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.
William – you are actually my new favorite person. I love this post! Love, love, love it. I’ll be reposting on FB so that all of my English-teacher and administrator friends can read it and – hopefully – get the hint. Repugnant Smudge? I just assumed that was Lemony Snicket.
Thank you. This may offset my status as “least favorite person” to some of my procrastinating composition students who are just know realizing we have only nine days left in our semester. And thanks for the repost.
I have no idea why that originally posted as “desmadre,” but I know enough Spanish to appreciate the irony.
And now it seems to have deleted that strange post entirely, making readers think, not unfairly, that I have completely lost my mind. Anyway, thanks for reading, Holly. And don’t feel bad: I only know “gaze-invoked amaurosis” because it was part of my diagnosis when doctors discovered an optical nerve sheath meningioma years ago (I’m fine now, by the way). Every follow-up visit, my doctor at the university hospital would use “gaze-invoked amaurosis” to quiz the new medical students. Only one of them in the five years of follow-up visits answered correctly.
Good Morning William. Just wanted to let you know that some administrators are as appalled as you are with such a ridiculous process. As an elementary principal I am thrilled when I walk in a classroom and students are reading. I am also looking for those students who might be pretend reading or in the wrong book. Wrong book not having to do with levels, but with interest, motivation and passion. I truly believe that those principals are misinformed and need to have someone like you to continue to push their thinking. Keep up the great work!
Thank you. This my offset my status as “least favorite person” among my procrastinating composition students. And thanks for the repost.
“may” offset–I should just go back to bed.
Here is just another example of administrative evaluation reduced to a mindless checklist disconnected from real learning and teaching. Creating lifelong reading habits is at least as complicated as creating a computer image or other physical artifact. Evaluation systems that cannot account for that have no credibility.
Keep doing what you’re doing, even when the pencil-pushers don’t get it. Our work is too important to be reduced to oversimplified, meaningless data.
Thanks much, Gary. I may use your final sentence verbatim when speaking to administrators in the future.
“A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly….if you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.”. ~ Roald Dahl
“So Matilda’s strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea. These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.” Roald Dahl
Fortunately, this mad bias against reading has not yet infected my district, though your description is otherwise accurate. As with Matilda, waiting for books sent out into the world like ships on the sea, your post gave me a hopeful and comforting message. Where else may I read your writing?
English classes are always deemed as the “special” classes because they don’t fit in evaluation criteria. It’s deemed as a useless subject that’s not teaching you anything new and a subject that’s not innovative. I hate that! English IS the backbone to every subject. Do you know how good it feels when a student finds a book they love, and can actually discuss the book. Then continues to read, and in turn their vocabulary, retention level, reading level and writing improves which directly improves their skill levels in other subjects? Thanks for writing this!
And thank you for reading it!
Beautifully, accurately, amusingly put. I’ve already sent it to my administrators.
Thank you–I hope your administrators are swayed by it, even if just a little.
Okay, first of all, thanks for pushing the limits of my vocabulary this morning and making me laugh aloud in some parts. 😉 I needed to look up “kenning” and “amaurosis.” Am I the only one? Anyway, this is a fantastic piece and oh, so important. I, like, Jennifer, will definitely be posting this on Facebook and Twitter!
Uh, no, you are not the only one Holly. And thank-you for the new vocabulary words William. (And the chuckles amid my reflection of a very sad procedure in education.) Imagine educating students so they can think and reason and defend their position in all subject areas. That is what reading and English classes do for students.
You are most welcome. Thank you for reading.
Apologies for the comment/misplaced comment stream–Wordpress is not playing nice this morning. Or I should not be commenting from a horizontal position. Or both.
Too funny! I can relate, even as an elementary school librarian. Heaven forbid kids should spend time “just” reading even though Krashen and others have proven that reading self-selected books is the best method to acquire language. Thanks for some great food for thought. I think I’ll post it on Facebook too!
Thank you for reading and reposting.
Gladly, or sadly, depending on how you choose to view it, I have the opposite response from my Administrators. When they walk into my high school English classroom and see kids “just reading” they are amazed. You see, my students arrive battered, broken, and disillusioned. Many have never even read an entire book on their own, aside from the time, perhaps, when their education included weekly trips to the school library and picture books were the norm (we read picture books in my classroom, too). It is sad to think kids have to hit rock bottom before reading is once again given the respect it so rightly deserves. Keep fighting the good fight. All nerds on deck should be our battle cry.
You make an excellent point–we think the “good” kids need to spend their time on “more important” things than reading. Fought the same attitude when school established 9th reading for all students. Still fight my own department about the need for a reading class for all.
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I read this before my morning cup of coffee and yet, I was even more energized after reading it! Delightfully ranted and executed, this post is a must read. So much makes little sense to me in Education – like this 5 point system of data collection by visiting and observing classes with a criteria that already dooms or elevates certain activities. All I know is that when all of my little primary students are “on” during Reading Workshop and everyone is engaged in reading, there is a buzz in the room. We are certainly curing something – and while it may not be a disease, our reading passion is most certainly a part of the remedy that helps to create and nurture lifelong readers. As far as I’m concerned, little else is as important.
Glad to be able to caffeinate you. Secondary schools could learn a lot from elementary teachers.
I love the phrase “repugnant smudge,” and I plan to steal it, too. However, it is not a kenning since repugnant is an adjective, not a noun! (I’m currently teaching Beowulf). A thought about that need to integrate technology: I let students read books on their phones. I even graded a Beowulf styled boast, complete w/ kennings, Friday.
I’m pretty lucky in terms of my current administration. They don’t question anything I do in terms of lesson planning and teaching. I imagine my administrator in charge of academics would say “cool” if he were to walk through and see all the kids reading. He recently finished reading my copy of “Notice and Note.”
Maybe you could label the in-class reading ‘interpretive art” or “tableau vivant” for the admins!
Phones are verboten. They can read on dedicated e-reading devices. But that use of technology would be scored as “transitional” rather than “transformative.” Savanna will be happy to learn that others love her phrase as well. Thanks.
I enjoyed your post very much.
One piece of data that teachers and administrators gather as “proof” of reading is the Accelerated Reader (or other such test). While prizes (incentives?) or grades (punishments?) may seem to encourage reading, what they do is inspire a philosophy of quizzing not a reading. Still, yet, only enrichment classes are allowed to have silent reading as part of the curriculum.
Wondering aloud about AR in general, I asked a few students recently if they had favorite books they would like to read again. They all said yes, but then they wouldn’t be able to get their AR points.
AR and similar programs are the devil. Thanks for reading.
I cannot tell you how much I love this post! Thank you for giving voice so beautifully to a huge issue. Reading IS thinking!
You are most welcome. Thanks for your kind words.
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I used to be seen reading in the library and around the school but there’s no place in my evaluation that value’s reading or connecting students to reading, so I stopped. Hogwash! I value it. Therefore I must show others the value. I will be reading a bit every day this week! Thanks for the inspiring words. I’ve forwarded this to the administration!
I LOVE THIS SO MUCH!! I am going to print it out and paste it on my door and give one to every math, science, and history teacher who tries to pull kids from my reading class to “finish one thing for me, since they’re just reading in here.”
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