Friday, July 10, 2009

from pain to pleasure: an opportunity

Next week I get my head back into academic mode (reluctantly) and prep my fall semester courses. I like to do this in July so that when August comes I can relax and not spend my remaining vacation time stressing over last-minute prep, which really does affect my stress levels well after the semester starts. This time I'm also determined to do a spring semester prep as well for the aforementioned reasons.

I'm constantly trying new things in the classroom -- new assignments, new texts, new peer review approaches, you name it. This is partly to keep the class fresh (and avoid plagiarism cases) and partly to keep trying to make it better. It's easy to fall into a rut, especially in the wake of budget issues and the lure of the novel. Teaching always presents an ocean of opportunities, though, which is one of the reasons why I still love being in the classroom.

I finally got Emma Walton Hamilton's book Raising Bookworms. It's a must for any parent or teacher. For those who don't know, Hamilton is a Sag Harbor resident (which means I already like her) and daughter of Julie Andrews. She's done quite a lot for the Sag Harbor community. And while she explicitly states that she's no reading specialist, she offers some excellent suggestions for parents and teachers alike to foster reading as enjoyment as opposed to a chore.

And for the overwhleming majority of students, unfortunately, it's a chore.

Raising Bookworms doesn't address the college-age student (the book stops at "middle school and beyond"), but I think it's not too late to reach out to the college student. Obviously, there's no getting around the fact that academic reading is indeed a chore, and much of it is tedious, sometimes even exasperating. And some of it (I'm talking about the scholarly writing, not the student writing) is not well written. I can very easily comiserate with my students when it comes to the pain of reading thanks to academia (and I'm lumping K-12 in that term at the moment). Despite teachers' passion and parents' well-meaning intentions, reading is taught and fostered as anything but pleasure. All too often, my students use violent metaphors like "tortured," "forced", "drilled", "grilled", and "shoved down our throats" to describe their reading experiences throughout childhood and school. But I've been trying to figure out how to reverse the trend. Hamilton talks about counterbalancing what kids read at school with what they read at home. In other words, balance the pain with pleasure.

This I get.

I get reading as a chore because reading (more specifically, evaluating) student writing is quite a chore, and can be especially tedious when students are all writing the same thing, more or less, or the writing is problematic. And while there are some days where when I come home all I want to do is sit in front of the boob-tube, usually I find that reading even just a few pages of a novel -- something light, usually, actually relaxes me. And audiobooks count, by the way! I almost always have an audiobook to keep me company during my commute to and from school. (Makes a great companion on road trips, too!)

And so, as I plan my fall courses, I'm thinking about proposing a semester-long extra credit project: The Pleasure Reading Project (or something like that). Students would keep a reading journal (filled w/ more than summaries -- I'm not interested in reading book reports -- hated them as a child, hate them now) and explore ways of counterbalancing their rigorous academic reading chores with more pleasurable alternatives.

The goal is not simply to get them reading for reading's sake, but also to use that pleasure reading to augment what already interests them, and make connections to what they're already learning. For example, if one of my female students tells me that she loves shopping, might Sophie Kinsella's Shopaholic series be something she'd like? Would my student-athletes enjoy sports journalist Mike Lupica's sports novels? Would a set of mystery books appeal to engineering students' problem-solving skills?

An opportunity for research exists here. Part of the project involves going to bookstores and the campus library, interviewing booksellers and librarians, peruse shevles, observing patterns of behavior (when looking for a book that interests me, do I judge by cover? title? genre?), etc. Or, conversely, learning about how some authors use the research process when writing their own novels.

I also want them writing, of course. In grad school, I was a staunch advocate of journals in theory, but never quite got them to work in practice. This, however, might do the trick. This kind of reflective, meta-cognitive practice will not only make them more aware of their reading and writing habits, but will reveal other connections as well, I believe. Like sports and music, writing is practice. And being exposed to more writing styles can influence their own.

Ultimately, the outcome of the project is to produce better thinkers. I'm not looking for total conversion here. At the very least, I'd like students to see that reading doesn't have to be a chore -- not 24-7, anyway.

My intention is to persuade them to do the project not for the grade but for the oppotunity. It's also an opportunity to really think about what they're doing in college. My guess is that we take education more for granted than any other abundance in this country. And yet, for all the talk about how great and important education is, we are a country with an aversion to education. Maybe reading is the key.

Am I being idealistic? Probably. But hey, I can try.
Why? Because I've been there.


Mary Jo said...

The teacher in me wants to send you a big cyber kiss for this post, Elisa! First off thanks for the book recc. Secondly, I think your idea of a assigning your students a reading journal is awesome! I also hated book reports; but this is going deeper, finding the connections between the students' lives and the authors' world as they see it. Isn't that what we writers intend to do, anyway? Make that connection?
Have your students try the social network Shelfari for book recommendations and summaries to see what they might be interested in reading for enjoyment.
I will def. use your tips with my young writers! Cheers!

Elisa said...

Thanks, Mary Jo!

You totally "get" my intention for the reading journal -- definintely NOT a book report!

One of the things I'm planning as part of the project is to give them weekly activities (going to the library, bookstore, etc.). I'll include Shelfari.

You will LOVE Raising Bookworms!