Category Archives: reading

Distracted by Books

IMG_0122I have written about my own love for reading and described my implementation of middle school reading workshops. Those workshops were designed to give my students the same experiences with books that fueled my own love of reading: choosing what I wanted to read and making reading a priority in my day.

Two recent blog entries show that my values continue in contemporary classrooms. Former high school teacher Julia Franks describes making a change in her AP English classroom when she moved away from communal reading and analysis of the classics to choosing their own reading. Her practice arose from her belief that readers make better citizens as they are able to construct more sophisticated narratives around events in the world around them:

As a nation, too, we need these narratives. Election results end in an upset, and we spend a whole lot of time trying to answer the question why? Or a man walks into a church and opens fire on the congregation. We as a country respond by trying to make a narrative: cause, effect, cause, effect. When we can’t do it, we feel adrift, even despairing. And yes, we’re tempted to oversimplify the story. But the more practice we have at story-making, the more we’re able to construct a nuanced national story.

Given the option of reading the books on the syllabus or reading twice as many books from a list of 300 titles, all students chose the latter and, by the end of the year, had read nearly twice as many pages as mandated on the original plan. And those AP exam scores that seem to dictate the analysis that eats up so much class time? They did not suffer at all.

Franks concludes:

We have to offer more choice, and we have to set actual time aside in the school day for reading.  (Maybe fewer hours, say, discussing Hamlet?) In this moment in American culture, we need reader-citizens more than ever. Because of that, English departments have the opportunity to be especially relevant in civic life. Some of them are already taking up that challenge.

Middle school teacher and founder of The Global Read Aloud, Pernille Ripp, describes her own “horror” when, at the beginning of the year, her students reported how little they enjoyed reading. She was determined to change that and she did it with books:

Books, and plenty of them.  Books that were accessible through audio and text.  Books that were not there to push them in a certain direction.  That were not forced on them.  Picture books for the days where chapter books seemed to be too much work.  Free verse for those who had lost their connection with the magic of reading.  Graphic novels meant to teach, entice, and enthrall.  Everywhere they looked there were books and the books called to them.  Without judgment.  Without restriction.  Without one path to being a reader.

And time:

We also took time.  Ten minutes every day to read.  To find books.  To have conversations about the texts we chose.  To find something worthy of our time, that we perhaps would want to read later as well.  Ten minutes that were the expectation coupled with the idea that one should only read good books, not waste our time on books that would make us dislike reading more.  To abandon when needed, to book shop when desired.

The two priorities: the ability to choose your own books and the time to read them.

This message has also been part of The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend, the book I am reading right now. Sara Lindqvist is a reader who uses books to change a small, dying Iowa town. As she organizes the books in her shop, she put “every unreadable book she could find” on a shelf. These mostly included the award winners that everyone talked about but never read. Sara had tried to by systematic about reading these classics:

She had thrown herself into one ambitious reading project after another, but things had rarely gone according to plan. It was boring to think of books as something you should read just because others had, and besides, she was much too easily distracted. There were far too many books out there to stick to any kind of theme.

Lots of the teachers I follow on Twitter are busy planning their summer reading. I applaud their desire to dive into professional reading, and I have a few of those books on my own list. But, I also would encourage them to let themselves be distracted and see where it leads.

 

 

 

 

 

Reading for Pleasure

Chilly gray winter coupled with angry voices have left me feeling blue and a bit angry myself. I have a list of possible blog entries but can’t seem to get past the feeling that they are frivolous in a time of great seriousness.

The New Yorker published a list of books that various writers are reading now, and Caleb Crain comments about his reading of Langdon Hammer’s biography of poet James Merrill:

In such parlous times, I felt a little guilty about indulging at length in reading for mere pleasure—the one lacuna in Merrill’s cosmopolitanism was politics, which he seems to have found boring—but only a formidable pleasure was capable of drawing me away from the news, and for the sake of my mental health I decided I had to license it.

I’m reading a lot this year, but my path does seem to have taken a serious turn that Crain might not count as reading for pleasure.  The year started with Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee’s prose poem/ethnographic study about poor southerners who worked as cotton tenants during the Depression. It seemed a good place to start to understand division and anger in America, and in The New Yorker article, Judith Thurman references it in her review of the 1960 book Crowds and Power, a book she says is about the dangerous resentments of those who feel helpless:

It seems that we are seeing something parallel taking place in Trump’s America: the panicked reaction of a crowd that feels it has been devalued and is looking to project that sense onto a group that can then be driven from the fold. This process has happened before in American history, notably in the post-Civil War South, when defeated whites, many of them poor and dispossessed, projected their sense of depreciation onto the even poorer population of former slaves. (Read James Agee on THAT subject.)

I read Agee as a follow up to Hillbilly Elegy, the new book about these same people. If I had to do over, I would read Agee first as the historical understanding helps with Vance’s more abbreviated memoir.

For Martin Luther King Day, I read all three volumes of The March, John Lewis’s collaboration with Nate Powell. The graphic novel takes us to the heart of the Civil Rights movement. Hatred and violence pulse in the black and white images of murder and mayhem during a time when it seemed as though black lives really didn’t matter and the police and courts were the handmaidens of systemic evil. As he tells the story, Lewis is preparing to attend the inauguration of the first Black president. A moment of pride and success that now seems under attack by that same evil cloaked not in KKK robes but suits and ties and forked tongues.

Sabrina Stevens’ twitter thread was one of the first things I saw on February 1. She provided a list of the myths that were going to be told to kids during Black History Month to make slavery seem not so bad.

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead’s story of a runaway slave who moves through a world where whites implement diverse evil ways of dealing with slaves, deals with all these issues. While I suspect it would not pass the censors in high schools, it would be historically realistic in a way that is, as Sabrina writes, is often not presented in public schools classrooms. Whitehead drew his characters from slave narratives and runaway slave advertisements, and in the book the runaways move along a real railroad, built deep in the ground, each station bringing them to new places where they had to discover the rules and underlying secrets in order to navigate dangerous paths. I think the most sinister of all places was South Carolina where the slaves seemed to be treated respectfully even as whites were experimenting in terrible ways. The novel was powerful, often mentally jarring, and I am still thinking about it. It would certainly overturn the myths of the happy slaves and paternal owners that are the usual fare of this month and black history in general.

My nonfiction reading–Inequality in the Promised Land: Race, Resources, and Suburban Schooling–provides an ethnographic view of the racial divides that exist in seemingly integrated schools and shows the legacy of continuing prejudice. Even though they are in the same school, black and white students are not getting the same quality of education. Expectations for the students are different with many black students finding their way into special education classes while white students take advantage of advanced classes or after school programs. He describes an ugly 1985 redistricting battle that clearly hinged on race and sounded a lot like my local suburban school division lived through much more recently.

Next on the list is Hidden Figures, about the Black women of NASA. It may be a bit more uplifting except the segregated world where they did their work kept them from them from advancing. Even now, they would probably face discrimination–they might be able to use whichever bathroom they wished but the upper levels of engineering still seem to be off limits.

These are the books students should be reading rather than watered down textbooks that don’t want to make anyone feel bad about themselves or their ancestors. It is “reading for pleasure”? While it is not always pleasant, it is reading I have chosen as a way to understand the world around me which I think helps define reading for pleasure. But it doesn’t matter. It is reading for knowledge and understanding and that is more important right now.

Reading Aloud

Many of us probably remember round robin reading with a slight shudder of horror whether as students or teachers. I suppose at the time, it seemed the most efficient and effective way to hear every student, but it could be deadly for listeners and humiliating for readers. Is it still done?

A better way, I think, is to take a page from former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins who recommends giving students time to read over the material so they can prepare themselves and be able to read in a natural style. Collins is referring specifically to poetry but I think his suggestions can apply to any kind of recitation.  Collins’ tips are part of a program called Poetry 180 that asks teachers and schools to read aloud a poem every day of the school year:

The goal is to give students a chance to listen to a poem each day. The best time for the reading would be at the end of the daily announcements, whether they are delivered over a public address system, at an assembly in an auditorium or by teachers in their individual homerooms. The hope is that poetry will become a part of the daily life of students in addition to being a subject that is part of the school curriculum.

The site provides a helpful list of poems that seem to be mostly modern and contemporary poems from mostly North American writers. Collins cautions that this is not an exercise in interpretation. The goal is to hear a poem:

Unless students really want to discuss the poem, there is no need to do so. The most important thing is that the poems be read and listened to without any academic requirements.

I find this a fascinating bit of advice.Just listen and absorb. It is similar to  Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac without the extra interesting tidbits and Keillor’s drawl.

Reading aloud as performance or art has been a minor theme of the last two books I’ve read. In his Essays After Eighty, Donald Hall writes about doing poetry readings with some history of reading aloud along with warnings for readers. He describes the move from imagining the poem’s sound through the eyes to needing to say aloud the “mouth-juice of vowels, or mouth-chunk of consonants” (p. 41).

His descriptions of the great poets he heard read match quite nicely with Billy Collins’ tips for reading out loud:

Eliot was good, but most performances were insufferable–superb poems spoken as if they were lines from the telephone book. William Carlos Williams read too quickly in a high-pitched voice, but seemed to enjoy himself. Wallace Stevens appeared to loathe his beautiful work, making it flat and half audible…Marianne Moore’s tuneless drone as as eccentric as her imitable art. (p. 42)

Only Dylan Thomas seems to have met his expectations with his “rich and succulent Welsh organ” (p. 43).

As I read Hall’s essay about reading poetry, I was reminded of James Agee’s preface to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. “This text,” he writes, “was written with reading aloud in mind.” He seems to contradict himself and offer a reverse process to that described by Hall when he goes on to say,

That cannot be recommended: but it is suggested that the reader attend with his ear to what he takes off the page: for variations of tone, pace, shape, and dynamics are here particularly unavailable to the eye alone, and with their loss, a good deal of meaning escapes. (p. xi).

For Agee, sound adds meaning. As I wrote in the review on my book blog:

His prose tumbles along, piling up details and impressions, swirling the story into the midst. Sometimes, it made for daunting reading and I would look ahead for the next break. Other times, I found myself in the flow, not worried so much about exact meaning but absorbing impressions as I rode along the natural energy of the words.

I even read some of it aloud.

About that Face to Face Book Group: On Reading and Writing

I live on the edge of a very small town in Sussex County, Virginia. It is the home of those staples: peanuts and bacon. I moved here about five years ago and have spent most of that time working rather than getting involved in community life. This year, I decided I needed more non-work interaction in my life, so I joined the book group at my local library branch. I read A LOT so getting the homework done wasn’t going to be a problem. And the group meets one hour, once a month, five minutes from my house. (It’s actually close enough that even I could ride my bike and may do so in the spring.)

We met Tuesday and talked about We Never Asked for Wings by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. It is a story told from the perspective of mother and son, complicated by poverty and hope and love. We learn about what it is like to be undocumented but integrated in America. And, even more importantly, it reminds us of the terrible tragedy of the impact of zip code on education and thus opportunity. I can recommend it and you can read my full review at my book blog.

I’m really posting this blog to celebrate the book group and some ideas about writing: SO much fun to sit around a table with thoughtful people and just talk about a book for an hour. One woman provided several interpretations that had never occurred to me and expanded the possible understandings of the book. I haven’t dug this deep into a book for awhile.

As for writing…what struck me most out of the whole book was a comment from the author in the Q & A at the end. The interviewer asked her about writing her second novel, and she talked about the fear of disappointing her readers. This fear tainted her writing:

I was so worried about writing a “good” book that I ended up writing a carefully polished book with absolutely no heart.

She owes her freeing herself from that fear to a friend in her writers’ group who reminded her that she didn’t have anything to prove:

Somehow, those word set me free. I stopped trying to be good and just started to write–and the book improved dramatically from that moment on.

Two lessons leap out here for writing teachers, or indeed teachers anywhere: let them write (read/learn/share) without worrying about meeting a rubric or impressing someone else and give them community in which to do it. In my writing workshop, students produced fascinating pieces of writing when I gave them a chance to record their lives and stories. They wrote letters and stories and poems. And they wanted to read what their classmates wrote because they were so different.

I understand the concern with impressing people. The need to be profound. I wrote about it here and discovered Tim Owens shared a similar issue on his own blog.

I’m just decided that I am going to keep writing anyway.

Building Community Around Reading

I attended the book group at the local library today. Today’s group was fun! A welcoming group of women who had smart and intriguing ideas about the book. One woman, in particular, had several interesting ideas about characters and their motives that I simply hadn’t considered. I am looking forward to next month.

I was in a book group before I moved to the farm but that requires a long country drive and a ferry ride so I had to give it up.  Until today, for the past five years, my reading community has been virtual, mostly tied to Library Thing.

I started as a lurker who mostly used the site to keep track of my reading. Over the past three or four years, I have been participating in one of their online groups and have about ten people that I follow on a regular basis. Three of them I was able to meet face to face last year so I will admit to feeling a bit closer to them. But, I have also built a strong relationships with two women I have only met in the online group.

This year, I am committed to be more involved. In the past, I have checked in only when I have finished a book and I went to update my thread, often just once a week. But this community is active on a daily basis and my weekly checkins simply weren’t enough. I was overwhelmed by all the posts and often left without posting at all.

This year, I’ve checked in every other day and sometimes even daily. I update my own thread with comments about my current reading or other items of bookish interest so people have a reason to visit my thread. I take time to reply to commenters as well. I also get caught up on the threads of my friends. I don’t feel like I always have to comment but I try to get involved at least once or twice a week, commenting on something they posted or getting involved a discussion with them and others on their threads. I’ve tried to keep my list of friends short so I can be more thoughtful and focused.  As with so many things in life, the key to success is knowing how much you can commit to and then committing to it.