It’s not a big book. It’s only a 116 pages. Some of my kids will read it in one night. Many will finish it long before its scheduled due date. It is a powerful book. It grabs hold and won’t let go. It first grabbed me in my political science class as required reading my freshman year in college. It has clung to me since. And now it is required reading in my class. And just as it took hold of me nearly thirty years ago, I hope the same for my kids as we seek to explore this dark chapter in human history through Elie’s eyes.
But, despite my hopes, despite my attempts to motivate and inspire kids, despite its relative short length, some will not read it. That’s reality. That’s truth. And the why’s behind the truth are different than one might think. Still, reconciling any such truth is not easy for an English teacher. Should I take it personally? Is it my job to be a cheerleader for books? If they don’t read it, is it my fault? If they don’t read it, am I a bad teacher? The list goes on. And for me the reality of kids’ not reading the texts I assign has been a career-long burden. And I am not alone. Other teachers speak and write of this. Yesterday, I came across Sarah Zerwin’s post Procedural Display and Fake Reading: My Story of Coming to Teaching Literature. Kids fake read all the time, even–maybe especially–our honors and AP kids. The struggle for all is real.
So what does one do? For a time–too long a time–I would punish kids with a final test that would adversely affect their grades if they didn’t read. And while this got some to comply out of fear, for many all it did was invite more diligent digging into the worlds of Sparknotes and Cliff’s Notes. Or worse, it simply caused kids to shutdown, caused kids to hate reading even more. For time eternal, I have tried and will continue to try–today as a matter of course–to be a cheerleader, attempting to motivate and inspire kids to read. My latest trick is a “Memory Pledge” with Night. I ask kids to sign a pledge indicating that they will be witness by reading Elie’s memoir. It will work for some but not all.
This year, just yesterday, I encountered a new-to-me situation. “I hate required reading.” “I don’t like being told what to read.” Okay, the statements themselves are not entirely new–I’ve heard them before. But the speakers are new. They are both readers–avid readers. Neither was being disrespectful; each was being honest. And in their honesty I found both surprise and dilemma.
Surprise because I would not have expected it from either if I had been asked to select the kids who would likely not read the assigned text. Again, they are among my most avid readers. Obviously, I am still “learning” my kids. Like onions, they.
Dilemma because I face a philosophical crisis. I stand atop Mount Commitment. I preach all the time about my desire to create a culture absent of compliance. I want kids to do things because they want to, not because I made them. In the past I have called it the “true do.” Back in June, in my summer series, “Reflection’s Reality” I posted The Dilemma of Do. l talked about the many ways I have discovered that kids “do” things from my years in the classroom. And though I have been distancing myself from a culture of compliance for years, the last two years with Project 180 have fully severed that connection, and I now live in a culture of commitment–by my own hand. I have created my own monster. But he is not an unkind monster. I love him. I nourish him. I protect him. And if doing so, makes me guilty of malpractice, I then stand ready, shielding him from the clubs and pitchforks of the advancing mob. I have no choice. He is mine. I own him, monster or no.
So, today, when I roll out the red carpet for Night, I will address this with my kids. I will have an honest conversation with them. I will acknowledge the reality. I will be lead my best cheers. I will conjure compunction with my “Memory Pledge.” But I will also call my monster from the shadows. He will lurk no more. I will tell the kids that it is up to them as to whether they read Night. I will not make them. I will not penalize them. They have an opportunity. They have a choice. It is their learning. But with ownership comes responsibility. They, then, too, are creators. And they, too, will have to be stewards to their own creations, their own monsters.
Along today’s trail we will…
…begin with Smiles and Frowns.
…finish analyzing Elie’s speech.
…begin reading (or not reading) Night.
…reflect in our Journey Journals.
…end with a Sappy Sy Rhyme.
Happy Thursday, all.
Do. Reflect. Do Better.