Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Required Reading

I am a high school English teacher. In some circles that statement stops all conversation. In others they are
Two Writing Teachers
fighting words. If you admit to being an English teacher in a public place you may encounter the lost.

The former students of some prison guard who believed teaching English meant teaching the parts of speech or sentence diagramming. You may encounter someone who was raised on worksheets and excerpts from textbooks. These former students do not wax nostalgic about English nor English teachers.

 I love being an English teacher. I love to read. Writing is adventure. Sharing those passions with teenagers as I teach them how to leverage literacy skill to their advantage as global citizens is the best even with the stress of meetings and mandates (I can say that now because it's summer time).

I've done a lot of thinking this year about required (versus recreational) reading. First, students cannot be required to read if they are not readers. Let's just put that on the table. Students must see the value of reading. They must experience the pleasure and profit of print before they will adventure into books of our choosing.  We have to start where students are.

My teaching assignment will change next year. I'm joining the IB, International Baccalaureate. A friend retired and I will take on her pre-IB tenth grade classes. It is not a decision I made lightly. Some teachers at my school lambast those who teach IB. It's not just Christians who eat their own. I don't participate in that, but I've heard some talk. After I was offered and accepted the assignment, I was told I would have to leave YA behind and require only classics. "If we let students read whatever they want, they will never read the classics," someone said to me. I disagree. Many of my "regular" or "honors" or "AP" readers were choosing classics at the end of our year together. Students will read challenging texts when they are ready.  Some argue we don't have time to wait. I've been given the prescribed "list" of titles. I've met with the IB English team. I know what the students need from the IB teachers' perspectives. You can imagine I feel conflicted, but I also feel challenged and excited about the possibilities.

IB requires specific texts;  there is also some choice. I have wrestled with questions of purpose and benefit my entire teaching life: What is the purpose of required reading? Who benefits? Or whom do we assume benefits? Penny Kittle has brilliant thinking around all of these issues in  Book Love. I will return to Kittles' pages this summer. I know she wrote about IB (or AP required reading), but I've lost the page and finding the reference takes a time without an index (not that I mind being sucked back into the story and losing myself in her words for a while). Summer gives me time to revisit favorites written by other high-school teachers too.

Several blog posts kept me thinking about required readings this year; Terri Lesesne's  "Counterproductive"  in response to "4 Ways High School Makes You Hate Reading."  top among them.

Lesesne succinctly captures the thinking of Christina H's post in four broad themes, rephrased here:
  1. Required reading does not motivate students to read.
  2. Required reading (often) stifles students' true opinions.
  3. Required reading is "rigorous" while popular reading is not.
  4. Required reading is not fun.
Rigor is what you do, not what you read. As Beers and Probst discuss in Notice and Note, rigor, like vigor, describes an action. I can approach any text with rigor. Like Lesesne I welcome students' opinions about a text (any text, required or not). I enjoy the richness and diversity of opinions we can share over a common text. I do not offer one reading or interpretation of a text, so I'm not the sort of teacher to stifle students' opinions or expect "parrot[ed]" responses. I can't take such black and white thinking into my IB classroom and survive the year.  But I can consider the arguments in each of Lesesne's captured themes and plan carefully with readers in mind.

As a high school English teacher I have to meet state, district and school demands. Sometimes curricular demands go as deep as to specify what texts or text types we must read. My school requires common texts at each grade level. Some grade levels teach two texts in common, some more. Every grade (9-12) requires summer reading. Most grade levels require students to read two books for summer reading: a required book and a choice book. Ninth graders  read Klass' Firestorm and a book of their choice. Tenth graders also have a choice book and their required read is Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Eleventh grade A.P. language students were asked to read King's On Writing (for A.P.), Of Mice and Men (the grade level required text) and a memoir of their choosing (from a winnowed list) .IB students in ninth and tenth grades read the grade-level summer titles and are directed to make their choice books a classic.

We strive for balance. In real life we have reading requirements. In college we have reading requirements. There are several things I have to read that given the choice, I might avoid. Tax code comes immediately to mind as does a manual for anything television related. I know what it takes to grow and nurture readers. It is the most important thing I do as an English teacher. The book tide in my classroom testifies to readers' choices. Perhaps the next time someone winces when I confess to teaching high-school English, I'll share which books I've avoided and ask about the ones they left behind in high school: common ground, we all have it.

Yet. Yet. I have seen the value of reading a shared text: in movie theaters, in book club discussions, in students' twitter feeds.

I can't write off the shared work. I don't assign reading as much as students choose, but I do assign. Whether those required works are novels or short texts such as the an article of the week--a practice many teachers at my school adopted from Kelly Gallagher after reading Readicide--, we read works together. My ninth graders dipped into The Odyssey and my eleventh graders hunted fallacies in The Crucible, wore critical lenses to examine The Great Gatsby and analyzed rhetoric from numerous essays in 40 Model Essays . We shared Leonard Pitts' "Cruel as It Is, We Somehow Go On" and Pete Wells' "As Not Seen on TV" and many more articles and poems.

I can't write off the shared work and feel good about preparing students for a reading life. Teaching IB will require more requirements--that's my biggest fear anyway. As I read and reread to prepare this summer I'm looking for a way to balance: prescription and passion, recreation and requirement. No doubt, it will be challenging. Life demands all sorts of reading.


  1. As I was reading this, I thought about how people would respond to feeding a baby steak. Yet we expect kids to tackle some of the most challenging texts before cutting their reading teeth. I, too, have thought much about required vs. choice reading. Seems as though I make many changes from year-to-year as I search for the right balance, a balance that says I've taught the curriculum but have also left students loving reading more than they did when they entered my classroom.

    Lots to think about. Thanks.

  2. Your post on reading made me think of Donalyn Miller's post on Sunday "Let My People Read"-I think that it sounds like you're striking a balance between required and choice and not so much required that the freedom to choose can't be met...balance is the key.
    Good luck with your new position!

  3. Growing up I had required summer reading and we require summer reading at my school, a common grade level book and a choice book for most. Students who are in the AP and IB have other required choices, carefully chosen by their teachers. I believe that readers will find time to read no matter what. We make time for what we love. I think the key as an ELA teacher is finding balance---feeding the readers in your room and cultivating the non-readers.

    In summer reading, I found my favorite book, The Grapes of Wrath, and I struggled with King Lear. I hated it. Fortunately I had a teacher who had a full-text graphic novel version of King Lear in 1988 and that helped me. Required reading can be tedious and challenging, but carefully considering the purpose of the reading you are requiring of students is an important question to ask every day including the summer. Keep pondering the hard questions and courageously sharing your struggle.

  4. We have lots of choice at my school & I taught the 6,7,8 Advanced School gifted for a long while. There was lots of choice, but also expectations for each student. They themselves expected to be challenged & then of course we also talked about the pleasure of a 'good read' no matter what it was. If one is a reader, it certainly is a mixed experience, and I would hope that students can learn that too. I think that you will bring some excitement to your new IP classes because you've taught other kinds of classes too, Lee Ann. I admire you for taking this new challenge, & from hearing from your other posts, I know you have plenty to share with your coming students. Loved the "Christians Who Eat Their Own" article; sometimes I think women do that to each other too. Thanks for a thoughtful post!

  5. I'm glad there's English teachers out there who give the position a "good" name. Your final paragraph is one I'm copying and putting in my reflective practice journal. It is eloquent and specific. Thanks for sharing your thoughts today.