Irony--it pervades my English class. The bathroom pass, a magnetized sign, proclaims, “The beatings will continue until attitudes improve.” At the beginning of the year it elicits a giggle from approximately 2 out of my 50 students. I tell them that to pass the final exam and exit English 10, they must demonstrate an understanding and appreciation of irony by a belly laugh in response to the bathroom pass.
I came across more irony today--reading a book on vocabulary instruction. It exhorted me to use some unfamiliar words in discussion with my students: “The goal is to expose students to some new and challenging words and to peak their interest in such words.” Really?!? Peak, not pique?
Actually, most of the book is quite good. Like the quote at the head of the chapter I read:
You can’t build a vocabulary without reading. You can’t meet friends if you...stay at home by yourself all the time. In the same way, you can’t build up a vocabulary if you never meet any new words. And to meet them you must read. The more you read the better. A book a week is good, a book every other day is better, a book a day is still better. (Rudolf Flesch and Abraham Lass, Professional Writers)
I have a high percentage of Asian students who speak English as a second or third language. They (and their parents) come to me for hot tips on how to improve their SAT scores. My best advice: Read, read, and read.
One way I reinforce the importance of independent reading is by requiring at least 250 pages of it every semester. Nowhere close to a book a day, I know, but we do what we can.
Once a semester, each student has to schedule a 10-minute interview with me about his or her independent reading. Yes, it’s meant to be a form of accountability. I also hope it is a chance for students to experience an adult conversation about reading--for me to model talking about reading, to prompt student talking about reading, to observe and nudge what they read and how they read, to find out how I can teach them better, and, perhaps most importantly, to have fun talking about books.
I ask students to bring the book they have read and some form of held thinking (whether it’s Post-It notes or a journal entry) to show they have something to say--this is not quiz time for me to find out whether they’ve read the book. Students are to take the initiative, simulating a conversation they might have with a friend 10 years from now--“Hey, I read this great (or awful) book, and here’s what I thought about it” with some give and take. Though I have given them a menu of questions if they need ideas.
In the past, I’ve uncovered student misunderstanding which has allowed me to change what I do to address it--such as the misconception that you can only have a Christian perspective of a book if it talks about God or Jesus, or the perennial difficulty identifying a theme. This year, a student offered the perspective that dystopian novels demonstrate people how people, made in God’s image, seek something to worship as God, even if it’s a human power that promises some form of security; they also seek, in their fallen state, to be God. Another student, when I asked my lead-up question to theme, “Did the protagonist learn anything or change in a significant way over the course of the novel?” jumped in right away stating, “Well, I’m not sure what the character learned, but I can tell you what I learned!”
Last week I talked to students who had read the classics Jane Eyre, Out of the Silent Planet, Shiokari Pass (Japanese); current YA fiction Mocking Jay, The Taming (fusing a high school production of a Shakespeare play and a teen romance), Divergent (dystopian); and non-fiction--a memoir (Strength in What Remains) and a book on global issues.
Students came with variety of preparations: a list of vocabulary words learned, Post-It notes marking questions about meaning, notes on significant points. They reflected on conversations with family members, on themes and theological implications, on how they choose books and what they like to read. Some had already chosen their next book, and some asked me for recommendations.
But one of my favorites had to be the girl whose spirited conversation went on over the allotted time--both of us enjoying it--until I finally drew it to a close saying, “Well, thank you for coming.” She stared at me and said, “Is that all?” “Yes.” “That was FUN!”
I’m not sure what she was expecting, but I certainly felt like I had the best job in the world as a literature teacher, and that this particular day, I’d discharged it well.