When I was in middle and high school, I read books. Oh, some I read more carefully than others. But I read.
By the time I was in college, I discovered CliffsNotes. If memory serves, I didn't use them frequently; I don't think they existed for most of my assignments. I was a strong reader, and English was one of my favorite subjects. (Had they existed for math as they do now, I would have been all over them!)
By the time I started teaching, I realized that many of my students thought they didn't really need to read; the word was CliffsNotes were substituted whenever possible. We tried establishing department policies, stating Cliff's Notes or other summary/supplementary materials were not allowed. However, their use was difficult to track.
Still, kids had to get to a bookstore and then find the appropriate title (assuming it wasn't sold out), so I consoled myself, thinking at least SOME of them were actually reading and developing the deeper understanding I was after.
These days online and with our 1:1 laptop program, no barriers exist. And it's not just Cliff's stuff. Don't get All Quiet on the Western Front? Need an essay idea for Fahrenheit 451? Trying to find some quotes to analyze the theme in The Scarlet Letter?
It's all a few clicks away.
So what's a teacher to do? A friend of mine believes we need to use the substitute to show the value of the real thing:
If, as teachers, we think readers really are missing
something important when they substitute scanning the notes for reading
the book, shouldn't we consider teaching in ways that attempt to make
good on that claim?
…make the SparkNotes summaries assigned reading and assumed as a or the
source for basic information students are responsible to know
And then this powerful idea:
When papers are assigned, make it a preliminary assignment for them to
find and select an online paper – and give it a grade, along with a
comment explaining why they believe the paper they selected to be an A,
B, C or whatever paper.
Finally, he offers this:
Read passages in class with them, framing in-class reading and
discussion in ways that invite each of them to hear how uniquely
reading intrudes on their separate intelligences — and how pointless
substituting another's reading (including and especially their
teachers') for their own is…
I love his optimism that students who ARE reading won't accept the feeble substitute, and students who aren't YET reading, may use this for greater understanding and as a step toward finally reading on their own.
The idea of evaluating these online essays, too, takes the problem (a glut of ready-made essays) and makes it part of the process of learning: students must assess the quality, both in form and content, as they then write their own.
I am approaching our study of Antigone following his suggestions. We scanned Shmoop together, looking for key ideas and character descriptions. But we are reading the play aloud, pausing to let Creon's tone echo in the room, or Antigone's anger show us how a moral dilemma today is not so different.
One other technique I will "borrow" is from Academic Commons, a site I have recently discovered devoted to the sharing of ideas focused on liberal arts education. Sharona Levy, from Brooklyn College, writes in "Reading the Reader":
Reading is the active construction of meaning. Because there is no
inherent meaning in the words or marks themselves, meaning can only
arise at the nexus of what the reader brings to the text, the text, and
the situation within which the text is placed.
Critical Inquiry trains students “to regard reading as an activity that
requires multiple drafts in much the same way that they are trained to
write multiple drafts of an essay.” Critical Inquiry encourages
students to become active participants responsible for their own
learning. They ask questions, not answer them. By centering the class
on their experiences of the text, the underlying premise is that they
belong in the academy, not outside of it.
Her explanation of using digital tools to gain an understanding of the text and the visual examples on the site have inspired me to try this with the play. We will copy the online translation we are using into MS Word and use the commenting feature to ask key questions.
Levy ends her piece with this: "The reason I teach my students the importance of annotating and
questioning the text is because it is the only way for them to meet the
author on a level playing field and make the text their own."
I'm looking forward to seeing what my students do with this.