Why I’m Mad

source: imcreator.com

source: imcreator.com

Is it weird that I write some of my better blog posts when I’m mad?  I got really mad about some people’s reactions to the book One Thousand Gifts, so I blogged out my anger, and it remains my most popular post to this day.  If a post’s popularity is directly proportional to how mad I am, then this one will go viral.

Here’s what’s burning my toast:

A lot of my students don’t read books…and some of their parents are okay with it.

I like to think that I’m a realistic rather than idealistic English teacher.  I know that every year, some of my students just aren’t going to do the reading, and there’s nothing I can do in the way of threats, promises, bribery or blackmail that will make them actually sit down and slog through The Scarlet Letter or Jane Eyre.  I know that lengthy texts are difficult for students who struggle with reading, and I’m fully aware of the allure of Sparknotes to a bored teenager.

But when I hear about parents actually encouraging their children to read Sparknotes instead of the novel, I get furious.  Let’s set aside the moral implications of the question.  Students who pretend to know the content of a book they haven’t read are engaging in a rather sophisticated form of deception, but let’s leave integrity off the table for the moment.  What ideas are parents reinforcing through this seemingly harmless, time-saving suggestion? Take the easy way out.  Success in life isn’t about buckling down and doing hard work; it’s about finding shortcuts.  Reading isn’t a valuable use of your time.  Understanding a book comes down to no more than memorization of the barest elements of plot, character, and themes.

I realize that I’m sounding like an out-of-touch, disgruntled English teacher.   But I’m deeply concerned about a generation of students that is reading less than ever.  Many of them simply do not possess the sustained attention spans necessary to read a lengthy text.  Distracted by a plethora of external stimuli, they are creatures of the present, increasingly unable to understand the past or to form clear ideas of what a healthy future looks like.  Due to what author Doug Rushkoff calls “narrative collapse,” technology has left us in an eternal “now.”  Because some students don’t have the experience of seeing an idea slowly developed over the course of hundreds of pages, their decision-making processes are shallow and rapid.   If it’s longer than a Tweet, you’ve lost them.  How many truly worthy, beautiful ideas can be adequately expressed in fewer than 140 characters?  How are we supposed to communicate meaningfully to each other through ongoing sound bytes?

Of course, I’m not talking about all students.  Thank goodness, there are still those who I find lounging in the hallways after school with noses buried deep in novels.  My guess is that their parents have the wisdom to tell them that reading is costly, but that it’s worth the cost.  They’ve managed to communicate to their children (both through discussion and by example) the deep personal and intellectual rewards found in a work of fiction.  I hope that someday soon, the students who’ve been cheated out of these rewards will find themselves dissatisfied by a life lived in the shallows and will discipline themselves to dig for deeper truths.

Until then, I plan to stay mad.

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11 thoughts on “Why I’m Mad

  1. This is so true! I encounter this problem everyday at work too. I usually read classic lit on my down times. Customers, all professional adults, see what I’m reading and say things like, ” Who would ever put themselves through the misery of reading that!” Or they assume that I’m reading classics because I’m a student and I have to. It’s sad really. I have two older kids and I’ve exposed them to great books and have tried to foster a love of reading in my home, because well thought out stories have profoundly enriched my life. Keep at it!

    • Thanks! I hate to be one of those doomsday types, but I shudder to think about a world in which people either cannot or will not read books of substance. And it makes me sad to consider the ways in which people are consciously choosing intellectual poverty. Kudos to you for choosing intellectual riches and passing on that inheritance to your kids!

  2. I totally understand this!!! My sister is a teacher also and she rants all the time about things like this! I am determined cultivate reading as a way of life in my family!!!! Rant on!!!

    • Thanks! I feel better after getting this post out of my system. So glad that you’re cultivating a love of reading in your kids! There are few greater gifts that you could give them.

  3. Coming from a freshman in high school, I totally agree. Yes, I admit to reading sparknotes before reading The Odyssey. (but only because I had no idea what was happening and I needed background information before reading it) But, it really annoys me how the culture in high school is that reading is boring. I love to read, and have loved to read since I was little, but so many of my friends never read for pleasure! I’m so grateful my mom loves books and she had so many books around me at a young age.

    • I think Sparknotes is a terrific resource for reading either before or after a difficult text. What you did with the Odyssey was perfect–I’m sure it made Homer’s epic easier to follow! Good for you for reading so much on your own; keep it up!

  4. Pingback: Liebster Award – Acceptance and Nominations | Margarita Morris

  5. I remember writing two book reports one year. One was on a little-known book, and I received an A on that report. The other report was on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book and writing the report, but my teacher thought it was only worth a C grade. Why is it that what I got out of this famous book wasn’t considered valid? If I had been older than 14 years old, if I had read it multiple times before I wrote the report, or if I had read the Sparknotes, maybe I would have gotten something more out of it, but it DID mean something to me after just one reading. From that day forward, I vowed to choose the most obscure book on the list for book reports. Sparknotes tell students what they’re supposed to think about a book. I think that is just awful,….but practically required!

    • One of the most beautiful things about literature is that it has a range of possible meanings. What a shame that your teacher couldn’t see outside his/her own narrow interpretation of A Christmas Carol. Thanks for taking time to stop by, read, and comment!

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