Language & Composition

Mr. Eure | Brewster High School

How Teachers Make Children Hate Reading

The following essay is by an educator named John Holt. Learn more about him here. As a continuation of our discussion of reading in general, study this argument, and then share your reactions in the comments section. If you would like to see what my tenth graders had to say about this article, you can look here.

How Teachers Make Children Hate Reading | John Holt

When I was teaching English at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School, I used to ask my students the kinds of questions that English teachers usually ask about reading assignments—questions designed to bring out the points that I had decided they should know. They, on their part, would try to get me to give them hints and clues as to what I wanted. It was a game of wits. I never gave my students an opportunity to say what they really thought about a book.

I gave vocabulary drills and quizzes too. I told my students that every time they came upon a word in their book they did not understand, they were to look it up in the dictionary. I even devised special kinds of vocabulary tests, allowing them to use their books to see how the words were used. But looking back, I realize that these tests, along with many of my methods, were foolish.

My sister was the first person who made me question my conventional ideas about teaching English. She had a son in the seventh grade in a fairly good public school. His teacher had asked the class to read Cooper’s The Deerslayer. The choice was bad enough in itself; whether looking at man or nature, Cooper was superficial, inaccurate and sentimental, and his writing is ponderous and ornate. But to make matters worse, this teacher had decided to give the book the microscope and x-ray treatment. He made the students look up and memorize not only the definitions but the derivations of every big word that came along—and there were plenty. Every chapter was followed by close questioning and testing to make sure the students “understood” everything.

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Grade Abatement: Threshold #1

Note: If you received an email last night from me, you must reply to it. It takes a long time to construct that kind of feedback, and you will not benefit from it without a careful consideration of what it says; you must, therefore, send me an email in reply that continues the dialogue and shows me some introspection and understanding.

Your first self-assessment of this quarter was the QORAS assignment for Francine Prose. Your second is the synthesis essay and attached scoring work that we will finish tomorrow. You should, therefore, already have a sense of your progress—or lack thereof, as the case may be. Continue to follow the same protocol this quarter for grade abatement. Monitor your learning; be reflective and metacognitive regularly; ask questions whenever necessary; and make yourself be honest and accurate about how you perform with every lesson, exercise, or assignment.

About Q3: Many of you will get typed feedback tonight, but not all. If you were close to the right score, or if you were only a few shades off, you might not have been written. That is because of how long it takes to draft and revise that kind of feedback; it is not because I have nothing to say to you. If I could, I would devote an hour to each of you, either in writing or in person, discussing your thoughts on this process and how you have performed. Unfortunately, I do not have an extra 70 hours.

Here’s what I can do: I will set aside the next three days for conferencing in class, which will give you—if you keep it short and focused—a chance to ask questions and speak to me in person. We can continue these conferences even into Friday’s writing exercise. (Like last week’s, the goal is to approximate a timed exam setting; if you lose a few minutes to conference with me, and that requires you to extend your writing into the afternoon or weekend, that is your choice.)

Watch your email, and remember this comforting fact: We don’t have to talk about grades—numerical, draconian, awful grades—again until the end of the quarter.

Caged Birds and a Different Kind of Freedom

The best of a Google image search for “caged bird.”

Amid the clamor of grade abatement this past week, you were given a series of questions on rhetoric and style for Francine Prose’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read.” Your assignment was to answer the questions, zeroing in on the ones you believe (being metacognitive, as always) you need help with.

Here is the key: Francine Prose, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read” — Questions on Rhetoric and Style

The questions are reprinted, along with guiding commentary for each response. Read the entire thing. Don’t just skim it. Teach yourself from this. Let this feedback settle in you a bit (like bricks or dead words, as Maya Angelou would say). And keep in mind the following:

  • This is meant as (and is, obviously) preparation for the AP exam.
  • It must be done entirely at home, since we are using class time for writing work.
  • Only by reading and processing this key can you ask me to help you with individual questions.
  • You should be ready at this exact moment to look at this key and apply it to your answers.

That last one is probably most important to those of you who are sort of collapsing under the realization that everything you did last quarter was (1) noted by your teacher and (2) part of the grade abatement profile. Everything counts. If you didn’t read Prose and/or complete the QORAS I gave you, you have failed to juggle your responsibilities.

Send me your questions about the Prose QORAS over email. I’ll arrange feedback in small groups or individually based on that. Get this done by Tuesday; we’ll be moving on to other reading on reading at that point.

Grade Abatement Redux

Before you do anything else, check your email.

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Grade Abatement: Q3

Note: Based on a few conversations I’ve had with you, I’d like to expand the soft cap of these grade abatement responses to 500 words. Aim for between 250 and 500; if you go a bit over, that’s okay, too. Just honor the intentions of the exercise: Be succinct and selective in your insights.

Another note: Joey Blasco in ninth period pointed me in the direction of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which gives a name to one of the phenomena I’ve been describing to you. That entry is worth your time, especially as we continue our conversation beyond Tuesday’s writing; it neatly summarizes why some of you can’t help but overrate your ability and performance.

Read the post before this one again. The document on grade abatement has been updated; you also can load it by clicking here. The student profiles (and only the student profiles) have been posted after the jump.

Wait until Tuesday before sharing your Q3 scores and justifications with me; in the meantime, keep reviewing all of this information. The more thought and time you put into this, the easier and more rewarding this process will be. Remember two things:

  1. This is about helping you to be honest and accurate about your hard work and progress (or lack thereof); as long as you are honest, specific, and thorough, you will learn a lot from the self-assessment process.
  2. It is a process, and it is a carefully controlled and regulated one. I will be monitoring and helping you; if you have any questions, get them to me right away.

Spend some more time reflecting first, write a lengthy draft second, and then distill those notes and that general thinking to a 500-word (or so; there is no hard cap) justification. Then we’ll talk.

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Occam’s Razor and the Rhinoceros Test

Dürer's Rhinoceros

Dürer’s Rhinoceros (1515)

The third quarter ends on April 12. Until that day, you will be working individually and silently on a series of assignments. There are two reasons for this:

  1. You are turning your focus inward in order to determine your effectiveness this quarter, and that requires patience, time, and quiet.
  2. You have stopped being productive during your collaborative time.

#2 will come up again as we discuss grade abatement and the end of the quarter. Just keep in mind that even when I’m working myself—when I’m engineering and building the things you use in here—I’m aware of who spends the period chatting about unrelated things; I know who reads ESPN instead of this website; and I can tell—through body language alone—who is on-task and who isn’t. And that, Kinder, is just the time wasted in class.

You’ll start the grade abatement process on 4/5/13 by grabbing an index card and writing your name on it. Then you’ll consider the entire third quarter, from the first day until now, through the lens of the important skills, traits, and goals of this course. Then you’ll assign yourself a category by writing the bolded portion beneath your name:

  • A | Effective | Exemplary, exceptional, exhaustive, extraordinary | 90-100
  • B | Adequate | Expected, methodical, complete, better than average | 80-89
  • C | Limited | Desultory, incomplete, imprecise, average | 70-79
  • D | Inadequate | Perfunctory, erroneous, severely lacking, well below average | 60-69
  • F | Ineffective | Limited success in most categories | 50-59

Finally, you’ll give yourself a two-digit score from that category, write it clearly on the index card, and hand that card in. If you happen to miss class when we do this, do it on your own and put the card aside until you’re back in school.

Now you can read these:

You will receive another two pages from the second document on Monday. We will read the whole thing together very carefully, so that you are prepared for Tuesday, when you will again propose a score for your quarter. At that point, you’ll also justify the score in writing. After that, I’ll be in contact with those of you who need individual help.

Note: Don’t start writing your 250-word justification yet. Plan it, draft it, fill a bunch of pages with thoughts and notes, but don’t write anything or share it with me. You will have the entire period on Tuesday to finish and share these.

Your Reading Life

When we talk about reading in an English classroom, we’re usually talking about one subset of one mode of discourse: fictional narratives in novel form. This is a limited view of reading—important, of course, but also limited. You read far more in your daily life than novels like 1984 or Of Mice and Men. You read Facebook feeds, Twitter feeds, emails, newspapers, magazines, textbooks, text messages, advertisements, and handouts, to name only part of the total list. So we ought to start the discussion with a broad question:

What does your reading life look like?

Answer this in your compendium or Google Drive, and then, as we discuss your thoughts in class, transfer the conversation into the comments section of this post. To begin, it might help to have a sort of metaphor—in this case, that your reading habits are a kind of diet. There are as many types of texts out there as there are types of food, and as many approaches to reading as to eating. Some people believe you need a balance to be healthy; others promote one particular focus over others. This isn’t to suggest that the novels you’re assigned in English class are healthy, while Twitter and text messages are junk food, however. It’s simply to point out that you are consuming text constantly and in many, many different forms, and that there as many fads in reading instruction as there are in dieting. basic definition of reading is the act of processing letters and words to construct meaning. You can read more about the process here, and I’d pay careful attention to the following concept (paraphrased from that article):

Rates of reading include reading for memorization (fewer than 100 words per minute [wpm]); reading for learning (100–200 wpm); reading for comprehension (200–400 wpm); and skimming (400–700 wpm). Reading for comprehension is the essence of the daily reading of most people. Skimming is for superficially processing large quantities of text at a low level of comprehension (below 50%).  The average wpm at age 14-15 when reading for learning is 150 wpm.

The spectrum between skimming (e.g., when you read Wikipedia for two hours, then forget everything you read) and reading to memorize (e.g., when you study for a test in a history class) is important to this discussion. You need a sense of how quickly you consume information, what you do with that information, and how long it stays with you. It might help to know that 150 words look like this:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Sed vitae libero a felis condimentum bibendum id aliquet tortor. Donec vitae tortor a massa scelerisque ornare quis in nibh. Aliquam ornare lacinia cursus. Sed id enim sit amet tellus faucibus commodo ac nec augue. Aenean eget nulla nisi, ac suscipit leo. Nulla a vestibulum ligula. In sit amet nibh dui, vitae elementum dolor. Duis varius dapibus mauris vel dictum. Donec lobortis velit a lectus convallis quis blandit felis aliquet. Sed mollis placerat semper. Nunc ut massa eu dui iaculis eleifend pellentesque non ipsum. Fusce tellus urna, tincidunt nec mollis ac, blandit pretium ante. Ut imperdiet tellus sed lacus convallis et adipiscing urna porta. Etiam sagittis varius sapien, sed pharetra nibh pulvinar nec. Curabitur ornare ornare quam eu auctor. Vivamus quis ante vel dolor suscipit blandit. Ut gravida tempor porttitor. Nunc nec velit magna, in auctor orci. Curabitur ultrices, ipsum eget dignissim.

That’s longer than most text messages and Facebook updates, and it would take seven tweets to post it. How does it compare to the average email you read? The average article on a website? The average textbook chapter? You read all of those things regularly—websites, textbooks, text messages—and it’s time to start thinking about how much you’re reading, what that means to your life as a reader, and the extent to which it affects your thinking and writing.

Note in your initial writing (and again in the conversation in class and online) whether you are skimming, reading for comprehension, reading for learning, or memorizing the texts you consume; note also how your reading diet changes over the weekend, on breaks, or over the summer. Focus your attention, however, on your average school day, and describe your reading life in terms that make sense to you.

Final question: Can you discuss your reading life without also discussing your writing life? When you write, you also read; when you edit or revisit your writing, you read again. How does that realization change your answer about your reading habits?

Multiple-Choice Questions: Schneller’s “Culture”

Quick Update: While you continue your C&D Symposium elsewhere, you need to finish creating multiple-choice questions for Johanna Schneller’s “A Culture Saturated in Sexism.” Here’s a link to a downloadable copy of the original text:

That will open in Google Drive. You’ve already gotten a link to your period’s MCQ document; check your Drive directory or email inbox for that. Here is a copy of the directions from the email:

Take your multiple-choice work from the last few days — the questions you have been writing for “A Culture Saturated in Sexism” — and transfer them to this document. You’ll be working together, which will take some coordination; you’re all editors, so you’ll need to collaborate to create a single document. Note that you won’t need to create exactly ten questions. There is no minimum or maximum; ten would, however, be impressive. Let me know how it goes.

Be sure to read the directions in the document itself, too. Each period’s work will be edited, revised, and then given to the other periods as a quick quiz on Schneller. Let’s try to finish the first step today.

Classification and Division: Symposium

Update (3/13/13): Here is an outline of what we’ve done and what we’ll be doing. Read it carefully.

Let’s talk about what your job is this week. First, you are going to share your C&D essays with me and the rest of the class, so that we can hold a kind of symposium—leaning, of course, more heavily on the “scholarly discussion” part of the etymology, not the “drinking party” bit.

To pull this together, you need to have a copy of every C&D essay written by your fellow students. The method I am going to give you should work; if it doesn’t, your test is to figure out another method on your own, share it with your peers, and facilitate total, unilateral access to all essays. If you find a more effective method of creating a digital symposium, let me know.

Here is a Google CSV file that you can import into the Contacts section of Google Apps:

Download that file, import it, and then create a contact group with it. When you are ready, you can share your essay with everyone. Be sure to allow your peers to comment on your work, but not to edit.

As you receive access to documents, to organize all the writing into folders so that you can read, review, and comment on as many as possible as quickly as possible. That’s the real goal of the next week or so: Share, comment, and collaborate as a large group. I will guide you through the initial steps of that tomorrow. Be sure your work is shared with everyone, including me, before then.