An English Teacher’s Dirty Secret that Could Unlock the Door to Voracious High School Readers by Amanda Palmer
High school English teachers are an unconventional lot. We are equal parts quirky and fun, obsessive and fanatical. We are perfectionists … often times to our detriment. While we may seem like know-it-alls, we often fret over whether we are good enough to take on the herculean task of teaching almost adults to read deeply and analytically.
If you are around a group of English teachers long enough and make it to the right happy hour, you may have an opportunity to see them bare their souls in a game that could only be titled English Teacher “I Never”. This is the moment over salted peanuts and a glass of Pinot that a member of the group either feels empowered or simply cannot live the lie any longer. She leans forward and lets the bomb drop. It usually takes the form of, “I can’t believe I’m admitting this but I’ve never read *insert classic novel here*.” There is a moment of simmering silence where the offending teacher wonders if she should hurriedly recant, then someone else adds their own classic reading transgression.
Slowly, the group begins to feel lighter as they share the classic literature they have failed to read and later move on to discussing the books that they really enjoyed reading. These texts are vast and varied including a smattering of the classics. I’ve seen this happen (and participated) many times. Unfortunately, rather than realizing the group has discovered something important, they generally enter a shame pact and agree to never speak of the moment again. For this reason, the myth prevails that all English teachers enjoy all classic literature. Students continue to be faced with whole-class classic literature selections that we will never know whether or not they enjoy because, like us, they aren’t really reading them either. Meanwhile, this seemingly dirty secret could save us all.
To be fair, I would contend that every English teacher has pieces of classic literature they adore; however, that list is different for each person reflecting his or her own tastes and life experiences. Yet, we expect an entire class of students that is far from homogenous to interact with the text the way we once did. Worse, we want them to read the text that they are just now discovering along with us as we read from our highlighted, tabbed, overly annotated copy that we adore for the ninth time. If we are lucky, the text will speak to a few in every class. What then to do with the other thirty students?
Recently, I tried to chart the assigned readings I had while in middle school and high school. I could only remember two books with certainty: The Bridge to Terabithia and Walkabout. I only remember these middle school texts because they cemented my hatred for any selection where the main character dies. I remember nothing I read in my high school English courses. These were advanced courses where I know I was introduced to Hawthorne, Poe, Shakespeare, and Chaucer, but I have zero recollection of these events despite my high grades. What I do remember are the books I chose to read outside of class. I went through an Antebellum Era phase where I read Gone with the Wind, North and South, and later Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass because I wanted a more balanced perspective. Those books stuck with me and shaped me as a reader and lover of literature. I can’t imagine what my growth could have been had a teacher interacted with me concerning these texts. How many students are out there like me? Is our instruction meeting their needs?
I now work with a high school that is tackling these difficult questions. They are beginning to let go of the whole class novel in favor of shorter texts and excerpts. They are heavily focused on skill acquisition allowing students to read books of their own selection. The teachers are teaching skills through mini lessons using these shorter class texts and then expecting students to transfer these skills into their own reading, in texts of their choosing. The students in these classes are challenged on a daily basis. The teachers are energized. They look forward to working with these students each day. They go home tired but inspired.
These same teachers once felt that no student could exit high school without spending significant quality time with Jay Gatsby. While they’ve embraced the importance of classic literature in the classroom, it’s through the intense study of language usage in a section of The Great Gatsby rather than allocating pages to be read each night and study questions to be answered. Their goal is to develop analytical readers who will read The Great Gatsby and The Scarlet Letter cover-to-cover because they want to, not to simply memorize plot points.
English teachers are on to something important, particularly at the high school level. Becoming a lifelong reader is not always easy. Learning to analyze complex texts is far more difficult. Forcing students to read whole texts they do not care for is not building enough self-motivated, analytical readers. Let’s focus on the skills students need to master and transfer to their own reading and writing lives. Then the class text is a mere vehicle to highlight those skills during instruction. The student-selected text becomes an opportunity for students to develop these skills and the agency to determine which skill is best for a given task. This, more than any whole class piece of literature, will prepare students for the rigors of life beyond high school while simultaneously creating lifelong readers.
Amanda Palmer began her career as a high school English teacher and will identify herself as such until her dying day. She currently serves as a Secondary Language Arts Coordinator in the Katy Independent School District in Katy, Texas. She is a wife, mother, and runner who remains forever grateful for the audiobooks that make long runs possible. Connect with her on Twitter @AmandaPalmer131.