Getting Over the Hurdle

27 Oct

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation about blowing up the established reading canon. Matt Ryan disagreed with my guest, so I invited him to also talk. Matt is a high school English teacher from Massachusetts, as well as the host of #CanonChat on Twitter. You can follow him at @MatRyanELATeach.

Marcus: How do you deal with students who have difficulty reading “canon books,” but have no trouble with other books? For example, my son (dyslexic and ADHD… whew, what a combo!) will devour Keeper of the Lost Cities and Harry Potter, but has to be forced to sit and read Fahrenheit 451.

Matt: I’d say that many students have trouble reading canonical books. This is where good teaching comes in. We need to provide background knowledge necessary for understanding some texts. We have to walk some students through the text, modeling how to read. If we simply place the books in the hands of students and instruct them to read, it’s no surprise they will resist. Another approach is to build up to classic texts. There’s a reason I teach The Scarlet Letter later in the school year. I build their skills and stamina before I expect them to read Hawthorne’s novel. Ultimately, to put it simply, it’s really hard work to teach some classic texts. 

Marcus: I think your phrasing that “modeling how to read” is really key. My wife struggled with teaching her college online course this year because although she had a great live-course modeling how helping her students learn how to write a proper research paper, this year it completely failed because the students didn’t bother actually reading / watching her lectures… oh, and ignoring her comments. So… more the fool them.

But I liked your phrase “Building up their skills and stamina.” It’s a good goal and I like that perspective of it. What are some of the tricks that you like using in your class?

Matt: The most significant decision I make is the ordering of the books I teach. I strategically begin with books that I know students will enjoy and will be easier to read. So in my American Lit course where I teach The Scarlet Letter and Huck Finn, I open with Station Eleven and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and some short stories. They learn that they can read book and they actually enjoy it. And then when it comes to the more challenging texts, I have buy in. Also, by pairing books, their themes help to illuminate each other. For instance, I pair The Scarlet Letter with a contemporary novel by Silas House called Southernmost. And I pair Octavia Butler’s Kindred with Huck Finn. By pairing books, suddenly these old classics seem fresh.

Marcus: Do you also encourage reading outside of class? How?

Matt: So this is the most controversial part of my teaching, although it really shouldn’t be. When teaching a novel, I give my students daily quizzes on their reading. The quizzes can’t be passed using summary sites because the questions focus on details; not obscure details, but points that would be remembered but are just not included in general summaries. These quizzes have completely transformed my classes. Students quickly learn that they can no longer get along fine with fake reading. Those who typically read continue to read, while the more reluctant readers start to see success. Then they realize that they actually like reading and class is much more exciting when they can actually participate in the discussion. The change has been remarkable. Students want to talk to me outside of the classroom about the books. They come into class asking to be quizzed. Students are vocal about their opinions of the book, both positive and negative. During class discussions, most of the students are engaged in the discussions. In short, the reading checks work. Yes, students will occasionally not read and score poorly on a quiz. But overwhelmingly, they are reading more than they ever had in school. At the end of the year, over and over again my students have shared how, by holding them accountable for their reading, I’ve helped them to rediscovered their love of reading. Compliance isn’t always a bad thing. 

So… what do you think? Is Matt on the right track? Or is his defense of the canon flawed? Let us know in the comments below!

3 Responses to “Getting Over the Hurdle”

  1. Stine Writing October 27, 2020 at 6:09 pm #

    When I was teaching high school english I used to teach with short stories. I found that some struggling readers see a novel as a never-ending chore. At least with a short story they get to read it to the end!

  2. Silk Cords October 28, 2020 at 12:34 am #

    He’s on the right track. I said in my last reply some stuff takes a good teacher to explain. Some of Shakespeare would darn near be R rated if you understood the dialog. I never had a clue until a high school English teacher “translated” some of it.

  3. Sheila Murrey October 28, 2020 at 7:15 am #

    “I’ve helped them to rediscovered their love of reading.” Can be changed to, “I’ve helped them rediscover their love of reading.” Love this! Especially the pairing of books and daily accountability quizzes. Beautiful. ❤️🦋🌀

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