Anthony is teased when his classmates catch him reading a book for fun, but he refuses to change his ways. In fact, he argues that his peers should read more, not less.
Our colleagues doing good work in the field of basic literacy are making slow but steady progress. But, a much less attended to issue is that of students who can read but who don't read.
Learning the skills associated with decoding is certainly a first step. However, evidence is mounting that while literacy rates are climbing, literary reading rates are declining.
This video and article address ONE of the critical elephants in the room. Are we adequately addressing the forces at play in obstructing interest in using those literacy skills.
The video shares one of those forces, peer pressure. The video even suggests that this peer pressure exists at a cultural level. That is dangerous territory. The kids in this video, in any case, are making heroic efforts at resisting such pressure.
But there is ANOTHER ELEPHANT in the room as well. One that our profession might have more influence over.
In what ways are we making reading an attractive experience, particularly for our kids who have not yet found reading to be attractive?
Are our "required" reading lists representative of all our students' potential engagement points. Or, are they "one size fits all"? Or, "one size plus lip-service fits all"?
The kids in the video recognize themselves in the books they are heroically defending and enjoying in spite of the peer pressure. They see not only themselves, but more about themselves, their history, and their culture than they had previously recognized as relevant and therefore interesting.
The young man who "discovers" Langston Hughes built a bridge from his less expansive zone of proximal learning to a larger more inclusive zone of proximal learning because he saw and discovered a relevance to the world he knew.
As a profession we may or may not have sufficient influence to address the peer pressure issue SUCCESSFULLY. It is a form of bullying which happens to be getting an increased recognition in today's educational conversations. And, those addressing the issue of bullying are taking on a mighty task.
But there are a few things we can do. We can build in opportunities for reluctant students to find more directly relevant titles to read. We need not necessarily replace the "more remotely relevant titles" but for many reluctant readers, the bridge to titles from the traditional literary canon may be a fairly long bridge to cross. When young readers' zones of proximal development are separated by centuries, extremely sophisticated AND outmoded sentence structures, distant and often outmoded vocabulary, and cultural distances there are significant challenges for which even greater heroic efforts on the part of the student may be required.
Yet, we all know that much of that canon is on the list because it represents works of great and universal relevance. We also know that any kid is capable of being "hooked" by engaging learning activities. And, that is a key to our opportunity we must design learning activities that ARE engaging.
Teaching great literature as though its primary value is passing a test, or getting into college or as though our primary purpose is to create the next generation of English majors may be an elephant in the faculty room that we might want to take a look at.
I've been wondering about the hierarchy of importance and value of teaching literary reading. I might list them as follows:
MOST IMPORTANT: Basic Literacy. Without Basic Literacy literary reading can not be done and therefore can have "almost" no value. Exceptions might include audio alternatives. That is, pre-readers are read too and thus begin to appreciate good story telling as a means towards considering valuable life skills and universal themes.
I would suggest that this is essential for 100% of students world-wide.
NEXT MOST IMPORTANT: Developing a continuing engagement with literary reading. The engagement must as soon as possible be reader-centric rather than "teacher imposed." Though Imposed reading runs the risk of being disengaging if not done well, it also can lead to engagement that young readers might not have reached without the well-crafted learning activities of an excellent teacher (or parent or other engaged reader who has taken a caring interest in the young reader)
Though not an essential value for 100% of our students in the long run, it is extremely beneficial for 100% of them should they become ongoing engaged literary readers.
This is a conclusion I don't particularly like to concede, but one need simply look around and see that the values of literary reading can be found elsewhere. Learning the great QUESTIONS of living one's life successfully are available via most faith-based experiences, as well as via great non-literary writings found in psychology, philosophy, history and even business as well as other sources. And in non-writing based sources such as scout masters, Aunts, uncles, and others who take the time to be cherished advisors. Even film, though most film adaptations of great literature fall painfully short. While a portion of that pain is more acute for the English majors than for non English majors, they typically are not, with good reason, considered adequate alternatives to the written original. But, keep in mind, Shakespeare never wanted his plays read; he never even bothered to have them published. Yet we can assume that his audiences might well have been lead to contemplate the very same universal truths we hope today's readers might be lead to contemplate when reading Shakespeare. And, there are many films not based upon a literary piece, that are available only in a visual media, that reach the same universal themes as the best of written literature and often in quite engaging ways.
THE THIRD MOST IMPORTANT is perhaps the LEAST IMPORTANT and perhaps the bitterest pill to swallow: Scholarly Reading. Let's face it. We're all scholars at heart. We wouldn't have earned the required degrees to teach without having been so. And, there's not one of us who hasn't or won't collect a long list of former students for whom we burst with pride upon discovering that we played some role in their choosing to major in English and perhaps even to choose the noblest profession of all as a result to some degree of our influence. But, let's face it scholarly reading is not going to be a part of most of our students' futures. And, overemphasizing the merits of scholarly reading may in fact be counter-productive when students are transitioning from non-readers to engaged readers. Excessive attention to academic minutae directed at reluctant readers and casual readers may be reasons for premature disengagement.
It's a very delicate line between helping students tune in to the magic of a well-turned extended metaphor or helping them learn to catch elements of finely intertwined themes in order further their appreciation and engagement with literary reading and overloading them prematurely with excessive and often distracting attenion to all that "scholarly stuff" we were receptive to in graduate school primarily because we had already long committed ourselves to a life-long engagement with literary reading.