Thursday, February 18, 2016

More than a Score

In our world of instant gratification and vastly increasing technology resources, it's hard for me to get my students interested in reading and writing.

Books with pages? Pencils and paper? What?! 

They do it grudgingly, because they have to, because if they don't then they won't get a good grade (and to be honest, some of them don't care about grades so they don't do it at all). And why would I expect them to enjoy it? I tell them what to read, I tell them what to write. They don't get to choose based on their interests. At the beginning of the year they got to pick a book to read on their own. They spent 6 weeks reading and then wrote an essay on the book they chose. Of course, they had to choose their book from a list that I provided, so even that limited their options.

I don't do this to torture them. I do this to prepare them. Most of my students are on an AP track. They will eventually have to take an AP exam and I need to help make sure that they've covered as much material as possible before they take that exam, because we don't know what's going to be on it. All we have is a general idea and a knowledge of what's been covered in the past. Not to mention, there are certain novels you need to be familiar with to be able to be a functioning member of an intelligent, literate, society. The reason that teachers don't always let students choose is because even though we are trying to teach them to be adults, they aren't yet. They aren't all mature enough to make the right decision. If I always let my students choose what they read then quite a few of them would choose something that may be entertaining, but it won't help them in the long run. For example, in the past I have required students to have a free read item at all times. This was supposed to be something they were reading on their own, for their own pleasure. I allowed them free reign to choose whatever they pleased. Some chose to follow a blog they were interested in, others stuck to online newspaper articles, some chose traditional fiction novels. One student chose a "book" (and I use that term very loosely) that had no words, only pictures. I'm not saying that a book like that doesn't count as literature. It could. But this book was just a bunch of pictures of ridiculous ways a cartoon bunny could die. It was morbid, but in a somewhat amusing fashion because of the cartoonish way the bunny was presented. I teach an English class. Part of the point of reading is increasing vocabulary. You can't do that if you are reading a "book" with no words.

This is why student choice must be used carefully and not all the time.

With that in mind, I'm trying to come up with ideas to get my students genuinely interested in literature. Right now, we're reading The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I love everything about this book. The language is flowery and descriptive, the imagery is rich, the themes are still relevant and thought provoking over 200 years later, and Hawthorne has such a way with words. It's mesmerizing to me. Words are his art form. He threads them together so perfectly; nothing he does is on accident. The symbolism he uses... it's incredible. Every word, every description, every character, every element of the setting and plot; each one serves a purpose and each one is representative of something else. It's beautiful and masterful...but I digress.
Several of my students are devouring the book as quickly as I did. My enthusiasm has worn off on a few. However, not everyone is as entranced by Hawthorne as I am, and I can understand that. If you want direct and to the point Hawthorne will infuriate you. I had one student tell me that he could actually almost enjoy the story if he skimmed over all the "unnecessary descriptions and extra crap." I visibly shuddered at this revelation. It pained me. But I get it. My husband is the same way. I've given up trying to talk to him about literature. If it's not non-fiction he believes it's a waste of time (which hurts my soul, but I still love him) whereas I believe that fiction has the ability to teach lessons and reach a place in our hearts that non-fiction couldn't touch with a 10 foot pole. 

Right now, my school is under some scrutiny. Testing season is quickly approaching and I ache for my students because I know what we are doing to them. We are training and testing the life out of them. I understand that it's necessary (although I hate that it is...but this isn't a post about my feelings on standardized testing...maybe someday). Right now, as much as I know we are trying not to and as much as I know we don't want to admit it, we are teaching to a test. I hate that, but what can I do? 

I want to come up with something that will remind my students why literature and writing and learning is worth it. I want to give them a reason to want to read or write, or both. I want them to have something they can take ownership of. And maybe I can't do anything about this just yet, but testing season won't last forever. 
I want to give them options. I want them to choose whether they want to write an analysis or review over a book they've chosen - any book, or write a fiction story all their own (they could even pair up, one person starts a story and they keep adding one paragraph at a time until it's complete), or start following a podcast of their choice and using it for inspiration to create their own (one teacher at my school does this and her students love it), or start a blog about whatever niche they are interested in, or take a favorite story and write that story's movie script (maybe even make the movie). I want my students to take ownership of their learning. And not in the way that we hear that phrase thrown around now, where it's just another way to tell students to keep up with their work and be responsible - those things are important, but it's also important to find a way to enjoy what you are learning. 

Please don't misread this post. I'm not discouraged. I don't believe our educational system is falling apart. There are flaws, but I work with too many compassionate, loving, dedicated, and passionate people to believe that we aren't focused on producing the most good possible. I will power through this testing season and give my students every tool in my arsenal so that they can blow the top off of their exams. And they'll rock it because they're awesome. 

I'm not worried. 

I'm just dreaming of a day when we can stop making them think they are nothing but scores on a page, because it's not true and they are so much more. I'm looking ahead to when I can give them something to be excited about, other than who's going to be homecoming queen. It's what I love to do, and most of the time I think I'm relatively good at it. I'm brainstorming ideas for when I'm out from under the Aspire umbrella and can see the sunshine again. 

I can't wait for us to kick butt on exams, and then move on to something else. Because there is so much more to education than testing and I don't want my students to forget that.

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