Tag Archives: reading

I Spit You Out Of My Mouth

21 Dec

Looking over what I’ve read this year, I realized there weren’t a lot of middling books. There were books I loved, books I hated, but rarely “okay.” Is that a reflection on the books I choose to read or me?

So I started looking through my list and seeing a lot of fives and ones. That seemed rather odd. While I’m scanning these books, a strange biblical quote came into my head.

So, because you are lukewarm–neither hot nor cold–I am about to spit you out of my mouth.

Revelation 3:16 (NIV)

Am I just naturally gravitating to the books that I find really good or really crappy? So my next thought was, “Maybe I’ve just read a lot of crappy books?” Ever since taking up the challenge of expanding my network, I’ve been asked to read other people’s work that I’ve met online, as well as read other independent authors to help the cause. A couple are amazing – Programmed to Serve by Jenna Ivey is an amazing erotica story – and that is REALLY not my favorite genre. But then there are books so awful, I didn’t want to even give their titles, lest karma comes back to curse my own books.

Then maybe I considered, “Perhaps my tastes have changed.” For example, I just finished reading Mamelukes by Jerry Pournelle… or actually written by his son and David Weber, but it was solid military sci-fi. However, I’ve read a lot of military sci-fi, so I know what I enjoy and what I don’t. So I treated it like popcorn, had fun, but wasn’t wowed by it. Similar was Pirates of the Milky Way by Jaxon Reed – solid, enjoyable sci-fi, but nothing that blew me away.

So because I’ve been jaded from reading so much, it’s easy to go from love or hate. The Emigrant by Leo Champion really surprised me on how good it was whereas The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams showed me what a travelogue pretending to be a novel looks like. And I’ve reread a lot of my favorite books, because sometimes you want something you know you’ll enjoy.

Have you found this in your own reading habits? Are you getting more intolerant of the same old, same old? Or is there a warm spot in your shelf for popcorn reading? Let me know in the comments below!

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!

Preserving the Canon

26 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: Why do you believe the existing canon is important for students today?

Matt: Why wouldn’t we want students to read the greatest books humanity has to offer? If I were to study painters of the Italian Renaissance, would I not study the works of da Vinci and Michelangelo? The same can be said about literature. When I teach American literature, I would be doing my students a disservice to not expose them to some of our most influential writers. The same writers, by the way, that our contemporary writers have all read. Additionally, classic texts teach universal truths, truths not defined by race or gender, but by human truths. They don’t reflect a particular ideology. They disrupt our own ideologies and nurture our own intellectual independence.

Marcus: What books are “canon” with the kids you work with?

Matt: I don’t teach every single one of these every year; some rotate in and out, depending on a few factors.

  • Freshmen: The Odyssey, To Kill a Mockingbird, Romeo and Juliet, A Raisin in the Sun
  • Sophomores: Chronicle of a Death Foretold, The Crucible, The Awakening, The Great Gatsby, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Scarlet Letter, Sula, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Fences, East of Eden
  • Juniors: Beowulf, Canterbury Tales, Macbeth, Pride and Prejudice, Lord of the Flies, Waiting for Godot
  • Seniors: Hamlet, Othello, Antigone, Oedipus Rex

It’s important to note, however, that I teach a number of newer titles that aren’t canonical. I’m not advocating that we teach only from the canon. What I typically do is pair texts together, usually an older text with a newer one.

Marcus: You reminded me – yes, we read To Kill a Mockingbird (great), The Crucible (eh), Beowulf (read later with a better translation), and Antigone (okay). From my perspective, I think that it’s often the language that throws me off. As I’ve mentioned before, I turned 180 on Homer once I found a better translation. I was able to read Sherlock Holmes as a teenager, but as I got older, I found I couldn’t read anything written before Hemingway. Nathanial Hawthorne, being a Romance / Victorian writer, uses a lot of phrasing which dates back to a time when people wanted more descriptive terminology… and now, not so much. The old joke that Dickens got paid by the word makes it difficult to wade through the verbiage to get to the story.

Matt: Language is most often the stumbling block with older texts. Knowing this, I generally approach these books differently. I’ll often start a book by reading it in class and discussing the language. Hearing me read the book is often a bridge to greater comprehension. I also share audiobooks with the students and encourage them to listen as they follow along with the text. And I assign fewer pages in a book I know is more complex.

Another stumbling block can be a lack of background knowledge. To give a specific example, when I teach Pride and Prejudice, I use the annotated edition by David M Shapard because it contextualizes a lot of elements foreign to a reader in 2020. Additionally, I work hard to make connections to their own lives. For instance, students often say that the rules that govern how people behaved in society are confusing and silly. So we talk about all the unwritten rules that govern interactions among teens, especially when there are romantic feelings involved. We’ve had some great conversations about how students “date” and promposals. Then they realize that we’re not all that different from the characters in the book.

We’ll finish our conversation with Matt tomorrow. Meanwhile, what do you think? Is Matt on the right track with his students? Or is he off base? Let us know in the comments below!

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