Something's been bothering me lately and it has to do with our society's attitude about reading. Quite frankly, it sucks! I'm sick of people acting like they don't need to read and that books aren't important. Hit the road!
Today a student came bounding into my classroom, saw the copies of Hamlet that were lying on all of the students' desks and did the typical seventeen year old moan. I acted like I didn't notice because I like to think if I ignore bad behavior it will go away. But I heard him talking to his friend, "Seriously? We're going to have to read this? Why read when we can just watch the movie?"
That was where I could no longer sit idly by. I snapped, "Mitch don't you dare let me hear you say that again. You seriously just want to watch the movie for everything in life instead of ever having to go to the effort of reading the book?"
"Yes," he answered sincerely.
"Then you're lazy," I answered, just as sincerely. Maybe a little meanly. I was mad.
It's so hard to get students to understand why reading is so important. They just straight up don't get it. If something has more than 160 characters, forget about it, they're out. For an assessment last week I wanted them to read a five page article about the rise of online cheating. They acted like I was tearing their eyeballs out. Oh, they all looked at the comic I had given them just fine, but reading five pages? Oh Teacher how dare you torture us so?!?
This is nothing new. My first year teaching I was appalled by how many students wouldn't read the assigned chapters. I threatened them with quizzes, discussion points, tests that went on for days. But to no avail. Students would rather just take a lower than sit down and read a couple of chapters.
I hear it every year, "THIRTY PAGES?!? You're assigning us thirty pages of reading?!? But Teacher I hate to read!" It breaks my heart.
What do I even say to these hoodlums who so freely and unashamedly admit their hatred for books?
"You're missing out?"
"I know it's a hard concept for your peon brain to grasp right now but I promise you there is value in reading and you will be grateful for the fact that I made you sit here and read?"
I used to think it was just my students. I accepted the fact that not all of my 17 years will be dying to engage in a rip roaring conversation about To Kill a Mockingbird. I'm still coping with this knowledge, but overall I have accepted the fact that I teach minions of book-hating teenagers.
But then something really shook me. Is this more than just lazy teenagers? Is this an epidemic?
It happened at parent teacher conference. A mom came in with her son in tote. As we visited, she explained to me that her son didn't like reading. I said I understood, it's a common problem. Then she said, "What can he do to pass the class without having to read the books because you see, he just really doesn't like to read, and I can tell you right now he won't read any of the books you assign. But he needs to pass."
My jaw hit the floor. Pass without reading any of the books? You want me to pass your son but not make him do any of the required reading for a reading class? Would this woman have the audacity to ask for a passing grade in math without doing any math or a passing grade in Spanish without speaking a lick of Spanish? Then how was it that she had the nerve to ask for her son's passing grade in a reading class without requiring him to read? I was so upset with the mother I almost couldn't continue the conference. Instead of pushing her son to reach the expectations that were put in front of him, she was lowering the expectation so he wouldn't have to strain too hard to get it. Instead of saying, "I know it might not be your favorite thing, but reading has immense value and you need to sit down and just power through those chapters" she was saying, "Oh this isn't fun for you? Okay, you can stop." "Oh you don't like something that's hard? Go ahead and quit then. It's not important anyway."
Am I fighting a lost battle here? This year I even cracked. I told my students that if they weren't going to read the book, then to at least read the sparknotes. As if sparknotes could capture any of the beautiful nuances of language, the richness of the imagery, or the vast complexity in the symbolism. But still. I had to do it, right? Half of my class shows up to class not having read a single page. I figure it's better they at least go on sparknotes and read a summary of the chapters instead of being completely in the dark.
But then am I sell out? A fake? Telling my students just to read summaries of the book if they don't have enough time to read the real thing. What kind of an English teacher am I?
And then I wonder if I am just holding on to some old fashioned conservative idea. The idea of reading books and being passionate about words and letting your imagination run wild and getting completely lost in a story about people who never existed and yet exist all around us. Is this a lost art? Does it have no value in our society anymore?
I look at my students and the hopped up world that they are apart of and I can't help but understand why they struggle to sit down and read. Social media is so visual and so much about instant gratification. Books, on the other hand, require focus and commitment and patience. I wonder what Instagram is teaching us- that the picture is more important than the words? I wonder what Twitter is teaching us- that if you can't say something in less than 160 characters, it's not worth saying at all? And then I understand why my students don't have the attention to read two chapters a night.
So what say ye fellow bloggers? Do you like to read? How often do you read? Does reading fiction still hold a place in our society? Or am I just some old grandma trying to hold on to once was? Trying too hard to push my old world onto the ever changing ways of the new world?
*Excerpts of this post were published on October 11, 2012.