I was substituting for a colleague a while back and in one of the breaks started talking to some of the pupils. One of them confided to me that he had never read any of the books they had studied in school. “Thank God for Spark Notes” he said.
This reminds me of an essay from the exams I marked last year:
I must admit I am not a very big book-reader, in fact... I don’t think I have ever successfully finished a single book in my entire life. It’s hard to understand, but it’s true. The school projects I have had when we were supposed to review a book, they were all lies. When I reviewed “The Da Vinci Code”, “Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone”, “Atonement” ect. I had just watched the movies and based them upon that. However, I have read the beginning of some books and I have watched a lot of films in my time. (Anonymous pupil)
Moments like these cut to the heart of the matter for me. How is it at all possible for students to replace reading a book with reading a plot summary? They seem to be equating reading a book with knowledge of its plot. Huh? Are we in schools treating ‘reading books’ as synonymous with ‘finding out what happens’?
Consider the following questions from one of the textbooks on my desk to the short story ‘Snow’ by Julia Alvarez:
- Where does the family live during their first year in New York?
- What impression do you get of the Sisters of Charity?
- Who was Yolanda’s favorite?
- Where was Yolanda seated in the classroom?
- Why was she put there?
Etc, etc. Typical worksheet stuff, right? Now, what exactly is being trained by setting questions like this?
Nothing. There is no skill or important knowledge base that is being pushed here. Such questions are merely control. They also fill the time, keep the students doing something and thus make us teachers feel useful. But – we can’t hide from the fact that this type of work tends to kill interest in something that is intrinsically interesting. It also teaches pupils to equate ‘reading’ with ‘finding out what happens’. Set questions like this and you chase the pupils to SparkNotes. Consider the questions above – if your goal is to answer them, then it’s actually more effective to read the notes than to read the story.
Think about that for a moment. If you are a teacher who sets worksheet-type questions for your class and you find out that they have answered them by reading the notes, how do you react? Shouldn’t they be praised for finding a more efficient way to get the task done?
So, OK, worksheets are out. What do you ask about literature? There are two questions about literature (or film) that I tend to use in my classes:
- Did you like it? (and why?)
- How does it work?*
These questions are not more easily answered by reading the notes. They correspond roughly to the two mains types of writing about literature and film: criticism/review and academic literary analysis, so they get kids working in real-world genres, not the made-up school-only genres we often get them producing in. Answering such questions well involves important skills.
I’ll post this now and get back soon to part two, which is to consider this line of thinking and ‘worksheet teaching’ in the light of final exams.
* There are, of course, a couple of other interesting questions about film and literature:
- How is this work situated in history? (how can we see it as a product of its time and what effect has it had on the world?)
- What does this work teach us about the world/ society/ life/ ourselves?
…but I rarely get there with teenagers.