A week or two ago found me musing on my role in relation to my 6th grader’s classics reading list. I realized after writing the post that I failed to note the role of that list: a literature component in history, but neither the spine of her history study, nor the sole reading she does. I also realized that I actually have some established opinions on how I approach my role already, based on my years of teaching college English and my personal convictions about the value of reading in general.
There is a push in the public schools for students to read more nonfiction — up to 50% of their assigned reading in the middle grades, according to a middle school teacher friend. I’m not sure what I think about this. Probably for many, school is the only time in their lives that they read in genres other than nonfiction. I checked out the latest Pew Research Report but didn’t find any genre breakdown of people’s reading. But I know that the patience and deep thought required to read even one book cover-to-cover are in increasingly short supply. Part of the reason this is so sad is that the process of discerning meaning in the events of our own lives is largely a process of story creation, and surely literacy in stories better equips us for this. (I wonder if it’s too much to say that it helps to humanize us, as I touch on here.) I think of that phrase I mused on awhile back: we are a “culture of narrative deprivation.”
My daughters get a lot of nonfiction already, actually, though I have never calculated percentages. Nonfiction constitutes the spine of our history and science study, and they read a variety of nonfictional texts in their areas of interest and hobbies as well. In the rhetoric phase of the trivium they will be entering the great conversation themselves, formulating their own informed opinions and arguments. These years in the grammar and logic stages are about accumulating information and beginning to question and analyze. They read poetry and fiction as well, and I read to them consistently.
Overall they’ve built up a certain reading momentum that carries them through the more challenging fare. I discuss their reading with them to make sure they’re understanding it. It’s easy and natural for such discussions to lead into theme and historical context, and comparisons between works based on similar themes or organizing devices. But it happens pretty naturally because of my background and interests, and really it’s not my main focus at this point.
I have a real hesitation about injecting too much instruction and analysis into my daughters’ reading right now, and when I reread The Well-Trained Mind this confirms my instincts. But mostly it’s my experience as a teacher that influences me. Part of my rationale for staying out of the way is to allow them to feel confused, and to recognize confusion as the starting point of understanding; they have to develop their own toolbox of strategies for figuring out meaning. I can help them when needed, but not until then. One reader sent me a link to this interesting article about finding the right balance between directive and non-directive instruction. It would never be my intent to simply leave students totally adrift on their own, but my natural tendency is to let them work independently for awhile whenever possible before intervening, so that any instruction from me will have a landing place.
My experience in the college classroom comes into all this in two ways. As a graduate student teaching freshman writing, I had to be observed from time to time by senior faculty members. This was always scary of course, but I got some fabulous feedback through this process. The first time I was observed, the faculty member pointed out that I was doing too much of the work. My ideas were good, but the students were very passive. Better to structure things so that the students were arriving at some of these ideas themselves. It was wonderful advice, and I take it to heart as much with my own daughters as I did in the classroom.
The second aspect of my experience that informs me is my memory of some of the basic comprehension problems students had with reading. My college students often didn’t understand what they’d read, whether it was a contemporary essay or an American novel or The Odyssey, and they had no strategies for dealing with it. Was this because they’d had too little instruction — or too much? My guess is the latter. Most of them had a well-developed idea of literature as something they could access only through a mediator; it involved a privileged set of codes and discourse that only the specialist could understand. We had to spend a lot of class time just explaining the basic content they had read. In this sense my daughters are already ahead of them. It was very difficult to overcome college students’ notion of books as specialist territory by that stage in their educational lives. I don’t think you can begin too early when it comes to encouraging them to claim their own ground as readers — or as literary explorers, to stick with my metaphor. There are always new terrains to be discovered, and sometimes they will need a map or a guide, but they won’t get completely lost as long as they don’t lose their own internal sense of direction.
In my family as I was growing up, we would travel from time to time, and my mother would be in the front seat as the navigator while my father drove. She would figure out the route according to the map, and if we found ourselves in the midst of a busy city or a detour, the tension level in the car would rise dramatically. My parents wouldn’t trust the road signs; they trusted the map. My husband, on the other hand, never gets stressed when we get lost. He goes with his intuitive sense of where we are; instead of going back to the wrong turn (as I would do), he figures out a way back on track while still moving forward. On the whole it’s a much less intense and rattling experience to get lost because his orientation isn’t limited to the map. I like to think that my daughters will have an analogous experience in the various kinds of texts they encounter throughout their lives because they are developing a sense of internal orientation in the written word now, in their early years.
I hesitate to post this because I’m not interested in arguing for my point of view — only exploring and clarifying it, for myself as well as anyone who might read this. In this area of working with books and reading, I feel like we are on a right track. But it’s a pretty complex process to train young minds, one that includes variables of temperament and experience and the relationship between teacher and student. What works for one person might not work as well for someone else. The goal is to produce literate people — people who know how to grapple with new knowledge and learn. Surely there are many ways to approach this goal.