Note: This post has been cross-blogged on the author’s blog www.failsafely.com.
All English teachers are familiar with that gnawing feeling: the paranoid scan of an essay, the neurotic parsing of a student’s response, the subsequent guilt for even daring the thought…this is good, you reflect, perhaps too good. The creeping suspicion of Fake Reading.
My brilliant professional colleague Gerard Dawson writes eloquently on this issue on his own blog gerarddawson.org, specifically in his OED-esque breakdown of the term, in which he writes that it is primarily defined as “[a] student’s process of completing required assignments, including quizzes, essays, discussions, and other activities, in order to achieve a passing grade but without reading a required text.”
His full post is an engaging, and harrowing, primer on the condition as it exists today, and I encourage all to read (print, laminate, etch in granite, etc.) his full overview. My post today seeks to build on his work and pick up where it leaves off: namely, by presenting a structural framework of philosophy, application, and assessment to not only hinder Fake Reading but hopefully, silence its seductive call altogether.
We must first, unfortunately, accept an inconvenient truth: the vast majority of our students are either
- not comprehending what they’re reading, or
- not reading, period.
Heresy? Blasphemy? Inconceivable, you say?
Consider this: If we define reading, let alone academic reading, as the ability to process text and absorb its meaning, and we acknowledge, culturally, scientifically, and anecdotally, that students consistently struggle with this skill, this truth becomes more apparent. How, then, are they so thoroughly able to demonstrate plot understanding, thematic analysis, and character deconstruction in writing and speech?
Dawson again touches on this in his post, but to me, this bears elaboration here: although we may know this personally, our reading instructional model still prioritizes recognition and analysis of the “Important Parts” of fiction: mostly plot, characterization, theme, and setting. Furthermore, the slow-turning wheel of text approval in school districts and a reluctance to move away from touchstone novels reinforces the free-market need for a way to circumvent the actual heavy lifting of reading a whole book. Enter SparkNotes and Shmoop, and their less-savory cousins GradeSaver, eNotes, and others.
This is not to say that these sources cannot provide helpful tools and information; in fact, I recently leaned heavily on Shmoop’s line-by-line breakdown of Robert Burns’ “To a Mouse,” prior to a class discussion, but our students, by and large, are not using these sources as confirmation, or counterpoint, but rather as a convenient replacement for reading.
To put this in terms that speak more closely to my heart: we want students to make a pizza from scratch, yet our assessments ask students to simply hand us a pizza; they then call Domino’s. Admittedly, sometimes, we go somewhat further and ask them to tell us how the pizza was made, but that can be done without the student having rolled out the dough in the first place. (See?) Ultimately, the process is assumed instead of demonstrated, and the product is taken as proof of the process.
Honestly, can we really blame them? Our students experience more stress today than 1950s child psychiatric patients, have more access to digital resources than at any time in human history, and are presently caught in the ideological/political/cultural tug-of-war regarding homework, sacrificing sleep in the process. They simply and deftly adapt using a basic cost/benefit equation: if they can get the grade they want without having to commit hours to actually reading the book, freeing up valuable time to study for their other classes in the process, why wouldn’t they?
We as English educators frequently fall victim to the biased view that, if given an interesting enough text, students will abandon past unscrupulous practices and dive headlong into a world of magic and discovery. This is well-intentioned, but ultimately self-defeating, as it can unintentionally encourage further text avoidance and instill overconfidence in a teaching approach that still prioritizes “Googleable” analysis.
The sad truth is this: we have inherited a transactional culture of education; our students respond accordingly. It’s not that they don’t want to read, in an objective sense, or that they don’t see the inherent value of texts, but rather that when push comes to shove, Fake Reading negatively affects their grade less than faking required assignments in other courses, and in many cases, doesn’t hurt them, gradewise, at all. If we don’t address the structural components of instruction and assessment that allow, albeit tacitly, the circumventing of authentic reading, this trend will undoubtedly continue, and most likely increase, as resources become more thorough and ubiquitous.
To be fair, I have been, and most likely am still being, fooled by this approach. (To those brave enough, Google the name of a novel you presently teach and “analysis” or “themes” and see what comes up.) The remedy, as I see it, is to fully acknowledge that the emperor is naked and adjust our reading expectations to render these alternate strategies pointless before they’re even considered.
WHO IS AT RISK?
There are, in my mind, ultimately three categories into which students fall regarding reading: Fake Readers, School Readers, and Fluent Readers. Again, Dawson does an excellent job isolating some of the symptoms of Fake Reading, but in a nutshell:
- Fake Readers don’t read and rely on digital resources exclusively;
- School Readers scan the book in whole or part but rely on digital resources for assessments;
- Fluent Readers actively read the text while referencing digital resources to challenge or confirm their own analyses, if at all.
Based on my experience in the classroom, I would wager that the middle category of School Readers is the most substantial, and by a wide margin. Frankly, our students are situated in a culture that vehemently discourages “wrong answers”– why risk it on an organic, and potentially incorrect, analysis? As the great digital hero Link was famously, and repetitively, warned, “It’s dangerous to go alone!”
These categories are depressingly static if left unaddressed. The student who Fake Reads one book will fake read most, if not all, assigned texts, and we must face the stark realization that there are students who emerge from high school without having authentically read any texts.
THE FIRST STEP IS A DOOZY: MOVING AWAY FROM “TEACHING THE BOOK”
Admittedly, I believe this is the most difficult task facing any English teacher who hopes to destroy Fake Reading. Teaching “the whole book” just feels…right (right?) This is how many of us learned to structure units of study in our undergraduate and preparatory programs; this is how our mentor teachers masterfully demonstrated their craft; this is how Michelle Pfeiffer, Hilary Swank, and Cameron Diaz do it in the movie-versions of our jobs, which are, of course, strikingly accurate portrayals of a nuanced profession. How can you even teach literature, we reason, without teaching the book?
The reality, of course, is that in teaching the whole text, we are almost always emphasizing, consciously or not, values that correspond to Fake Reading approaches: forward progress is paramount (“get to page X, chapter Y, the end of the book by the last week of Z…”); independent, unsupervised reading is essential to cover all that ground; all students are prepared to read the same text; recall and analysis of conflict, theme, and characterization are the essential checkpoints of reading comprehension. Not to belabor the point, but these values can all be demonstrated and validated through the aforementioned Fake Reading strategies, and students know it!
There is also a bit of ego-death associated with this transition away from assigning the whole text. There are certain books we love to teach, plain and simple. (If left to my baser instincts, I would go full Charlie Heston if someone tried to take The Stranger from me.) But this self-identification can often blind from concrete instructional problems. The more we love a certain text, the more likely we are to didactically expound on its brilliance to our students: we essentially become the SparkNotes ourselves. Why read the book, students rightfully wonder, if Morone is just going to tell us why Meursault represents the definition of the “Absurd rebel”? In fact, many of my students have resorted to simply shouting “existentialism!” when they run out of ideas, regardless of topic; in my weaker moments, it works.
Last year, I finally had enough with the whole-book approach charade my Freshmen students and I were acting out, wherein I ask them to read the 400-page To Kill A Mockingbird in May, knowing full well they struggled reading Of Mice and Men in February, simply because of a combination of “it’s on the curriculum” and “I mean, come on, it’s Mockingbird! They have to read Mockingbird!” To be blunt: assigning a book to check an “important” text off a hypothetical Literary Bucket List, or to avoid the wrath and scorn of Harold Bloom, is flawed practice, and I was guilty as sin; in doing so, we ironically create within our students a tortured or guilt-laden mental association with this book.
It should be noted that many of these students had acknowledged to me that they rarely, if ever, read required texts for class. One October exchange went like this:
Student: “Morone, don’t be mad, but I gotta tell you something.”
Me, panicked: “What’s up?”
Student: “I haven’t been doing my reading.”
Me, comparatively relieved: “Oh yeah? Well, we’ve only had one book so far, so there’s still time to…”
Student: “No, I mean, like, ever.”
Me and student, simultaneously: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
So, in the words of the 20th century progressive M.M. Elliott, I put the top down, flipped it, and reversed it. To destroy Fake Reading, I realized, I needed to transcend it.
- I lectured (yes, we are still legally allowed to do that in most states) to my students, telling them the entire plotline of the novel (formerly known as “the important stuff”) for about fifteen minutes, in what I called Verbal SparkNotes.
- We watched the entire gosh-darned, no-color-havin’, Gregory Peckin’ movie together. Again, I have yet to hand out a single copy of the book.
- I addressed any lingering questions that students still had regarding the story: its themes, characters, conflicts, etc. so we were all at a common level of understanding.
At this point, (if you haven’t already sharpened your pitchfork and doused your torch in kerosene,) you may be wondering how the students reacted to this shift. The best comparison I can make is the internal response I felt as a kid when my mom would surprise me and my brother by taking us for ice cream after school: an unsettling emotional fluctuation between I can’t believe we’re getting away with this! and What’s the catch?
- Finally, I handed out the books. My school’s edition of TKAM has 378 pages; I pulled up random.org’s random number generator. I plugged in the command for the site to generate 25 (number of students in my class) random numbers between 1 and 278.
- Once the numbers generated, I assigned each student one of the numbers: “Jimmy, you’re number 44; Sarah, 220; Michelle, 3…”
- Students were then told that they would start reading on the page that corresponded with their assigned number and read the following hundred pages. They were not to read for plot, themes, or any of the other familiar touchstones from their previous assignments. No, for this book, they were on the lookout for Beautiful Sentences.
- This, naturally, led to the crux of the assignment: What is a Beautiful Sentence? For this, I created a template identifying three core elements of sentence craft: Structure (how the sentence “looks” on the page), Content (what the sentence makes the reader think about or feel), and Musicality (how the sentence sounds when read aloud or “in the reader’s head).
- I modeled this approach using one of my favorite sentences: Ishmael’s reflection in chapter one of Moby-Dick.
and then showing what I notice when I focus on structure…
…and when I focus on musicality…
I found through this approach that my students were actually engaging with the text in a way I hadn’t seen when teaching the whole novel in a traditional manner. Students who typically resorted immediately to finding the “important stuff” online now moved slowly and carefully through their assigned pages, reflecting on sentences and critically assessing the beauty of others’ discoveries. Most surprisingly, though, was that several students asked me if they could read beyond their hundred pages, to which I of course assented.
Here are some of the sentences that my students singled out as beautiful, with excerpts from their analyses beneath each (To Kill a Mockingbird text in bold/quotes, student responses in italics):
“The feeling grew until the atmosphere in the courtroom was exactly the same as a cold February morning, when the mockingbirds were still, and the carpenters had stopped hammering on Miss Maudie’s new house, and every wood door in the neighborhood was shut as tight as the doors of Radley Place.”
You can picture what the character is talking about. You feel the still air and think of something that reminds you of this moment for the character. The sentence uses the “oo” sound to make the sentence more repetitive. The sentence looks smooth. There aren’t too many ups and downs with the letters which makes it look like it would flow.
“Our battles were epic and one-sided.”
Epic was a weird word choice because I feel like it only used for like monster trucks or a back flip.
“Giant monkey puzzle bushes bristled on each corner, and between them an iron hitching rail glistened under the street lights.”
This sentence is just a mosh pit of words, some that rhyme and some that don’t. Some that rhyme are “bristled” and “glistened.” The words in this sentence don’t flow very well but that makes it sound out of this world.
“That proves something- that a gang of wild animals can be stopped, simply because they’re still human.”
You hear the hope in the middle of the sentence with the words “can be stopped” The word can gives the reader hope that they have a chance to calm the mob down and stop the madness.
Finally, they created and shared a video in which they taught, John Green Crash Course-style, the sentence to their fellow Beautiful Sentence-lovers…
In anticipating the Fake Reading approach as the norm, rather than the exception, to student reading approaches, I essentially took away a weapon on which students had become overly reliant. Fake Reading, in its stark, Machiavellian efficiency, is sadly an approach that works for most English students; we must respond in turn to this strategy, rather than futilely persisting with an outdated methodology.
I encourage you to join me, and my like-minded colleagues, as we wage war on Fake
Reading. I (@MrMorone) will be hosting the June #CELchat on reading instructional strategies, both fake and authentic, on Wednesday, June 7. Additionally, I will be sharing, alongside the aforementioned Gerard Dawson, author of Hacking Literacy, at the 2017 NerdCampNJ at Chatham High School in Chatham, New Jersey on Saturday, May 20, which is being organized by fellow “CELmate” Oona Abrams. I hope to see you there.
Matthew Morone is an English teacher at Pascack Valley High School in Hillsdale, New Jersey where he currently teaches grade 10 and advises the school’s literature and arts magazine Outside/In. Since 2015 he has served as Member-at-Large and New jersey State Liaison for the Conference on English Leadership (CEL), and has been published in their English Leadership Quarterly. You can follow him on Twitter @MrMorone and email him here.