I’m always a little amazed when I hear my students–most of whom are studying to be English teachers–say they HATE to read. (You can literally hear the sense of loathing dripping from their voices.) Being the weirdo kid who always had 4 little Scholastic book order paperbacks stacked neatly on the corner of my desk, I don’t get it…when it comes to reading for pleasure, that is. When I was 9, I was so panicked that reading material wouldn’t be readily available, these were my insurance books. I’d race through my story problems and reading worksheets every day so that I could get to the real stories–the books I’d chosen for myself to read. Even now, anxiety sets in the moment I finish a book if another one isn’t readily available. (Just thinking about it right now is making my palms sweat. In this case, I consider it a lovely problem.)
So it was a surprise to me as a reader to feel an aversion to reading setting in almost the minute I signed on to be an English major. This was promptly followed by an existential crisis. What was happening to me? What was I doing with my life? How could I teach students to read if I was losing the lifelong love myself? Was this some terrible, irreversible allergic reaction?
Right now, I’m reading the powerful little book called The Vulnerable Teacher by Ken Macrorie, which is sadly out-of-print. According to Macrorie, I shouldn’t have been surprised by my allergic reaction as a student. He refers to any assigned book as a “little prison” and is horrified to recognize that an English professor, he had become an unwitting warden.
Happily, my allergy to reading disappeared when I graduated from college, but it was only latent, returning with every subsequent degree I pursued. Even when the book was one I would have willingly devoured if I’d picked it up on my own, it turned into a bread-and-water ration once I was assigned to read it.
What’s this all about? What makes assigned reading a grudging task? What can we as English teachers (and future prison wardens) do to avoid prompting an existential crisis and slamming the jailhouse door on what can otherwise be one of the most enriching pleasures all of us share, or we wouldn’t have gotten ourselves into this business in the first place?
Morning Pages time is up right now, and even though I have more thoughts and some solutions that have been successful more or less in my own classroom, I’ll stop here to hear what my students have to say. After the discussion, I’ll make a list of their ideas in the comments section below this post.