Reading Around: Now with Actual Young Adults!

It’s summertime, or so I hear. It’s 65 degrees, cloudy, and threatening to rain here in Seattle. But still, I’m sitting next to an open window and wearing my sandals, even if it’s just on moral principle. Whatever the mercurial weather, my summers have one enduring feature: summer classes. I’m a pretty introverted person, but I really do love teaching my high schoolers. Sure, I frequently field enlightened questions like “who was that guy who wrote Macbeth?” (a personal favorite from just this afternoon), but even more often I’m refreshed by my kids’ optimism, enthusiasm for their interests, and ambition. Yes, I did say ambition and high schoolers in the same paragraph!

I do find that high school sometimes has a tendency to suck the joy out of kids’ reading lives, though. Devious inventions like Sparknotes, which are amazing in their range and accessibility in the digital age, have made plenty of teachers rely on reading quizzes that test knowledge of arcane or irrelevant detail to determine which kid cheated, and which actually did the homework. (What’s didn’t Sparknotes tell kids about The Catcher in the Rye? Our enemy the online summary tells them everything from the color of Holden’s hunting hat to what he ate for dinner on parents’ weekend. You can bet that whatever some frustrated teacher puts on his test will be minute and extraneous.) And as both a teacher and a writer, online cheating and the way in which it forces educators’ hands concerns me. Are we inadvertently raising a generation of readers to grab at quick information rather than to appreciate art?

For my summer classes, I decided to do something different. The four books we read each summer are titles with no online summaries available, period. It wasn’t easy to find four non-cheatable books that were a) appropriate for teenagers, b) coherent in themes and concerns across the list of titles, c) of academic merit, and d) interesting reads. But it was worth the hours of poring over my bookcase and making crazy notes. (The looks on my students faces when I told them Shirley Jackson’s delicious and attention-commanding We Have Always Lived in the Castle was Sparknotes-free! I nearly cackled like an old crone.)

I am convinced that, when adults put good books in young readers’ hands, and those young readers have a chance–we’ll call it a chance, rather than a compulsion–to actually read literature, amazing things can happen. Last year, for example, several of my students had such a profound reaction to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road that they were in tears by the end of our discussion. A particularly laconic guy, more interested in b-boying and biology than my “b” of choice (books), declared that he intended to read the novel a second time.

So it’s with great hope that I put We Have Always Lived in the Castle, The Neon Bible, Never Let Me Go, and All My Sons into the hands of a few teenaged students. I hope I’ve given them work that will change them the way I was changed by the formative books in my life. And I’m reminded of the opening lines from a long-time favorite poem of mine, “The Language Issue,” by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill:

I place my hope upon the water

in this little boat

of the language….

4 Replies to “Reading Around: Now with Actual Young Adults!”

  1. Hi Kelly!

    I am a fellow teacher/writer, and I know what you mean about the online Sparknotes cheating!

    I think I would get around it by assigning creative writing exercises to my students that involve higher order thinking than just the facts.

    Even if they do get their information from the internet, you can always see a fresh idea bubble to the surface in a class discussion.

    When I was in my Junior year AP English course, my professor would do things like dump the contents of the garbage can in the middle of the floor, and then tell us to free write about it in the style of Melville, or some such. She sort of taught the literature in terms of the major philosophical movements occurring in the times of their novels. We would have to apply what we read to that and pick quotes from the book that supported our opinions. I loved every minute of it.

    I wonder how a student today would be able to cheat on an assignment like that. At least, as a consolation, even if students used the internet, they would have to think about what they read there.

    I think that the true lover of reading will always take the long way around and read the material. It is unfortunate that we don;t have more of them floating around, eh?

    L, Lori

  2. Hi, Lori. Thanks for coming by my blog!

    Isn’t it funny how creative students get with their cheating? If they put their creative faculties to work by, say, *working,* think how much they could learn!

    Your AP English course sounds great–that’s something I would’ve eaten up as a student. And it’s definitely a task appropriate for the AP level.

    Most of my kids are speakers of English as a second language, and while there’s a legitimate tendency for them to use online summaries as a supplement to their learning while they’re still working out the oddities of English grammar and expression, that supplement can so easily turn into a crutch, and then an addiction!

    Yes, it’s so true that there aren’t more true readers floating around. I suppose we have to get to kids early, by putting great books in their hands at a young age, to counteract the effect.

  3. I’ve never read these four books you’re teaching this summer, Kelly, so I’m taking them as recommendations for both me and my boys. Thank you!

  4. I hope you and your boys enjoy them as much as I do, seacliffmom! I’m particularly fond of Never Let Me Go, which is an oddly fast-paced novel from the king of the slow pace, Kazuo Ishiguro. When I learned there’d be a film version of the novel coming out this summer, I figured I’d better sneak in one last summer with the book before the kids get sneaky and just watch the movie. 🙂

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