Last week in our English department meeting, we wrestled with the question, “What is the mission of the English department?” While I suspect some in attendance groaned at the prospect of engaging in such a philosophical discussion, I think these conversations are more than relevant; they’re essential. Missions ground and guide us, acting as archers’ targets to focus our intentions and to measure our efforts. Teachers, departments, and the school itself should each have missions – individual and overlapping.
Our chair wrote on the board, “To read, to write, to think,” offering a starting point from which to generate our conversation. I found myself reflecting about what should be the appropriate order of these infinitives. Why should we begin with reading? How should we teach reading? And if we don’t teach reading, what will happen to our thinking and writing?
As any teacher can attest, students are reading less and less. Studies bear this conclusion out. On average, Americans age 15 to 24 spend almost two hours a day watching television, and only seven minutes of their leisure time on reading. That’s a troubling statistic only if you value reading. So what is the value of reading? What will be the consequences for our nation and for us as individuals if reading goes the way of the eight-track cassette?
In my English class, I have a bulletin board where I’ve posed three essential questions in large type: Why do we read? What should we read? How should we read? The rest of the board is covered with index cards publishing the students’ responses.
Answering the question of why we read, one student responded, “We read to escape our reality, to travel to another place and time, to assume a new identity – all to experience life from a new perspective.” Reading offers, as Kelly Gallagher describes in Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading And What You Can Do About It, an “imaginative rehearsal” for life. Yet, in To Read or Not to Read (National Endowments of the Arts 2007), the most comprehensive survey of American reading ever completed, researchers discovered a “calamitous, universal falling off of reading” beginning around age 13 and carrying through the rest of their adult lives. A new generation of adults is entering the stage of life with little preparation.
Gallagher argues that schools are to blame, primarily because they don’t place the students at the forefront of the questions of what and how should we read. Students shouldn’t always be told what to read; instead, teachers need to provide material that is accessible and relevant to help make the students want to read. When I taught 8th grade English, my students were always reading two books: one we studied together in class chosen by me, and one they read that captured their own personal interests. In a year, students read over 15 books, a number many students don’t achieve throughout all of high school.
But teachers also have a responsibility to show students how to read – how to use the novel as an “imaginative rehearsal” for life. As Gallagher emphasizes, “We do not want our students only to read stories; we want them to read novels to make them wiser about the world.” To that end, the teacher should choose novels that provoke questions, insights, and opportunities for transfer.
Consider the novel To Kill a Mockingbird. A colleague of mine once told me that she taught the novel without any reference to racism. I’m not sure I’d see the point, especially when we have so little opportunity, “rehearsal time,” to engage with students. And, let’s be honest, the novel’s theme is racism – how it moves insidiously from the personal to the institutional, sometimes through intention but more often through apathy. The novel offers students insight into the segregated world of 1930s Alabama, but it also challenges us to examine racism in the world the students inhabit.
Gallagher offers topics to introduce as students engage with the text:
- “In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell describes an experiment in which a group of people made up of blacks and whites trained to negotiate buying a new car. The potential buyers were all the same, were all dressed the same, and were all instructed to present themselves as college educated young professionals. After negotiating at 242 car dealerships in the Chicago area, the results were stunning. ‘The white men received initial offers from the salesmen that were $725 above the dealer’s invoice. White women got initial offers of $935 above invoice. Black women were quoted a price, on average of $1,195 above invoice. And black men? Their initial offer was $1,695 above invoice.'”
- “In 2008, the Maryland state police settled a ten-year ‘Driving While Black’ lawsuit stemming from a pattern of pulling over African American drivers on Interstate 95. In one survey, 77 percent of blacks felt that racial profiling was pervasive. In addition, 72 percent of African American male drivers felt they had been stopped because of their race (U.S. Department of Justice 2000).”
As the novel expresses, Tom Robinson is an innocent man; yet, the system pre-judged him from the start. Asking the students to examine how and why things have changed or have not makes the novel relevant and offers them an opportunity to become “wiser about the world” and their roles in it.
Over the next few months, I will be working with a group of educators to create curriculum units for six to eight canonical works of literature that examine these texts through an ethical lens. Sponsored by the Center for Spiritual and Ethical Education, the project will hopefully provide educators means to teach these works in a way that transcends their study in the classroom so that students recognize that, in the words of one of my students, “we read to understand ourselves and the world in which we live.”
I’ll end this post with a quote and a poem by individuals who understood the power of language.
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!