In my high school class, I read. I inhaled books at every opportunity available. I made numerous stops a week to the library to refill my book supply. These were books I chose, books I could not wait to crack open and fall into. When it came to required reading in school, I tuned out. More often than not, I read the assignment. I would skim through the pages, the content flying over my head. Confused, I would set the reading aside. We’ll go over it in class.
As a future English teacher, this is a problem. A huge one. I read by virtue of being a teacher-pleaser. I turned the pages, skimming through lines with a cloud of confusion slowly developing. I knew that in class the next day, the main points and themes would be fed to me. I didn’t have to comprehend anything.
I was a good student. I read a lot; I understood most things. I’m not trying to toot my own horn. If I hardly read the readings, what about students who were a lot less dedicated to school? What about students who simply didn’t understand the readings?
This last week, I watched Penny Kittle’s video: Why Students Don’t Read What is Assigned in Class. Most of her students said that they stopped reading out of boredom, disinterest, the inability to comprehend. When asked how they completed the assigned readings, almost every student said they used Sparknotes, or simply piggybacked off of classroom discussion.
By forcing students to read the classics, we actually move them to do the opposite. Most students will not read the assignment, or if they were like me, they will skim only the surface. According to Donalyn Miller’s Reading in the Wild, reading directly correlates with achievement.
For me, sacrificing reading for the sake of having “done” the classics is unacceptable. Most students will not actually read. Those who do probably haven’t soaked anything up. They will not engage meaningfully in the material. By doing this, we are committing a huge disservice for our students.
Penny Kittle in Book Love says that there will be those who disagree. “Teach them the classics!” they scream with their fists raised, “otherwise they’re missing out.” Kittle argues that the classics can push away a love for reading. Students become bored, disengaged, and discouraged.
Let them read what they choose; let them foster a love for their own literature. Perhaps then, they will have built the base and the stamina in order to build an appreciation for the classics.