Monday, October 29, 2007

reading beyond the provincial

It happened again. Today at the end of class, Rebecca’s students finished discussing the last third of their book club books. As part of that discussion, Rebecca asked them to think about a couple of questions—what their overall impressions of the book were and how their own backgrounds might influence those impressions.

The first group who reported out to the rest of the class said that they uniformly did not like How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff. The book is told by 15-year-old Daisy whose mother has died and father has remarried. Because of Daisy’s intense anger toward her father and stepmother, she jumps at the chance to visit her cousins in England. A war breaks out after she arrives, and the children are left to fend for themselves when Daisy’s aunt, who is on business at the time, is unable to return home. The novel focuses on Daisy’s personal development and the relationships she experiences in the midst of their attempts to survive.

When Rebecca asked the group to explain why they disliked the book, one girl explained that they thought the book was dull because it went on for a very long time about things they couldn’t connect with. They saw the only point of the book as being about war and felt that they couldn’t relate to the book because, to paraphrase them, you can’t connect with war unless you’re a part of it. At this point, I rejected the urge to ask questions like: Are we in a war? Are any of your parents divorced? Have any of you ever wished that you could be in charge of your own life? Have any of you ever felt like you were falling in love?

Regardless of the connections I was able to make, these kids really disliked this book. One boy said that you should only read it if you have nothing else to do, but then went on to say that he wouldn’t read the book even if we were completely bored. Another girl from the group said others might want to read it for extra credit or for a grade but no other reason. They even seemed to object to the fact that the book was a fast, easy read (though the comments that followed actually suggested that some of them had difficulty with Rosoff’s stream-of-consciousness style).

Another book club who had read The Golden Compass volunteered to report out right after this group did. This book follows the twelve-year-old orphan Lyra through an England that is at once familiar and fantastical. Among other things, Lyra and her daemon (the animal-like companions connected to each character) run away from Oxford college where she has been raised, help to free children who have been kidnapped by the Gobblers, and outsmart an armored bear with the help of witches, another exiled bear, the cowboy-like Mr. Scoresby in his hot-air balloon, and the golden compass which only Lyra can read.

In contrast to the first group, the Golden Compass group unanimously gave the book a thumbs-up and recommended it especially to readers who like fantasy. When Rebecca asked them what they appreciated about the book, they said that they liked that it had lots of action and well-developed characters that they were able to connect with. One boy also mentioned that he was intrigued by the idea in the book that daemons were visible expressions of each character’s soul. Because I had been sitting near the group during their book club discussion, I also know that they connected to many, many other topics, ranging from organized religion to parallels to Nazi Germany to the Icarus myth to recent movies to the relationship between fate, free will, and foreknowledge as prompted by one girl’s discussion of quantum physics in her chemistry class.

As usual, I left class wondering what in the world just happened and about my and Rebecca’s recurrent question about why readers, and more specifically kids, read in the first place.

So beyond the no-accounting-for-taste notion, what to make of the differences in each group’s responses? If I weren’t acquainted with these kids and hadn’t been there, I’d be leaning toward one of these two reasons—it could be the kids OR it could be the books. I think both of these first-glance reasons are inadequate explanations, however.
In the first case, if I were tempted to think that one group was simply more capable of abstract thinking than the other, I’d need to recall that to a person, all the kids in the Golden Compass group made some pretty deep connections during their book club discussion. In the second case, I’m actually struck more by the similarities than the differences between the books. While The Golden Compass is certainly more plot-driven than How I Live Now, both books feature female adolescents (or almost-adolescents in Lyra’s case) of at least symbolic orphan status dealing with questions of good and evil, right and wrong. Both involve survival in the face of armed conflict. Both are even set in England for crying out loud.

I’ve also thought about the differences between the connections The Golden Compass kids made within their book club and those they reported out to the rest of the class. Perhaps they were simply crafting their review for an audience of peers (i.e., “This is what my classmates would want to know about this book”). Since I did not observe the How I Live Now group today, it’s possible that similar complex connections occurred during their book club that the kids didn’t note in their report out to the rest of the class. Rebecca and I have noted the primacy of the social in previous years when kids who have extraordinary in-book club discussions of serious issues gloss or avoid them altogether during final project presentations.

But another possibility is that kids aren’t always (are seldom?) aware of the multiple and wide-ranging connections they make during literary discussions. Because making connections is certainly a huge reason why people read, I believe it’s important that we help kids become aware of the more complex reasons they relate (or don’t relate) to books that extend far beyond “I liked it. I could relate to the main character. I didn’t like it. That character is nothing like me at all.” So one question I continue to have is how to help kids do this, especially in a book club setting where the teacher may or may not be standing by. And if the teacher is standing by, how much should s/he intervene? How much scaffolding is optimal during book clubs, and when does it become obtrusive?

As I said from the start of this post, though, today’s occurrence was a repeat. Last year, one group reading an historical fiction novel had had what Rebecca and I thought were in-depth discussions of it throughout their book clubs. Yet they reported during their final presentation that that they wouldn’t recommend the book because they couldn’t relate to it since it took place in another country and another time period. Since then, Rebecca and I have talked at length about how much our reading motivations differ from those of her students’. Both of us recall the excitement we felt at a very young age when we read books featuring characters, worlds, and circumstances very different from our own. In fact, though we probably weren’t always conscious of doing so, we now realize that we often sought out precisely those kinds of books in order to explore the unfamiliar. Little surprise probably that we both wound up as English teachers and that we still wonder why it hasn’t occurred to some (actually many) kids that part of the beauty of reading is moving beyond oneself to vicariously experience the world of another.

Yet we’ve observed that many kids continue to read or *stop* reading for solely provincial reasons—for the immediate pay-off (think points here) they will or will not have or the immediate connections they can or cannot make to a book. Presumably this would not be the case in a pre-AP class that kids have elected to take, but alas it seems to be so, and Rebecca and I think it’s gotten worse in recent years. I have lots of ideas why this is the case that I want to write about later, but for right now, I’ll just say that these include the reductive approaches to reading that have spun out of the era of standardized testing as well as the potential limitations of reading primarily through the lens of reader response.

How do we counteract this line of thinking? Without harping at kids so that all they hear is the wah-wah-wah of Charlie Brown’s teacher, how do we get them to try on other motivations for reading? What does it look like to help kids learn to and want to read beyond themselves?

My hunch is that one’s capacity for engaging in civil discourse is directly related to the ability to take an empathic stance from which to consider another’s circumstances and point of view. And though I’m not exactly sure what this looks like yet, I believe that helping them learn to read empathically is one way to get there.


Natalie said...

Oh my gosh - where to start! I have to say that you make it difficult to resond because there is sooooo much to respond to. My thoughts went at least four different directions as I read. Part of me wants to say that it doesn't seem to matter if the kids had connections to the book at a deeper level - if they didn't connect on an engagement level then the deeper issues didn't matter. And then I got to your last paragraph. If the idea is to use book groups to engage in civil discourse then it seems locigal that some prompting will be needed.

What I mean is, it seems like you're wanting kids to engage in a discussion at a new level and consider issues that are beyond their normal scope of thought. Perhaps teacher 'interference' is inevitable because you need to be teaching them how to do something unfamiliar.

It's not unreasonable for me to image that these students aren't looking at literature with insight to civil discourse because they don't know any better. They don't know that there is a different way to read a book than what they're used to doing. You're asking them to make unique and original connections - but they don't know that's what they're supposed to be doing.

Kind of like learning to use a new dishwasher. Perhaps you've only used the best dishwasher in the world. You know how to load it, put in the soap and turn it on. After it runs through the cycle the dishes are clean. That's your knowledge base. Then you move into your own apartment and you have a cheap dishwasher that you load, add soap and turn on. But when you open the door you find the pan with the baked on food isn't clean. Do you think - hmmm, what did I do wrong? No, you think, well this dishwasher sucks. If you were raised with a cheap dishwasher you know that you need to adjust what you do to insure the appliance does it's job. If no one tells you that you have to scrub pans with baked on food whose to blame?

Poor analogy, but all I could come up with on short notice. Seems like you might want to do some kind of instruction that alerts students to the idea that they need to bring something to the book. Like modern art, you can't understand it unless you're willing to put it in context.

Cindy O-A said...

Actually, Rebecca and I thought we'd done that, and we've built in quite a few tools along the way to remind them to think beyond themselves. What's interesting is that her next class seems to be "getting it" more as is Beth's class at Centennial. I know I have to keep reminding myself that these are 15 year old kids, but I also know that they are capable of doing this.

I think you're right, though. Some kids will get it better than other--that's just the nature of the beast--and their previous "dishwasher" experience.