Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Teaching Students That Reading Is a Form of Rebellion

As an English teacher, I’ve come to believe there are basically two types of kids who read in school:

  • The kid who “gets” and even likes school/the class. This student reads for school.
  • The kid who couldn’t care less about school/the class, but likes to read anyway. This student reads in spite of school.

School is generally geared toward the students who like school. That’s why they like it! But I’d like to think here about the second type of student—the one who reads in spite of school. 

Why do they do it?

If we can answer this question, maybe we can figure out how to encourage other students to read in spite of school too.

This is a goal that seems particularly relevant in the middle of a pandemic—in the middle of “The Zoom Era”—a time when our ability to monitor students’ reading is drastically reduced (and honestly, I’m glad it is—monitoring never seemed like a healthy synonym for teaching).

Unlike the students who read for school, those who read in spite of it do not seem motivated by an obvious external reward or punishment …

Unlike the students who read for school, those who read in spite of it do not seem motivated by an obvious external reward or punishment: a good grade, a prize in a class-wide competition, an approving word or look from the teacher; a poor grade, a last-place finish, a disapproving word or look from the teacher. 

That means they must get something from the reading experience itself:

  • To escape (this world, their lives, etc.).
  • To imagine (another world, another life, etc.).
  • To feel a full range of human emotions.
  • To empathize (this is the one teachers and librarians are best at talking about, I’ve found).
  • To feel like they’re doing a good, healthy thing (this is the one teachers and librarians best convey, whether they mean to or not).
  • To rebel.
  • To take risks

A lot of brilliant teachers have written articles and books about the first five bullet points. But I think the reader who reads in spite of school is most likely to be motivated by the last two bullet points.

Let’s look at them more closely.

Rebellion. Books, more than any other avenue I know, lead a reader to witness and confront ideas and behavior that challenge the norms of their actual community. To read, in other words, can be experienced as a revolutionary act of the mind and heart—but paradoxically, it’s also one that allows students (or any reader) to maintain one’s actual ties with their community. They can try out these ideas and actions without committing (to) them. (Incidentally, this “stabilizing revolt” paradox is actually good for both the reader and the community.)

Risk-taking. This is similar to rebellion, except in the way a reader experiences it. As I said, the rebellion that comes with reading actually feels safe—but risking something doesn’t. Which is what makes it so thrilling. Reading can feel as though you’re doing something illicit, and you might just get caught.   

So, what if we pitched reading with rebelling and risk-taking in mind?

So, what if we pitched reading with rebelling and risk-taking in mind?

We could teach students about the “1619 Project” and the controversy that surrounds it. “Why,” we could ask, “do some people want to keep you from reading this?”

Or we could teach about the anti-literacy laws of 18th and 19th century America. “Why did slave owners make laws forbidding African Americans from being taught to read? And—just as importantly—why did African Americans risk everything to learn to read anyway? Would you? If someone made a law against reading, would you break it?”

In the fall, we had Banned Books Week. What if we made every week Banned Books Week? What if our libraries had a section that was cordoned off like “adult movies” used to be at video rental stores? What if we pitched reading as something that had little to nothing to do with adult approval or points in a grade book?

What if every kid read in spite of school even as, paradox be damned, they read for it?

Patrick Hueller
Patrick Hueller is an author and high school English teacher. His most recent book is a dystopian novel for teens called "Read at Your Own Peril." The goal of the book is to practice what he preaches in this article: to make reading seem as thrilling and even dangerous as it really can be.

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