Teaching and Fantasy Literature: How to Rehabilitate a Readicidal Maniac

Teaching and Fantasy Literature: How to Rehabilitate a Readicidal Maniac

It’s good to be back at my Wednesday spot here at Black Gate. Two weeks ago, I got home from my favorite annual convention, Lunacon, to find that the kitchen sink had been left running all weekend. That added a few things to my To Do list, and believe me, I’d rather have been blogging. So here’s a long post, for all the thinking that didn’t land on the screen while my house vibrated with the roar of industrial dehumidifiers:

When a student asks me to translate an especially jargon-laden assignment from his high school, I think to myself, To the teacher who wrote this, all these buzzwords seemed like the best way to explain her idea. Surely there is an idea under here somewhere. And sometimes, when I have been as flummoxed as the kid sitting next to me at the kitchen table is, I have wondered if the fault might not be with me, or with my more freewheeling, less methodical training for college teaching. There have been times when I wondered what I missed by abandoning my almost-completed requirements for state certification in favor of grad school. I learned to speak fluent literary theory, and forgot how to speak educational jargon. Now that I’ve escaped from the classroom altogether to do the entrepreneurial tutor thing, I find that neither literary theory nor educational theory is all that useful for communicating with or helping students.

Am I wrong to dismiss the methods of most of my students’ high school teachers?

Thanks to Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It, that doubt will probably never plague me again. His critique of how reading is taught in most public schools is damning, and his plea to English teachers to push their profession in a better direction is urgent. As in most of the teaching books I’ve talked about here, there’s an argument for allowing students to read “high-interest reading material,” a term that includes fantasy, science fiction, and horror, along with all the other stuff human beings read for pleasure. (It’s a widely used term, despite its puzzling implication that all the books that do make it into formal curricula are somehow low-interest.) What’s unusual about Gallagher’s book is its explanation of why common teaching methods are so pernicious that even “high-interest reading material” cannot protect students’ love of reading from the good intentions of their schools.

Let’s skip most of what Gallagher has to say about high-stakes standardized testing and educational politics — I groove on reading about that stuff, but you probably don’t — and go straight to what freely chosen pleasure reading can do.

If the studies Gallagher cites have it right, free voluntary reading — FVR, because apparently we need an acronym for it–turns out to increase vocabulary more than test prep in vocabulary does. It increases reading comprehension scores more than direct instruction in reading comprehension does. The amount of time a student spends on FVR is a better predictor of reading speed than reading speed drills in the classroom are. It builds knowledge capital faster than reading assigned academic texts does.

Reading that is only partially free and debatably voluntary can still have surprisingly impressive effects. Gallagher describes a study in which 240 students in a troubled high school — students whose English language proficiency was limited, and who described themselves as not liking to read and coming from homes that had few books — were given time to read in school. They were not forced to read, but neither were they permitted to use that time to do anything else. A variety of high-interest books were offered to them, but not assigned. You might expect that when a student who dislikes reading and is not very good at it is offered down time in which to (A) read or (B) do nothing, the student might choose to do nothing. While the reading time was as little as ten minutes, at the beginning of the study, some of the kids made that choice, but when the designated time stretched to twenty minutes, 90 to 95 percent of the students started using the time to read. After a while, the students would complain if given less than 30 minutes to read. By the end of the semester, almost all of the students were engaging in free voluntary reading on their own time. Many described themselves as liking to read. The students showed statistically significant gains in writing fluency, writing complexity, and vocabulary.

Gallagher adds:

It is important to note what the students in this study did not get. They didn’t get worksheets. They didn’t get points. They didn’t get sticky notes to place in books. They didn’t get book report forms. They didn’t get grades. They were simply given good books and time to read them.

The teachers created conditions for reading and then got out of the way. Creating the conditions was a little harder for the students in this study than it might have been for kids growing up in book-rich homes or homes where all the family members were native speakers of English, but getting out of the way seems to have made a big difference in how the students thought about reading.

People who read for pleasure want to experience what I think of as the continuous waking dream of fiction. That’s what John Gardner calls it in his classic handbook, The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, so that’s how I’ve been naming it in my head since I was, well, a young writer. Gallagher favors the term flow state, which was coined by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. (The spelling of that name may be enough to disrupt your reading flow all by itself. Certainly, it used to be for me. Here’s a five-second YouTube video with the surprisingly simple correct pronunciation of his name.) You read for pleasure, or you wouldn’t be here–you don’t need me to tell you what reading flow is like. It’s probably not news that some students arrive at high school without ever having experienced it. It may be news, though, that their teachers’ ardent efforts to help them improve as readers are high on the list of reasons they haven’t.

Consider Gallagher’s description of his school district’s teaching guide for To Kill a Mockingbird:

This study unit, a guide to teaching Harper Lee’s classic novel, contains overarching questions, chapter study questions, essay questions, vocabulary lessons, activities for specific chapters, guided reading lessons, directions for setting up a writer’s notebook, literary analysis questions, collaborative activities, oral presentations, handouts, transparencies, displays, quizzes, and projects. It also comes with an almost incomprehensible unit guide. This guide is 122 pages long — almost half the length of the actual novel!

Opening this guide, you will find a step-by-step approach for teaching the novel. It includes twenty detailed lessons — twenty ways to slice up the novel. Embedded in these twenty lessons are a bombardment of “goals” and “habits of thinking”…. Individually, each of the “goals” and “habits of thinking” is worthwhile. Collectively, however, they create a tsunami that drowns adolescent readers. This curricular guide, as thorough as it is, suffers from what I call the All Things in All Books syndrome — the attempt to use  one novel to pound dozens of different standards into the heads of our students.

I hadn’t put my finger on it, but that’s just what my own students suffered from when I helped them slog through the study guides their teachers had given them for midterms. Where I would have chosen a maximum of three big things to focus on in each book — and with a versatile enough book, it hardly matters which three big things you choose — the high school and junior high school teachers in my neck of the woods were packing skills into every single book as if it were the last one the students would ever read. And each one might be the last, considering that, as Gallagher puts it, “Students who never experience flow are students who will never become readers,” and “no student ever achieved reading flow from placing a blizzard of sticky notes in a book.”

Just as I was patting myself on the back for not overteaching, I recognized myself in Gallagher’s next chapter, on the hazards of underteaching. I know how to get out of my students’ way, but I sometimes miss the signs that my students have lost their way entirely. Getting lost in a book that’s too far outside their Zone of Proximal Development is about as certain to prevent kids from entering a flow state as is a constant barrage of teacherly interruptions.

For me, the part of Readicide most likely to make me a better teacher is a list of strategies that skilled, experienced readers use when they come up against a passage they find difficult. Gallagher gave a group of adult readers a challenging text, and had them make a list of things they did when the text got tough. Here are some of the things they did:

  • Reread
  • Changed speeds
  • Skipped hard parts and returned to them later
  • Tracked with finger
  • Lived with ambiguity

The list goes on for nearly two pages, and in my life as a reader, these behaviors are so automaticized that I barely notice when I’m using them. For me, they’re inside the repertoire of things I can do while in a flow state. They hardly seem worth remarking on. What I didn’t realize is that, although my students have heard of most of these strategies, they often have no idea how to do them. Or if they do know how, they may not think to try any of the strategies unless prompted. They’re bright, hardworking kids, in families that value education, but most of them are not readers — that’s why their parents called me in the first place. I pride myself on helping my students build the foundational skills in grammar and vocabulary that their schools tried to skip over, but I was skipping over foundational skills in reading, and I had no idea I was doing it.

I may not be a readicidal maniac, but I seem to be an unindicted co-conspirator, or an accessory after the fact, or… okay, the analogy breaks down pretty messily, doesn’t it? I’m going to sentence myself to time served plus community service. I’m going to sit down with my students in front of that two page list and ask them better questions about what they can and can’t yet do while disappearing into a story.

Sarah Avery’s short story “The War of the Wheat Berry Year” appeared in the last print issue of Black Gate. A related novella, “The Imlen Bastard,” is slated to appear in BG‘s new online incarnation. Her contemporary fantasy novella collection, Tales from Rugosa Coven, follows the adventures of some very modern Pagans in a supernatural version of New Jersey even weirder than the one you think you know. You can keep up with her at her website, sarahavery.com, and follow her on Twitter.

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