I Don’t Want to Make Kids Hate Reading Anymore

I teach high school English. I think it is important to acknowledge that upfront. I say this because many things I notice in my classroom make me wonder if they are — at that point — able to be redirected by one person (me) in a very short amount of time (9 months). Is it possible that the current traditional education model has dropped these teenagers off at my classroom’s threshold with destructive traits that have now fallen onto my shoulders? Most certainly the middle school says the same about primary school, primary school may say the same about caregivers, and, presumably, universities say the same about high school educators. So, there is certainly an issue. Somebody is doing these learners a disservice at some point and expecting someone else to fix it. Every year.

One thing I have grown considerably weary of — in the classroom — is searching for and developing methods of reading (literature) instruction. I’ve found absolutely zilch in the area of connecting state standards with some form of curriculum that encourages personal growth in, excitement for, and a lifelong passion of reading. In fact, insofar as I can surmise, a traditional school setting may quite possibly be a perfect condition to foster a lifelong disdain for reading.

  • Novels are pre chosen by someone else’s interests or personal history
  • Reading is delegated by length and time (when and how long)
  • All reading is connected to various questions regarding specific details (often times given out of order as to make finding the answers in the novel more difficult)
  • Interest is not required (and often times a lack of interest is not tolerated)
  • Not reading will only result in a negative consequence (despite personal interest)

As each year passes I continually seek out methods to build rapport between students and reading. The whole class novel seems directly ineffective and grouping students in small pockets regarding novels chosen from a narrow and finite list seems a step in the right direction (albeit, this is a false sense of choice as these books still may have very little to do with the reader’s interests and will be followed up with reports and questions and tests and essays). Regardless, neither seems effective. Both methods leave students with a further distaste for reading and a probable hatred of the novel they had to read (granted many students will never have read the novel utilizing CliffsNotes, friends, or plagiarism to fill in the gaps). None of this will foster a love for reading. It will absolutely have the adverse reaction. I was never happy with any of these options. These methods aren’t even taking into account other common issues with reading in the high school setting (e.g., having students read at home despite them never having quiet time to sit and read, assuming all students read at the same pace, assuming all students comprehend at the same pace, assuming students will read and comprehend difficult and antiquated texts because you enjoy them or because they have to, etc.).

I no longer feel comfortable participating in this practice. I’ve watched students put books away they want to be reading to have an unenthusiastic discussion about a book they would’ve never read unless it was tied to their GPA. I’ve watched a classroom full of interesting people stare at me wide-eyed having professed my disappointment regarding their being unprepared for a class discussion over a book they loathed. I’ve dissected books to no end, having students read and reread portions to find the meaning I wanted them to find (because, more likely than not, someone taught me that very same thing at some point). I’ve participated in these practices and, though I resent these actions, they’ve led me to where I am today: No Tech 20.

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At the beginning of every class my students are given 20 minutes to read anything they want. (If 20 minutes seems extravagant, consider I teach a semester long course with daily 90 minute classes.) All I’m giving my students is a comfortable and quiet place to read as well as a selection (albeit currently frugal selection) of books/magazines/comics that I’ve acquired with my own money/resources. The rules are as follows:

  • No technology for 20 minutes (we are a 1:1 school — I have nothing against technology, but it’s nice to take a break)
  • Bring in something to read (magazine, book, comic, etc.) or choose something from the humble library (graphic novels, young adult lit, some classics, magazines, etc.)
  • If you don’t like what you’re reading, put it down and choose something else (personal agency/autonomy) but do read something
  • No tests/questions/discussions on the reading (unless you’d like to share something you found interesting in your reading or suggest the book for others)
  • Read quietly for 20 minutes

I’ve been doing this for several weeks, and I’ve discovered quite a bit. I’ve seen students struggle with reading much more than I would ever have thought. I mean much more. Quite a few students seem stumped as to what they want to read. It’s as if they can’t remember the last time they were given an option and now are merely waiting for me to choose something for them. When I suggest they pick something they are interested in, they seem even more confused. At that point, I’m not even sure how I could be of service. If a student, at 14–15 years old, doesn’t know what she/he is interested in, a much more significant problem exists: self-identify. Of course this merely reinforces the work done in the Human Restoration Project, but that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow. Not only are many students struggling with reading at a basic level, but they are struggling with understanding who they are. They are having difficulties making a decision — one as simple as what are you interested in? Is it possible, in 9 months, that this activity will make any sort of mark on these students? I suppose I will see.

That said, the positives have been through the roof. Students have requested more time to read. Many have expressed gratitude for the time in class. Some students have even gone so far as to print off the fanfiction they’ve been reading online and place it in a three-ring binder to read from (adhering to the No Tech rule). Usually it takes weeks — sometimes months — to build a routine with a new class. By day two, students had their various texts out and ready to read.

As I mentioned, this “curriculum” has absolutely no connection to standards — aside from just reading in general. It won’t garner a grade. It can’t be quantified. And all of that is okay with me. Hopefully, it will rekindle and foster a love for reading (whether it’s MAD Magazine or Jane Eyre), bringing with it a myriad of positives. Will this practice make a massive change in the lives of my students over the course of 9 (ish) months? Maybe. Will it be a small reminder of the power of literacy? Absolutely. And again, that is okay with me.