The Politics of Policing Reading in Secondary Schools

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On this week’s #CELchat, I mentioned one of the central pedagogical tensions in the schools I’ve taught in is how to hold students “accountable” for assigned readings, a job the mostly has fallen to some sort of assessment mechanism like a multiple choice or short answer reading quiz that measures recall of a text’s key details.   It’s difficult to eschew practices that are engrained part of a school’s culture, and my eventual unwillingness to engage in policing reading through pseudoassessments, which are more guessing games than anything else, has earned me some blank stares, dirty looks, and stern lectures over the years from colleagues, department chairs, and administrators. 

My opposition to these practices has two parts:

  1. Grades don’t motivate students who aren’t reading to start, and grades compel compliance-based reading for those who are engaging with class texts.  Signaling to students that the virtue of reading is about earning a number in a learning-management system creates an entrenched ideology that it’s a means to an end rather than an end in itself, which would send me to surfing to SparkNotes or Shmoop in a second.
  2. Assessments need to be about more than whether a student read the assignment, which opens up a host of questions about what students’ rights are with respect to turning away from a text, even one that was assigned.  My sense is that teachers take it personally that students don’t read, and, in my theory, why so many pseudoassessments are given: it’s a way to command authority and respect through rituals and practices.  The less students read, the more we double down on making sure they know they didn’t read, a move which rarely works.  Amy Hasinoff recently wrote about this control-seeking behavior and it negatively impact on our relationships with students.  It’s important to recognize that students may have a host of complicated reasons for not reading that have nothing to do with laziness, apathy, or disdain for a teacher.  A student should still be able to engage in and learn from class even without having read a whole assigned text closely (and, maybe, even at all).

These two beliefs open up interesting ideological and pedagogical questions about what we mean when we ask students to read and what the rights are of someone we’re willing to call a “reader.”

I had a conversation with a student during this past week, one the sixth day of class, who sheepishly confessed that she didn’t make it through one of the denser readings I assigned, and students were surprised when I asked them to get as far as they thought they could in another dense reading before coming to class to hash out what they learned.  In An Urgency of Teachers, Jesse Stommel writes: “I try to encourage students to be honest about how much they read, what the reading looks like, when they stop reading, when they start again.”  Indeed, we frequently assume that reading is a linear process with universal outcomes; the idea that everyone can and should be done with your assigned readings at the same time and obtain the same information is a problematic ask.  Rather than giving quizzes or bemoaning my students’ reading abilities in commiserative teacher talk, I like to engage students in a conversation about different types of reading strategies and their reading process: why they read a section closely, why a passage stood out to them, how they made meaning from what they did encounter, and some ways they might consider making meaning next time.  A significant part of education is learning about your own learning and understanding the processes you need to make critical encounters with texts.  Psuedoassessments to shame students into writing shut down these reflective conversations in which students and their teachers can imagine alternatives.  Discussions about assessment grades and points, whether their formative or summative, can tend to cloud these conversations with an unhelpful, unspoken subtext.

It’s also vital to consider as educators the compelling reasons that a student might look away from a text, as there are likely very good reasons we’ve done the same in our own reading lives: boredom, pain, we’ve gotten what we needed.  Abandonment, disengagement, skimming, scanning, and all of the other strategies are readerly choices or moves that deserve our consideration and, more importantly, the consideration of the readers themselves.  Put slightly differently, I’d rather have a student skim a text or stop halfway through than be completely apathetic to it.  Apathy represents a kind of intellectual nihilism, while other strategies represent a more active choice, a kind of important agency.  What matters is not whether students read in the way that we think they should; what matters is what they do in response to the reading.  What matters is what kind of reader they become, and becoming a reader requires space to make real-deal choices about not only what to read, but also how to read and how much to read of texts they encounter.  This isn’t disdain, disrespect, or disengagement, but, instead, it’s the opposite.  Later in An Urgency of Teachers, Stommel quotes Mark Sample: “what is broken is also twisted and beautiful.”  Breaking our deeply held notions of what it means to read or be a reader may make room for greater discovery even in the uncertainty of ceding control that we seek so desperately to regain through methods like pseudoassessment.  As Stommel writes, we need to find ways to have honest conversations around systemic and structural common sense that we refuse to replicate in our own classes.

I used to have language in my syllabus that mirrored my department’s culture that likened coming to class without having fully read as cheating and thievery; you’re riding the coattails of someone else’s work, which is a phrase I think I actually used.  These statements were definitely inequitable and probably caused some students to shut down entirely. Embarrassingly, I gave myself license to disengage from those who weren’t reading, and, in doing so, gave them reason to disengage from our community of learners.  This not only robbed them of significant learning opportunities, it also denied our classroom of their voices.  Stommel’s co-author in An Urgency of Teachers, Sean Michael Morris, cites Seymour Papert:

Almost all experiments in purporting to implement progressive education have been disappointing because they simply did not go far enough in making the student the subject of the process rather than the object.

Since ditching the mandates to police reading, I’ve been working on passage-based assessments that allow students to participate in our discussions and our learning no matter where they are on their journey through the text. The goal here isn’t to see whether students have read every page, but, instead, to see how they make meaning from texts using critical theories central to analysis. More plainly, it’s a whole lot more about skills than it is about individual texts, which is a move that has created, believe it or not, even more engaged readers than before. On these assessments, students are asked to closely read a passage, annotating it, and, then, they’re given an open-ended prompt that they use their annotations and close reading to compose.

We can’t be in the business of silencing students in our classes, especially those that our educational systems and its attendant values have harmed and hurt and who might be text-averse when they come to us because of the shame they’ve felt previously. Creating readers won’t happen with grades and threats—students, when push comes to shove, probably don’t care about pseudoassessments and their outcomes beyond the fleeting moments they took them. What they might care about is thinking about what it means to read and be a reader in a way that allows them to participate in class, be fairly assessed on their skills, and rethink reading and what it means to be a reader.

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