A Repugnant Smudge by William Polking

I recently covered a class for a colleague who needed to be gone.  Not a colleague in the English department: a colleague in the Industrial Technology department. (Full disclosure: Our school isn’t that big, so my colleague IS the Industrial Technology department.) So for second period on a Friday, I was in charge of a dual-credit Mechanical CAD class. (That’s Computer-Aided Design, for the acronym-challenged among us.) “In charge” may overstate my input—I just had to be there while students worked on their computer design projects.

While I was “in charge,” our assistant principal stopped in and chatted with students, asking about what they were designing (I thought the object on one young man’s CAD screen looked like underwear, but no one else shared my inference. Did I mention it was Friday?). She was pleased with what students were doing, talking about how cool she thought Mechanical CAD was.

Similarly, a few days before this, I had schlepped a Clothing textbook left for too long in my classroom back to its home. When I opened the door, I saw students perched around sewing machines, making clothes. This made sense to me, just as it made sense to me (and to our assistant principal) that students in a Mechanical CAD class would be on computers, designing things. But I couldn’t help but think about how reading in Reading class is looked at differently, at least when it comes to “walkthrough” scoring in the two high schools in which I have taught it.

At my previous high school, administrators began using a five-point rubric for their walkthroughs, with a five indicating a classroom where students were curing cancer, and a one indicating a classroom where students were causing cancer (I’m paraphrasing here). This rubric explicitly stated that a classroom where students were silently reading could score no higher than a three (not paraphrasing here). However, science classes where students were conducting experiments (even in silence) could earn a four or a five, and clothing classes where students were making clothing could earn a four or a five. But in English classes, even classes specifically designated as reading classes, reading could earn no higher than a three.

Why? I imagine my Nerdy brethren can guess the claim behind the score: “We cannot tell if they are actually thinking while they are reading, or if they are really reading at all. Reading itself is not indicative of thinking.” I saw this scoring as a repugnant smudge upon reading in general and the teaching of reading in particular. (Full disclosure: I totally stole “repugnant smudge” from Savanna Judson, one of my dual-credit composition students this semester.  I mean, seriously, how great is that phrase? Is that a kenning? It’s been epochs since I taught Beowulf, so perhaps such a claim is now…wait for it…beyond my ken.)

I teach my composition students that accommodating parts of opposing arguments makes you seem like a reasonable person and thus improves your credibility, so I acknowledge parts of the claim: No, you cannot tell what students are thinking when they are reading quietly, and, yes, some of them may even be fake reading. Though I argue you CAN tell when students are fake reading: Signs include failure to turn pages, drool, and gaze-invoked amaurosis caused by a student constantly looking up to see if the teacher is paying attention to the student not paying attention and then quickly looking back down to the page.

But reading by itself is not indicative of thinking?  What madness is this? Yes, we want reading to be a gateway drug to extended conversations and thoughtful writing and many other things that might score more highly on said walkthrough rubrics. However, shouldn’t reading also be a gateway drug to more reading? And just as the fabric in clothing class should be used by students to make clothes, shouldn’t the books in a reading class be used by students to make readers? And don’t those readers and those books build the fabric of a reading community? Isn’t every book a new science experiment? Or every reading of the same book?

Sadly, diminished thinking about the limited intellectual value of reading itself was not limited to my previous school. I have had administrators at my current school come in for a walkthrough (different rubric, same benighted idea of the value of in-class reading) and then immediately leave, saying, “Oh, they’re just reading.” In other words, in-class reading IS NOT WORTH RATING. Or, to put it a different way, in-class reading evoked the same response as if they had walked in on an empty classroom.

The current walkthrough form used by my school includes a section called “Technology Integration Observed.” (My district is currently in thrall to what theorist Evygeny Morozov calls “technological solutionism.”) Students reading? No credit here, even though, as Kylene Beers has noted, “literacy IS technology.”

If we acknowledge that students are more than ever “distracted from distraction by distraction” (I stole that from T.S. Eliot, who is not in my composition class this semester), shouldn’t we want students to spend some time in class, which for some of them may be the only quiet place they’ll inhabit all day, reading? And given the research about how students who begin reading in class are much more likely to continue reading outside of class, shouldn’t we want students to spend some time in class reading? And given that the word “Reading” is the name of the class, shouldn’t we want students in there to be reading?

I know administrators are required to accumulate data. Some of them know which data has actual value; others, sadly, really do seem to believe that if you build a pile of data big enough, you will find a unicorn underneath (I think I stole that, but I can’t remember from whom). But reading is what students in a reading class are supposed to be doing. Not all of the time, but some of the time all of the time. In the words of Donalyn Miller (whose class I would like to be in every semester): Let my people read. And let me let them do so.

William Polking teaches reading to freshmen in high school and college composition to high school seniors pretending to be college freshmen. Students point out that he reads like it’s his job, to which he gently responds that it kind of is. Also part of his job is being the head coach of his school’s large group speech program. He can be found on Twitter @polking.