suggest that you should build alternative assessments for your entire gradebook to accommodate students who haven’t learned to tow the line sometimes. But I think sometimes there’s also room for balance: If one opportunity to demonstrate annotation skills presents itself during The Great Gatsby, a standards-based alternative might be fairly easy to build with Flipgrid or a quick conference about a scene from a student’s independent reading. If they’re reading books that are Lexile-appropriate (or complexity appropriate, if you’re measuring implicit meaning), then their ability to perform on the text they’re attached to should overshadow however they perform on the task related to a class reading.

This idea can be a tough pill to swallow. Many of us got into this profession due to a love for the classics and the notion that we are laying the foundations of culture in our English classrooms. Yet for every one of us who fawns over Faulkner, there’s another of us who never quite figured out why Salinger was such a big deal.

If a student in high school has the fundamentals down–if she can read a grade-appropriate text and tell you the tone and the mood and tie it to current events and posit motives for the main characters’ decisions–then we should be much more worried about how to get all of those A-plus students who never pick up a pleasure book to follow her lead and learn the value of reading itself.

Michael Ziegler
Michael Ziegler (@ZigThinks) is a Content Area Leader and teacher at Novi High School.  This is his 15th year in the classroom. He teaches 11th Grade English and IB Theory of Knowledge. He also coaches JV Girls Soccer and has spent time as a Creative Writing Club sponsor, Poetry Slam team coach, AdvancEd Chair, and Boys JV Soccer Coach. 
He did his undergraduate work at the University of Michigan, majoring in English, and earned his Masters in Administration from Michigan State University.  

Notes from the Classroom

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.