Monday, December 5, 2016

On loving to read (or at least pretending to)

When I was in grad school earning a master's degree in social studies and my grades 7-12 teaching certification I took a methods class in which we were put into pairs and had to develop a lesson to deliver to our classmates. My partner turned to me and said: "Let's not give them any reading to do for this; I hate reading." I don't remember anything else about that class, not the lesson we planned, not the name of the professor, not even the name of my partner. But I have always -- for 25 years -- remembered that comment.

I was aghast at that sentiment back then. I mean, why would someone go into teaching if she doesn't like reading? That is a fundamental element of teaching and learning, an essential skill nurtured in every student by every teacher. Yet, recently I was shocked (more like horrified) to hear another educator say the same thing. Don't get me wrong, there are kinds of texts I don't like to read. There are authors whose work I don't really enjoy. There are wildly popular books that I fail to appreciate with such enthusiasm. But I love to read. And do so daily for intellectual enrichment and enjoyment.

Today we worked on revising our library curriculum. We spent hours discussing the concept of literary appreciation. To me this means understanding the value of the written word, the power of texts to inform and entertain, and the necessity of developing the ability to access those texts. It does not mean (to me) enjoying reading. Enjoying literature (both fiction and non) is separate from understanding its importance. Ideally, I would be elated for every student I encounter to leave school a lover of reading, voraciously consuming texts in multiple forms of media, but I know that this will not be the case for all of them. I do hope students graduate knowing how to identify what they need to know and what they enjoy and able to access the literature that satisfies those needs when they arise.

But reading is hard. Our brains, according to Maryanne Wolf in Proust and the Squid, are not born wired to read. In fact the mechanics of the brain are rearranged through our learning processes to accommodate this human invention of the written word. So struggling with reading is natural. As with anything students learn, some intrinsic value and other incentive (like the enjoyment of story) must boost students to persist in building the neuropathways necessary to build a literate brain. Students are surrounded by people who have an array of relationships with reading. Their parents may or may not be big readers. The same is true of their friends. In high school I frequently encounter students who disavow reading. If these students encounter even one teacher who says, "I hate reading," I fear that student is doomed. The very person trying to teach you to read or to have literary appreciation has just eviscerated any hope you develop those skills or habits of mind. Yikes!

I would like to know why someone who doesn't like to read does like to teach. Perhaps, there is space there for exploration. How can a non-reader discover enjoyment or mastery for the sake of utility of reading? No matter how old that person is? And, how do they convey this appreciation of literature to others?

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