How much are they getting……..

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?

He suggests:

…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.

8 thoughts on “How much are they getting……..

  1. As mentioned, students will always read CliffNotes or some variation at some point in their life and to assume they wont is somewhat silly. It was always my impression that it was acceptable to read them after reading the assigned text. Part of what stems the use of CliffNotes is that sometimes you dont understand the text even when you have read it and then it leaves you discourages and at a disadvantage to someone who just read the CliffNotes of it. I remember 8th grade the readings were Fahrenheit 451 and A Tale of Two Cities. Firstly, Fahrenheit 451 is a great book but Im not sure a 8th grader fully understands some of the importance of the novel. Anyways, reading Dickens for me was a pain and I cant imagine to many people read it at that age and understood all of what was happening throughout the novel. Lastly, quiz questions on reading such as “how many camels were in the caravan?” arent exactly encouraging readers to think deeply about the text but rather reading the novel to regurgitate random facts from the assigned reading. Lastly, when we read The Importance of Being Earnest we had a Word file as you described that we commented on and I recall it working nicely.

  2. I agree those random questions about plot are frustrating and don’t measure any understanding. My quest has always been for students to see the big picture. I disagree that the books you mentioned are too difficult, though. They are two of my favorite novels and say much about our world today. Do you think the way in which books are taught can yield a different attitude toward them? I wish you had been in my eighth grade class:)
    We will be tackling The Importance of Being Earnest this year. What do you remember taking from it? Do you think having laptops and access to technology made a difference for you from 8th to 9th grade? Just curious!
    Thanks so much for your thoughts, Chris. I really enjoy chatting with you again this year. I hope college is everything you hoped it would be.

  3. It could also be that my lack of understanding was due to the fact that I had a new teacher who didnt know how best to teach the novel to the class. So maybe with another teacher my and my classmates understanding of the novel would have been better. There are some books which have to be read no matter how much you dont want to read them. Examples: 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, The Giver.
    All I remember from the importance of being earnest is that the title is a play on words (being earnest and being Earnest(the guy)) and that we watched the movie and drank tea is class once. Other than that I cant remember anything about the play.

  4. I always read the Cliff Notes first and then the real book. That way I understood the plot and characters before I read it so I could concentrate on the more important stuff. I was never a strong English student, though, and once I got to college most of my reading was in French…no cliff notes.

  5. Susan,
    Your idea of how to use the commenting feature will lead right into the annotating work for _The Importance of Being Earnest_ tha Chris mentions. I am impressed he remembers it — that says something about the assignment. [and yes, we did have a tea party too :)] The whole idea if finding the power in rereading just like drafting an essay is great. This does not have to be with the whole book of course (that would kill anything), but moments in texts are worth this examination.

  6. I really like the ideas expressed in the above post. Trying to ban students from using the aids is time consuming to followup and check, and is not always successful. I really like the idea of saying “go ahead read them and then tell me how you assess their quality”.
    I know that many students think they don’t have to read the books if there are aids and many have been turned off reading by the types of assessment they have done in the past. Some students have said to me that they really liked the book when they first read it but then they had to study it in class and now …. well they didn’t like it anymore. It seems many of the old ways of remembering “quiz-type” questions and endless questions directed by the teacher, often with “right” answers expected, has lead to students feeling as though they do not own their learning and that they may as well just get it over with, using whatever tools that will be the most painless.
    When the students are allowed/encouraged to bring their own perspectives to the stories in these novels, I find that many actually enjoy the experience. When they are encouraged to respond to their reading in a variety of ways, with a variety of tools, they have shown that they certainly have a lot of ideas and are keen to express and discuss them.

  7. Yes, I was thinking the same thing. I really like her description of the questions, too. Some students did better than others, but it is a technique I will use again.

  8. I agree Rhondda. The variety certainly asks them to think about their reading in ways they might not have tried. I know most of mine say they don’t like to read, especially anything I assign. But I was delighted to see some of their responses. One boy wrote, “Creon, your ego is getting to you” in the comments. And for many, the shmoop site gave them just what they needed to really understand it. Now on to the comparison-contrast paper!

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