Today on the Heinemann Podcast, what drives us to read?
In her latest book, “The Book in Question: Why and How Reading is In Crisis,” author Carol Jago highlights the importance of reading, and what we stand to lose when it is devalued. It doesn’t matter so much, Carol says, what students are reading or why, but that they choose to read at all, and that they are confident in their ability to attempt the text in front of them.
Our conversation begins with what it means to choose a good book…
Below is a full transcript of the conversation.
Carol: For me and I've always been a reader. So I was one of those child readers, who never had enough to read. So now, as an adult, my greatest pleasure is that I can have any book I want.
Brett: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Carol: I have no restraint whatsoever. And I read high and low, I read a lot of children's books because professionally, I think that's really important to have a broad background in it. And again and again, I'm delighted. I learn things from some of these books that are actually written for young people.
Brett: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Carol: And I think that that's opened my eyes to what does it mean to have a good book.
Brett: And what you've discovered in the book, or what you say at the beginning of the book, is that our students just ... they're not reading as much as they used to. It's just there's something not happening there. What's going on?
Carol: I think we have to be careful not to cast the idea that kids aren't reading anymore. Cast the blame for that entirely on their phones, and on the digital age, and on video games. I've been teaching for over 30 years and I wanna tell you, kids have never wanted to do their homework. And for most students, reading is not their go-to place for pleasure. So, with that, I think that it's important for us right now as teachers, to think about how we can help students live a digital life that includes reading for pleasure. Because if we don't help them see that, it could be that reading would fall out of their lives.
That's why I believe reading is in crisis, but in crisis at a place where we can still solve the problem.
Brett: How do we teach that desire? That passion to read?
Carol: I think you can't teach a passion, but you can model it. And you can create a community of readers in your classroom, where that energy is surging through the room, where you have students talking about what they're reading, where you have kids saying, "You haven't read Ender's Game? Oh my gosh, you gotta read it!"
It's that kind of enthusiasm because if it only comes from the teacher, not every student is gonna buy in. But if the teacher's enthusiasm feeds a roomful of readers, then suddenly there's much more energy there.
Brett: You noted that students tend to have a fear of complex text, or lack of confidence as readers, and a fear of complex text. What's happening there?
Carol: Again, I think all of us are a little bit afraid of complex text. All of us have had that experience of picking up a book and saying, "This is too hard for me. This is gonna require too much effort." And so one thing I think teachers can do when inviting students to read "The Odyssey," or "Crime and Punishment," or a challenging book to say, "This is gonna stretch all of us, but I'm here to help." And design things that help students exactly at the point where we anticipate they're gonna stub their toe. And in that regard, I think teachers' own reading is so important, that it's important for us as adults to continue to challenge ourselves as readers, and then watch ourselves fall out of a book. And maybe setting yourself the challenge of reading "War and Peace" and then realizing when you get through war, the peace kind of slows down.
And maybe you put it down. Watch that, and think about what does this mean for your teaching next semester.
Brett: You are a little critical of yourself in some of your reading. You say that you have to sort of stop yourself from going online and reading certain online articles. And you use that to sort of explain the difference between online reading and a book reading. Talk more about that.
Carol: I think that right now, we're at a place where online reading is becoming the norm more and more. And yet, many people say, "Well I really like a hard book." Again, I don't think we wanna get into an either or. There are times and places, you know, some ... I travel a lot. I'm not gonna carry ten hardback books with me. I'll read on an e-reader. But there are also challenges with reading on an e-reader. If you have alerts coming up behind you, it's distracting, and enticing. If you let that interrupt you when you come back to the book, you gotta start that page over. You have fallen out of the story.
Brett: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Carol: And so just again to think about things. Now, it's not as though that's unique to an e-reader. You're reading a hard book and the phone rings. But to help us understand, and understand about student readers who are even more easily distracted, that we wanna create spaces for sustained reading.
Brett: You talk a lot about reading habits. You talk about your reading habits, and as you just mentioned, you know, teachers' reading habits. But in students' reading habits, you noted that their reading habits are similar to their eating habits. How so?
Carol: Well again, students' reading habits are similar to their eating habits because they enjoy junk food and so do I. Couple weeks ago, I was reading Gunter Grass's "Tin Drum." This is serious, heavy, intense reading, and then the next day, I quickly picked up a Daniel Silva novel. We like both the nourishment and the challenge that great literature has to offer, but I also like reading a book where I know exactly how it's gonna work out. My husband is always saying, "Carol, why did you buy another Daniel Silva novel? Tell me what the last one was about." And, of course, it's always the same story, but there's a comfort in when you know the characters, you know how this story's gonna work, you know exactly how far into the novel where there are gonna be lots of explosions and car chases. But you know it's all gonna turn out fine.
Those are not the things that happen in great literature.
Brett: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Carol: And so again, I think we create false dichotomies on this kind of reader or at that kind of reader. We want students to be both kinds of readers.
Brett: You also talk about the bad habits of good readers, which sort of took me off guard at first. What do you mean by we need to talk more about the bad habits of good readers?
Carol: Often, teachers forget that their avid readers in class also have some bad habits. And I began thinking about these by examining by own behaviors as a reader, one of which is reading too fast. So take bringing the same reading speed that I'd take to a thriller or a mystery, and use that in a book that really requires slowing down. Tom Newkirk's book, by the way, is brilliant on this idea of sometimes a tortoise, sometimes a hare. We want students to be able, fluent readers who can skim and scan when necessary, but other books, books of poetry for example, require a different pacing, a different kind of thoughtfulness.
Other bad habits that good readers have often they're so confident that they make snap decisions about books. And then because everybody in the class knows their good readers, A student, when they declare that a book is boring, that makes it harder for the teacher for everybody else, 'cause people follow that student.
A third thing that ... bad habit of good readers is they can get stuck for a very long time in a genre, whether it's science-fiction or fantasy. And I approve on one level, I think we should follow your passion, follow your interest. As a teacher, I wanna just keep challenging that book, you know Teri Lesesne's ideas of reading ladders, where there are more sophisticated books here, and I want you to grow as a reader.
Brett: Talk a little bit about what serendipitous reading is.
Carol: I believe that often, English teachers make the mistake of just going down the path of classics first, classics always, and don't value enough that sometimes you wanna read just for pleasure, sometimes you wanna read for escape, sometimes you wanna read to know something. And so the idea of being a serendipitous reader requires a classroom library where students have access to all kinds of books. That way they can graze the field. Also, public libraries and school libraries can be the case, but the ability to pick up a book and say, "Hmm, I wonder if I'd like this," read a couple pages and decide, "No. And so, oh, let me try some cowboy poetry, maybe that's what I'm in the mood for."
Because again, I don't think that student readers or adult readers for that matter need to self-identify with one kind of book.
Brett: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Carol: That we grow and change and we have phases in our lives when we need certain kind of books, and that that's what serendipitous reading can provide. You find the book that needs you, or maybe that book finds you, I also feel that that often happens. I just will accidentally pick up a book and it perfectly answers a question that I had in my head from the last book that I was reading.
One thing that I feel very strongly about is that students need both kinds of books. They need books that are gonna be a tremendous stretch for them. Then they're gonna need the teacher, they're gonna need guidance. Unfortunately, too many occasions where great books have been taught to students, it's like force-feeding. And, "Take this, it's good for you, you'll hate it now but thank me later." And I don't think that worked 30 years ago and it's not gonna work tomorrow.
So I think that we can't ... we've gotta stop beating up books and going quiz by quiz, like the whole curriculum for that needs rethinking. At the same time, students need choice in their lives. If you don't learn how to choose a book, you're never gonna be a reader. In this regard right now, we've spent a lot of time identifying what students should know and be able to do in language arts through standards moving. I think the standards have done a good job of bringing transparency to our curriculum, and also bringing some coherence to grade levels. That said, in our focus on what students should know and be able to do, we've sometimes forgotten what we want students to be.
Readers. Readers who not only can read, but choose to read. If we don't reach that goal, all of the rest, all of that standards based instruction, will really be for naught.
Carol Jago has taught English in middle and high school for 32 years and is associate director of the California Reading and Literature Project at UCLA. She served as president of NCTE and editor of California English.
Carol has published many books with Heinemann including With Rigor for All: Meeting Standards for Reading Literature; Papers, Papers, Papers; Classics in the Classroom; and Cohesive Writing: Why Concept Is Not Enough.
In 2015 Carol was awarded the International Literacy Association’s Adolescent Literacy Thought Leader Award and in 2016 the CEL Exemplary Leadership Award. She has been named by the U.S. Department of Education to serve on the National Assessment Governing Board overseeing the NAEP assessments.
Follow Carol on Twitter @CarolJago