In 2007, Americans read less frequently and more poorly than they had in the previous decades, according to a comprehensive analysis by the National Endowment for the Arts.
While a follow-up study in 2009 reported an encouraging rise in the number of adults reading any novels, short stories, poetry, or plays in a 12-month period, it offered no encouraging news on comprehension and made no apologies for how the bar hadn't only been lowered but essentially dropped.
I want to believe we high school English teachers are the thin blue line checking this trend. But I can't help considering the possibility we may be contributing to it -- not individually, but because of the way school compels us to operate.
Reading a book or story or poem or play on one's own is a peculiarly individual experience. No other medium comes to mind so absent of social or communal qualities, and considering the collective genius currently available in books on every imaginable subject, I've often speculated that the modern classroom's entire reason for being is to translate individual learning experience into social consensus or application.
Otherwise, we'd simply prime our students' pumps with literacy and let them loose in well-stocked libraries and bookstores.
Most individual experiences in reading work this way. The choice of a book reflects its availability and the reader's curiosity. I had many reasons for reading the books I did in the last six months: half were recommended, subjects caught my interest, I enjoyed the author's other work, or I simply indulged in books I've read before like Don DeLillo's White Noise, a belated 50th birthday present to myself.
I include my dog-eared copy of The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart that I rarely go more than two weeks without spending at least 30 quality minutes reading, because really, I couldn't possibly read poetry the same way I read a book . When reading on my own, I determine when, how often, and how much to read, so these days when I pick up this poetry anthology, I open and read eight to ten at random.
Best of all, when reading solo, I control how much of the experience -- if any -- to share with others. While I readily search out fellow readers of Blindness, by Jose Saramago, or recommend it to others, I don't talk about that long summer afternoon spent reading Gideon Defoe's The Pirates! In an Adventure with Communists. Not even with my pirate-obsessed students.
Reading a book in the high school classroom is different in all of these ways.
Even for habitual readers the book isn't likely one they'd pick up on their own. My 9th grade novel list includes To Kill a Mockingbird, The Chocolate War, Of Mice and Men, Night, House on Mango Street, and Romeo and Juliet, a very standard list for 9th graders across the country. None of these books are by Stephanie Meyer, Nicholas Sparks, Suzanne Collins, or Rick Riordan, names you may be unfamiliar with, but mention them to teens who read or high school librarians and they can bring you up to speed.
Also, tests, quizzes, and activities impose deadlines on readers as exacting as a quota system. Teaching Melville's Moby Dick to 11th grade Advanced Placement students often feels like leading a mad, meandering hunt for an elusive, ambiguous something, but my inner Starbuck tirelessly reminds me that I'm employed to "teach students how to critically read and respond to a sophisticated novel" by instructing them on "applying literary elements . . . thinking critically about an author's use of language, style, and perspective . . . and connecting the . . .novel to other texts and situations to express insight."
If anyone out there has these goals in mind when reading outside of school, would you please raise your hand?
On top of being scheduled, readers in the classroom are compelled to share their reading experiences as part of the learning process. If they don't grab the opportunity to do so in tightly controlled "class" discussions usually dominated by a half-dozen confident voices, there's always a final essay of some sort.
Considering how wide the differences between reading on one's own and reading in a class are, I'm interested in how educators might take some aspects from the former to let high school students read just to read and still not only foster literacy but stimulate interest in literature.