Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Experience with Assigned Reading in High School

Although I had developed a revolutionary idea about how to teach literature, I still only had the confidence of a second year teacher. Just like last year, when faced with the challenge of forming my own curriculum, I fell back on that which is commonly accepted. When I asked myself, "What does one learn in a high school English class?" the answer came, "Literature." I knew I disliked this truism just by remembering my own high school experience. I remember thinking to myself, "Why are we reading so much in English class? If I wanted to read, I would have taken a literature class! I want to be learning grammar!" (I was a strange child...)

And yet, it is what it is. That's what's expected. I'm to give each student a classic novel, assign pages to read each night, and give quizzes in the morning. In the classroom I inherited, there are shelves full of book sets for me to do just that. That's what parents, administration, and my fellow teachers expect. It's not that I can't stray from this model, it's just that if I do, I'd better be prepared to explain my pedagogical philosophy immediately. And we all know I'm working on building the confidence to do that.

Plus, well.. how can I know for sure that I don't want to teach literature in this way if I don't even try? There's no reason that I can't assign a book and still do Lit. Research at the same time. We'll just try it this way first, I resigned.

So I sorted through what I had available, gave questionnaires to determine what my classes had previously read, considered what I read when I was in high school, and eventually came up with my assigned reading:

* Romeo and Juliet for freshmen because I had heard somewhere that freshmen all over the country are assigned Romeo and Juliet.

* To Kill a Mockingbird for sophomores because I had heard the same thing about it, but the sophomores hadn't read it last year as freshmen.

* A Midsummer Night's Dream for juniors because I arbitrarily felt like they needed some more Shakespeare and I didn't have Hamlet or Macbeth (which was weird). A Midsummer Night's Dream was always my favorite Shakespearean play, anyway, so no hard feelings.

* And Fahrenheit 451 as the dystopian novel for seniors because I think one of the big three (451, Brave New World, and 1984) are typically assigned junior or senior year. And I adore dystopian novels.

With no evidence on which to base my hypothesis, I think most traditional high schools give students a Shakespearean play each year. (When I was in high school, I was assigned Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Macbeth, though most of my friends were given Hamlet in place of MSND.) This plan didn't give my students Shakespeare each year, but.. well, I worked with what I had. (More on Shakespeare to come... much more. I've developed some passionate feelings on this topic.)

Well, it seemed like a good place to start! Definitely a plan a good little teacher would come up with. I passed out books and took down the numbers written on the inside cover on a sheet of paper next to their names, like a good little teacher. I assigned the first few pages to read as homework, like a good little teacher.

But that's about where my commendable organization ended.

My first mistake was relying too heavily on having each class do something similar each day. I wanted writing assignments for each class on the same day, to stay at about the same point in each book, and finish up at around the same time. This is an obvious mistake. Not only are the classes at different reading and comprehension levels, but they're reading different materials. Of course it's not going to take as long to read 451 as it is to read To Kill a Mockingbird. Yep. A little more planning would have settled this out, and it's not insurmountable in the future, just a little messy the first time through.

Mostly this was difficult having two classes reading Shakespeare and two not. This meant that I definitely couldn't do comprehension and discussion the same way. The constant gear switching was irksome, but eventually there was some semblance of organization. After a little trial and error, it wound up like this:

* A passage by passage analysis of Shakespeare with class notes. Mostly this boiled down to asking what happened in the section we read, prompting if any important details were forgotten in the response, and writing on the board for students to copy. I tried to only write student wording, but occasionally I had to ask for clarity if I could tell not everyone understood. I feel like this was an acceptable way to go about Shakespeare, though surely not the best. Students were responsible for reading and translating the original text, but I could point out any passage that needed further exploration. I assisted in the creation of notes to assure everyone's comprehension, but it was still in their words.

* Discussion circle of 451. 451 lends itself nicely to discussion, and I enjoyed the conversations it brought up, though I could tell the seniors didn't really get into it. Towards the end, they got lazy in their reading and I had to start giving quizzes to ensure they actually made it through the text. That still wasn't quite motivating enough for about half of them, though. They had made up their minds that they greatly disliked this book.

* Daily quizzes and discussion of the responses for To Kill a Mockingbird. My sophomore class is my most trying and challenging group of students, and this was my attempt at being stern with them.  Many saw their grades decline drastically during this time. But still, I think maybe I'm okay with it, as it was an authentic and direct consequence for the action of not reading the assigned reading. Their grades clearly showed which students read and which didn't. I had a few students fail this semester, and though I'm not sure I'm okay with that, those students were the ones that didn't do the work. (Bah, THAT'S definitely a concept I need to revisit at some point. Just typing it gives me an unpleasant feeling.) But regardless, after the quizzes, the responses were discussed, so that even the students that didn't read knew what had happened in the selected chapters. And I DID try to give straightforward questions on the quizzes. I tried my best to avoid any sort of thing that could be seen as a trick question.

Also there was the fact that the last time I read these books (with the exception of 451) was when I was in high school. So I suddenly found myself with four books to read and lessons and quizzes to plan immediately and concurrently. It was a tough month. I got through it, but it definitely could have gone better with planning.

My biggest problem, though, was that the students all hated the books. I had a couple freshmen liked Romeo and Juliet once they got past the language barrier, and one sophomore really enjoyed To Kill a Mockingbird. The rest read begrudgingly, if at all. And that's no way to read. I hate seeing reading as such a chore.

One issue there was with my lack of planning again. I think I took too long getting through the books, and by the end, everyone was tired. But they had hated the books long before that, so it was more of an additional problem than a main one.

Perhaps it could have been a lack of autonomy. I told them what to read. I've spent a small amount of time since then perusing articles about English classes run solely on choice literature. As I've said before, my school does AR, so I'm not as concerned that my students get choice reading, because it's already happening.

But perhaps I could get them to do more response work to their AR books, like book reports or writing that copies the style of the text or reflects deeply on the concepts presented.

Or perhaps I could do small reading groups for self-selected classics from the shelf. That seems doable, but what would I do the first time a student came to me three pages into A Scarlet Letter and said they hated it? Could I allow them to put it back, or would I make them lie in the bed they had made?

Regardless, I think a bigger issue is at hand that I'm ignoring.

One thought that crossed my mind at some point during a comprehension-checking discussion was that some of these students just... really didn't get it. Maybe they weren't ready for it... but no, that's ridiculous. These are high school students we're talking about. They are practically adults, and if they aren't capable now, they never will be. Besides, what about high expectations for my students? Readiness isn't an issue.

But at the same time, I was certainly understanding the assigned reading at a different level on this, my adult read-through, than I did at their age. Was I asking too much for full comprehension from someone with as little life experience as they had? But maybe that's just it. Maybe it's more about providing new experiences. But, if that's the case, couldn't there be a better way? Videos or something? My students seemed so disconnected from the books I placed in their hands.

I certainly think it's asking a lot for a deep connection to a text from an entire class, despite how few students are in my classes, in particular. The more students, the less connection to the lesson, it seems.

Woah, that's quite a statement. The more students involved, the less individual connection to the lesson.

Okay, okay. That may be profound (or maybe it isn't at all), but it's not the issue we're here to discuss today. Focus, Holly. The point of that statement was that reading is a personal thing. I can understand small group, because small groups can dissect and analyze in a way that one person alone can't, but if you add more students that aren't invested, it detracts from the commitment of the others. It removes them from their magical connection with the text. Or, put another way, using another concept I also haven't written about, it takes them out of their flow.

So we've discovered two things: if I'm assigning reading, it must be self-selected, and it must either be solo work or small group work.

And still I'm ignoring it. I keep avoiding a point my mind keeps trying to bring up, and it's this: why are we reading these books in the first place? If my students are disconnected with the text while trying to get through a whole book, why force them? We know students don't learn well when they're being forced. I'm giving them the Lit. Research project to make them aware of the collective consciousness Americans have of literature. My goal is to supplement each material we discuss with an abridged selection of the original text so that they get exposure to different styles of writing, I just haven't collected them all yet. I'm also encouraging reading the full texts on their own. As of yet, only the freshmen have taken me up on that offer, but the offer still remains for everyone.

And as for the experience thing. If my job is to provide experiences and various perspectives to consider, I must find various was to do it, not just from "classic" texts. They just don't hold the same weight for students today as they once did.

The real question is this--is it worth my time to do it again? Honestly, at this point, I have to answer, no. It's not. I really don't think I'm giving my students any positive experiences that they couldn't get on their own, and the negative ones I'm giving weigh much more heavily.

And what of making students do things they don't like to build character? Well, I could argue that in college and the adult world, there will be plenty of things they have to do that they hate, and there's something to be said for developing the skill of persisting in that way, but... well, why does it have to be reading? Yeah, I know that in college and the adult world there will be a ton of dry, boring material to get through. But, on the other other hand, I'm doing that with the articles of the week. So! There's my answer for that, and I'll completely dismiss the entire argument because it makes me uncomfortable. I don't like forcing students to read books that they don't enjoy, because books should be entertaining. Articles and other nonfiction materials are sometimes dry but necessary. If a book is boring, stop reading it.

The other argument I anticipate is, "Reading classics in English class is tradition," and it's hard for me not to just dismiss that, as well. I'm not here for tradition. I'm here for results. Tradition wasn't working for us. It's a new age, and we have new techniques to try. We have new and exciting work ahead of us. (Honestly, is that not a tag line of my entire blog yet? I'm setting it as that right now.)

Well, is that it, then? Do I have my pedagogical philosophy prepared? Am I ready to explain myself to colleagues, parents, and administration? If not quite yet, I should be soon enough.

The only thing left is to decide what I am going to do with our time together, if not this. Eh, there's still five days left before winter vacation is over.