The First Days of School: Then and Now

Today is the beginning of the new school year for me and my colleagues, and many of you will be getting back into the saddle in the next couple of weeks.  As I prepare, my thoughts have returned to three of my past posts that still seem timely.

The first is called “Mean ‘Til Hallowe’een: Classroom Discipline and the First Day of the Semester.” I wrote this in 2007 and return to it at the beginning of every term.  The question: does it help to be strict and unsmiling for the first few weeks?

Another is a commentary on one of my favourite books for educators: Harry and Rosemary Wong’s The First Days of School.  If you have a week or so before you start teaching, run out and get your hands on this book and read it before classes begin.  Even if you’ve already started, the book has many, many valuable insights about knowing yourself as a teacher and being the most effective teacher you can be.

Finally, I am returning to the teaching resolutions I made at the beginning of 2010, and I am renewing those resolutions for the coming semester.  Do you have resolutions for this school year?  I’d love to hear them.

Feel free to leave comments on the posts themselves, or to comment below.  You can also visit my Facebook Page, “Like” it, and leave your thoughts there!

Image by Simona Jakov

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What Swimming Taught Me About Teaching

It’s good for a teacher to be a student once in a while.

I learn this lesson over and over as I pursue my MEd.  I have encountered all sorts of challenges I’d forgotten about, like worrying about grades and managing my time in order to get readings done and papers written.  I’ve had to examine how my (sometimes less than courteous) behaviour toward my teachers has affected their feelings and feedback.  I’ve had to wrestle with approaches that I’ve found less than helpful.  All of this is good food for thought for any teacher.

However, sometimes I find myself in a context that gives me a whole new perspective on what my students are going through.  The kind of work I’m doing in my MEd comes pretty easily to me.  I like reading, writing, doing research, participating in class discussions.  I know how to form a sentence, construct an argument, interpret a research paper.  When these tasks are challenging, I still have a strong sense of self-efficacy.  It is more interesting to observe myself when I am struggling with a task that I don’t do well.

Billie Hara, over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, has written a revealing summary of what it’s like to be an overweight, middle-aged gym neophyte and receive inconsiderate, condescending and careless training.  I loved reading this article because it says so much about effective and non-effective teaching.  The teacher-as-student can make excellent use of discouraging learning experiences, and Hara has done just that.  In her article, she lists some questions that her experience has raised for her regarding her own teaching:

Have you ever:

  • Made incorrect and negative assumptions about why a student was in your class and that student’s ability to perform the work, assumptions based on gender, race, class, age, or physical ability?
  • Told a student that she wasn’t prepared to do more even if she had the motivation and skills to do so?
  • Simplified instructions to a procedure (theory or concept) to such a degree that a five-year old would understand it (and your student was an adult)?
  • Assumed that students want to be like you (because, you know, you are so amazingly awesome)?
  • Told a student that other calls (other students, other work) were more important than working with him right at that moment?
  • Cut a short appointment even shorter because a student was late and you were insulted?
  • Used terms and concepts that were above a student’s level of understanding, without asking the student if she understood?

This summer, I have been taking swimming lessons.  To give some context: I can swim.  Sort of.  I love being in the water.  I took swimming lessons as a child – I failed my beginner’s class three times, but finally managed to scrape through and do a survival class in which I learned how to tread water, float, etc.  I took adult swimming lessons about ten years ago and discovered (or perhaps just reaffirmed) one of my  most serious limitations: I am so uncoordinated that I have often suspected that I suffer from mild autism.  (This is no joke – there are other indicators.)  Just walking around in the world is a constant gamble for me; doing one thing with my arms and another with my legs while suspended in liquid is totally baffling.  What is more, I recently lost a great deal of weight, and learned for the first time why most people find swimming to be an excellent workout: most people don’t float like corks the moment they enter the water.

So it wasn’t a total surprise to me to discover that, in my intermediate class of seven, I was at the absolute bottom in terms of ability.  I was so much less advanced than the others that during each class, one of the two teachers took me aside to work with me privately.  Both teachers were very sweet young people.  They were in their late teens/early twenties, and were doing their best to be encouraging and helpful.

One did a pretty good job of it.  He worked with me for only one class and focused on one thing at a time.  We started with my shoulder rotation, and once he felt I’d gotten the hang of that, he got me to extend the motion to my elbows and hands.  However, I found myself unable to grasp one of the instructions he was giving me, and when I tried to explain my difficulty, he seemed bewildered and slightly impatient.  I never was able to figure out exactly what he meant for me to do.

I worked more frequently with another teacher whose approach was to get me to swim back and forth and to explain to me, at the end of each length, one thing I needed to work on.  This would have been fine, except that my problems were so myriad that the moment I corrected one thing, another problem arose, until her corrections were so overwhelming that I finally lost my cool.  “I know it was worse this time,” I explained, “because I’m trying to remember all the things you’ve told me up to now and incorporate this new thing you’re telling me and I’m still having trouble moving my arms and legs at the same time!”  Her face went a little blank, and she nodded sheepishly, and I felt slightly ashamed.  She was so young, and she was clearly doing her best.  But at the end of the next length, she said, “I see what you’re saying – I’m giving you too much to think about at once, and I can see you’re trying hard to use my suggestions.  Let’s just work on your breathing for the rest of the class.”

This really impressed me.  Do I have that kind of humility? I wondered.  If a student gets angry at me because I’m not meeting her needs, do I listen and adjust, instead of dismissing her out of hand or telling her how she should approach her own learning?

This may be the principle I focus on this year: learning can be frustrating, and frustration interferes with learning.  If a teacher can acknowledge and adjust for frustration, a student can learn better.  In the meantime, I’m going to step away from swimming classes for a while and spend some time alone in the pool trying to assimilate what I’ve learned, about both swimming and teaching.  And if anyone can give me pointers about my shoulder rotation, I’m all ears.

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Image by Annika Vogt

The Five Best Podcasts in the World

Because I’m an English teacher, I rarely read anything I don’t have to.  During the semester, my novels collect dust on the coffee table, my Kindle lies abandoned in my schoolbag, and the weekend newspapers sit coiled uncomfortably in their rubber bands until I toss them in the recycling bin.  Once my final grading is done, it will be a week or so before I feel like reading anything for pleasure or even for edificiation.

I do, however, listen to things.  I listen to audiobooks – mostly popular social science stuff like Malcolm Gladwell or humour like Tina Fey’s memoir Bossypants, because in my experience, fiction doesn’t really work in audiobook form.  Mostly, though, I listen to podcasts.

Podcasts, and the iPod, have entirely transformed my life.  In retrospect, I’m not sure how I functioned in the years before the iPod.  I listen to podcasts on the metro, while I’m running, while I cook, while I do errands.  I am incapable of falling asleep anymore unless I’m listening to a human voice telling me things interesting enough to keep my brain from wandering to the stresses of the day.  The Husband refuses to talk me to sleep, so I depend on the podcasters of the world to fill that role.

Podcasts are doing more for me than preserving my sanity.  I find myself, more and more, quoting or paraphrasing things in my classroom that I have heard on a podcast, whether it concerns Daniel Gilbert discussing the complexities of human happiness or Jonathan Schooler outlining the phenomenon of “verbal overshadowing.”  I ask my students to listen to podcasted stories in order to expand their understanding of narrative.  Podcasts have become another medium through which I can teach my students the skills and the content I think are important for them.

So in that vein, I present to you my five favourite podcasts.  No matter what you teach, these podcasts will enrich your life or, at the very least, help you forget your troubles long enough to fall asleep.

1. Radiolab

Radiolab is without question the best podcast in the whole world.  Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich take sometimes esoteric scientific and philosphical concepts and apply them to basic, concrete, everyday experiences so that anyone can understand and relate to them.  Stochasticity – randomness – is explained through such experiences as gambling addiction and eerie chance meetings.  We learn how hookworms can help cure allergies, how epilepsy can make you an ultra-runner, and whether it’s better for a cat to fall fifteen stories than two stories.  If you care about what makes us human and what our place is in the universe, this podcast is for you.

2. This American Life

Ira Glass’s iconic introductory line – “each week we choose a theme, and give you a series of stories on that theme” – doesn’t do this show justice.  This American Life is the current gold standard in radio storytelling.  David Sedaris, David Rakoff, Sarah Vowell and others all rose to fame on this show, and it ranges from the painfully intimate – stories about babysitting and breakups – to the personal side of global crises like the Iraq war and the economic crisis.  This American Life taught me to love radio as I hadn’t since childhood; before podcasts became a thing, I found countless excuses to get stuff done in my office so I could be near the computer and stream their show archive for hours on end.  Just go.  You’ll love it.

3. The Age of Persuasion

I may have a bit of a nationalist impulse to promote shows from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and certain great CBC shows, like the venerable As It Happens, may be of limited interest to non-Canadians.  The Age of Persuasion is not one of these shows; it is undeniably entertaining radio about the past and present of the advertising industry.  Terry O’Reilly tells us about advertisers’ invention of “The Happy Homemaker,” the rise of the “pitchman,” and the evolution of such phenomena as “luxury marketing.”  The archive at their webpage is limited, but if you subscribe through iTunes you can download most previous episodes.

4. Spark

Another CBC show that everyone should listen to.  Nora Young has the best voice in radio, and it doesn’t matter whether you really care about the world of technology – this show is about technology you DO care about, whether it’s using GPS tracking technology to deal with truancy or paying more because your online shopping history says you will.

5. NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour

This regular feature on NPR’s Culturetopia podcast is pure brainy brainlessness – a panel of brilliant cultural commentators who are clearly good friends and who sound a bit drunk (although apparently “the cocktails are fictional”), giddily recounting everything they love and hate about books, music, film, video games and so on.  Recurring segments include “What’s Making Us Happy This Week” (Albert Brooks on Twitter!  Clem Snide!)  and “The Regrettable Television Pop Quiz” (in which panelists try to guess the provenance of some truly horrendous TV audio clips).  Listen to this when you are tired and you’ll find yourself doubled over laughing, even if you’re on the bus at rush hour – the worried looks from strangers will be totally worth it.

Tell me your favourite podcasts – I can’t get enough.

Image by Magstefan

Top 10 Posts of 2010

For  your reading and catch-up pleasure, I have once again compiled a “year’s top posts” list.  These posts are “top” in that they got the most hits; in some cases this may have been because of timing, a well-chosen keyword, or fluke, but in some cases I think it’s because they truly were the best posts I wrote this year.  If you missed out on these, check them out – they all said something to someone!

1. Encountering the Other: How Literature Will Save the World

I was glad this post got so much traffic, because I really like it.  I return to it from time to time when I’m wondering what the hell I’m doing with my life.  In it, I ask myself once again why reading matters, and come to the conclusion – with the help of some of my students – that “literature is the best, and perhaps the only, way to understand what it is like to be someone other than myself.”

2. What an “8th Grade Education” Used to Mean

The text of this post – purported to be an 8th-grade final exam from 1895 – has been making the rounds of the internet for a couple of years now, and, as I note in the update to the post, it’s been more or less determined that it is an authentic test, but not for 8th-graders.  The most interesting part of the post may be the comments section, in which readers once again wax in all different directions about what “education” really means.

3. Why Study Literature?

The central question of this post is an extension of that of #1 above.  Reading books is all very well, but why should the study and analysis of literature be core curriculum in college?  (Spoiler for those who want to read my further posts on this subject: I’m not certain it should.)

4. What I’m Learning From What I’m Reading: Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind

Zadie Smith + David Foster Wallace = post that gets tons of hits.  Guaranteed formula.  The post itself is really just a DFW quote, but it’s a good one.

5. I Am Disappointment With You’re English Teaching

The story of Khawar, a difficult student who was probably suffering from an undiagnosed learning disability, got a lot of response.  Another post about him also ended up high in the rankings.  (Khawar ended up passing my course, which once again had me asking myself what I’m doing wrong in my grading schemes.)

6. Ten Wonderful Things, Part Four: Harry Potter

Another way to get lots of hits: put the words “Harry Potter” in your title.  Nevertheless, the “Ten Wonderful Things” posts in general pulled in a few new readers, and it felt good to write them.  If you’ve ever wondered whether it’s cool to put a children’s bestseller on a college course, this post will give you an emphatic “yes.”

7. It’s Funny Because It’s True

It doesn’t hurt to include a funny animated video in your post, especially if your audience is mostly teachers and the video is an enactment of everything you ever wanted to say to the boneheaded student spouting excuses across your desk.  Throw in a real-life story of infuriating misspelled emails and it’ll be a winner.

8. Ten Wonderful Things, Part Six: Rereading

I’m not sure why this post got so much attention, but one thing I’ve noticed is that writing about books usually gives the stat meter a little bump.  I’m glad this post got read, because it’s a concept that means a lot to me – one of the joys of teaching literature, I need to keep reminding myself, is getting to read my favourite books over and over.

9. Why Children Shouldn’t Read

No doubt the provocative title is what gave this post its currency.  Like #4 above, the post is composed mostly of one long quote, this one from Susan Juby’s memoir of teenage alcoholism, Nice Recovery.  The quote is great, and even those of us who didn’t start binge drinking at thirteen can probably relate to its description of what too much reading can do to one’s perception of oneself and the world.

10.  A World Without People

This was my favourite post of the year, so if it hadn’t made it into the top 10, I probably would have found a way to squeeze it in here somewhere.  In this story, I have a very, very bad day that ends up being one of the best days ever, and, along the way, I stop hating everyone.

There you have it, folks.  If you need to catch up on your Siobhan Curious reading, start here.  And have a super happy new year full of stories, questions, and challenges bravely met!

My Top 10 Books of 2010

I encourage you all to make your own lists, either in the comments below or on your own blog (please post the link in the comments) because of course I don’t already have enough unread books in my house.

Note: These books were not necessarily published in 2010, but they were part of my 2010 experience.

1. A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

I really don’t care about the ins and outs of the music industry, but this novel made me care.  It also made me believe that a PowerPoint presentation can be as poignant and funny as a short story.  Without question, the best book I read all year.  Down side: I’m not sure there’s any point in my writing fiction ever again.

2. The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

A bunch of people working at, or linked to, an English-language newspaper in Rome.  Similar in structure to Jennifer Egan’s book in that it seems at first to be a series of disconnected stories, but it’s not.  Even the characters who seem the least lovable are completely absorbing.  Also: funny.

3. The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine

I cried at the end of this one.  Works best if you have recently read or watched Sense and Sensibility, but I expect it would be a joy ride regardless.  Sent me running for Schine’s earlier works, none of which really did it for me, but I’m waiting on tenterhooks for her next one.

4. The Likeness by Tana French

I am not usually a mystery reader.  Exceptions include P. D. James and Kate Atkinson.  I am totally chuffed about finding Tana French.  I finished The Likeness just last night and, although it was well past my bedtime, I reread the last page four times because I didn’t want it to end.  In short: detective is called to the scene of a murder.  The victim looks exactly, but exactly, like her.  Beautiful, heart-gripping chaos ensues.  French has a new book out this year and it’s garnered her a lot of new attention – I wish I were one of the cool people who had discovered her earlier.

5. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Enough has been said about this book.  My two cents: believe the hype.  It’s that good.

6. One Day by David Nicholls

Follows a “couple” – they sleep together in college and remain friends – by dropping in on them on the same day every year.  Very funny, often painful, at times a bit lumpy but worth it.

7. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

This is a bit of a cheat – I listened to this on audiobook last year, but read it for the first time this summer so I could teach it.  One of the most enjoyable memoirs I’ve ever read – easy, funny, moving, perfect for the classroom.  Walls renders her horrifying childhood and her impossibly selfish parents without a drop of pathos or self-pity.  Hard to believe such terrible memories could have produced such a wonderful and touching romp.

8. Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum

Linked short-stories about a middle-school teacher.  I don’t know if I loved it because I’m a teacher, but it seems I’m not the only one – Jonathan Franzen and Michael Cunningham both give it raving blurbs.  I don’t read a lot of short-story collections these days, but this one feels almost like a novel, like a string of perfectly irregular jewels.

9. Y: The Last Man: Book 4 by Brian K. Vaughan et al.

I am a graphic novel lover.  I’m not so much into the post-apocalyptic sci-fi vein, but the Y: The Last Man series is my favorite graphic novel series ever.  A young man named Yorick, and his male monkey Ampersand, are the only male animals left on earth after a mysterious plague.  They set off to find Yorick’s girlfriend.  Problems: they don’t know where she is, and being a man in this manless world is … complicated.  Stephen King calls it “the best graphic novel I’ve ever read,” if that matters.

10. The Popularity Papers by Amy Ignatow

This beautiful little book, styled like a note/sketchbook, is aimed at tween girls, and I wish I’d read it when I was one, but it just came out this year.  Lydia and Julie are not popular, but they have a plan to become popular, and this book is an illustrated log of their progress.  As you can imagine, their plan takes unexpected turns and even puts their friendship in jeopardy.  The two girls are enchanting, the pictures are delicious, and reading it made for an afternoon that I would have very much appreciated when I was twelve years old and unhappy with who I was.  Give it to a girl you know; it might change her forever, but at the very least, she’ll have a good time.

What Does Learning Look Like?

My “personal narrative” class is going great.

We started by reading Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle, and they seemed to like it.  A lot.  Most of them did the reading and participated actively in the group work, and after a little talk to them about “what to do if you HAVEN’T done the reading and CAN’T participate in the group work,” they mostly seemed to take responsibility and work together well.  We looked at the elements of literary analysis, and for each class, each group was responsible for analyzing a different part of the memoir.  When they got to the first in-class assignment (wherein they analyzed an unseen text using the elements we’d discussed), almost everyone did a good job.

Now we’ve started the second unit.  They have each been assigned a memoir from a list of eight; I asked them to give me their top three choices from the list, and I tried to give them one of the books they chose.  They are working with others who have read the same book, preparing a “book talk.”  I have given them a list of ten possible “book talk” topics, including things like “important themes,” “historical, geographical and social context,” “what I loved about this book” and “what I learned from reading this book.”  To practice preparing and presenting, they had to choose one of the topics and present on The Glass Castle.  These practice orals were the best I’ve seen; with a few exceptions, they were thorough, engaging and on point.

Then I asked them to focus on their second book, to divvy up topics among their group members (each of the four or five group members should choose a different topic), and to each prepare a five-minute presentation on their topic (for a total of 20-25 minutes per group).  The overall thrust of the “book talk” is to convince others in the class to choose the book for their third reading.  (I am indebted to Nancie Atwell’s The Reading Zone for giving me the term “book talk” and for helping me as I constructed these assignments.)

After the “book talks,” students must write a report in which they tell me which book they’re going to choose from the list for their third reading, and why.  They must write a paragraph about each of the seven books they saw presented and explain why they did or did not choose each one.  In the end, each student must write a comparative literary analysis of his or her second and third readings.

They really seem to be having a good time.  In their group discussions today, as they chose their individual topics and structured their group presentations, their level of engagement was the highest I think I’ve ever seen in a literature class.  They were sparring, writing, drawing diagrams, asking questions of me and of each other.  They all wrote tons of stuff on their worksheets and took lots of notes for themselves before handing the worksheets into me.

But here’s my question.

What are they learning?

I chose these activities because I thought they would be engaging.  And there is method and motive to my madness, but I’m not sure I can trust it.  So I’d like to hear your thoughts on this.  What are my students learning from this process?  And is it valuable?  Is it what they should be learning in an English literature classroom?

Let me know what you think.

Image by Sergio Roberto Bichara

RIP Mister Cat

You may have wondered about my avatar.  You’re right: it’s not me.  It’s the delightful Mister Cat, who, unfortunately, left us last week for the kitty beyond.

He was an excellent, orange, fuzzy friend to all who knew him, and I wanted to pay tribute to him for serving as my blog face for the past three years.  Scott W. Gray of Fauna Corporation, who knew the Mister well, agreed to be guest obituarist.  Thank you, Mister Cat, for being such a paragon of catitude.

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In the middle of a typical Montreal winter, a soft, orange-furred guest editor joined the staff of the magazine I worked for.

He was a street cat we rescued from the – 40 degree maelstrom, and we named him Mister Cat. He had lousy teeth, was feline HIV-positive, and I was ultra-allergic to him, but he became a huge part of our office culture, keeping us sane and fur-coated during the many long nights we each put in publishing the mag.

I constantly learned things from The Mister. He taught me to try to be a little more gentle, more loving, more aware of others, as well as the importance of oral hygiene and how a striped tail goes with everything. Mister lived at the office, but we all took him home for extended weekends and he eventually moved in with magazine alumni when the magazine was shuttered, living out his final years in a most leisured, European-influenced way, suitable for a Montreal bachelor.

Ultimately, Mister was an unwell cat, and his health problems took him from us last week. We were all saddened to learn that our little friend, who wanted only companionship and an absurd amount of cat-grass, was no longer furring up this world.

Everyone who stopped by the magazine was touched by The Mister. He was gentle despite his origins, loving beyond his hardships and, like all good friends, he seemed to know when you needed a little extra affection or a gentle paw on the shoulder. He lives on in our memories, stories, and yes, our prop-comedy photography.

RIP Mister Cat.

Obituary and image by Scott W. Gray

Ten Wonderful Things, Part Eight: Blogging

The eighth of ten things I loved about this past term.

#8: Blogging

Some days, I teach because I blog.

When I began this blog in 2007, I was seriously considering giving up teaching.  It was just too hard.  Then Vila H. convinced me that I needed to start blogging about something.  Teaching is the only thing I know much about, so it seemed a natural fit.

It’s a bit odd that I didn’t realize, at the time, the potential blogging had for saving my sanity.  I kept compulsive handwritten journals from the age of nine until the age of twenty-five or so.  I stopped because all that writing gave me a repetitive stress injury in my writing arm, shoulder and neck that continues to plague me (it makes marking papers even more of a nightmare.) During that time, though, writing stuff down was my main method of dealing with the world.

Keeping a journal on the computer never felt the same to me, and although I took a couple of stabs at it, it never stuck.  This makes sense to me now.  The computer feels like a tool for communication; a notebook feels like a private box for private thoughts.

Although, for most of my writing career, I thought of myself as a fiction writer, my greatest writing joy came through writing letters.  And later, emails.  Long, rambling, cathartic emails.  At around the same time I was questioning my choice of a teaching career, I was also questioning my choice of genre as a writer.  Did I really care about fiction that much?  I didn’t even read a lot of novels any more.  (This is changing, but slowly.)

So I started blogging, and it made teaching so much better.

First off, when you’re a writer of any sort, everything becomes material.  No matter how impossible/irritating/terrifying the situation I’m dealing with, it’s something to write about.  I’m grateful for problems because they make good posts.   My struggles with Khawar and  the very bad day that turned unexpectedly good were not, on the whole, pleasant experiences, but writing about them was extremely enjoyable.

Secondly, blogging – unlike, say, working on a novel manuscript – comes with an audience.  Not only am I writing, but people are reading what I write, in some cases immediately after it’s written.  Ask anyone who’s been working on a book for a long time how valuable this is.

And not only do people read, they make comments!  Sometimes these comments come in the form of colleagues stopping me in the hall or friends messaging me on Facebook.  This is great.  But often, people leave comments right on the writing!  People read what I write, and then they want to talk about it.  They have things to say about my difficult experiences – sometimes very encouraging things, and almost always helpful things.  (Sometimes not. But hey, if people get mad, at least you’ve got their attention.)

This combination of writing and interaction is the sweet spot for me.  If I had to give it up, I’m not sure I’d have the mojo to keep teaching any more.  There’s no question: I take my bad teaching days to heart.  The blog turns them into something I can use, and share, and then they’re not so bad.  In fact, they’re precious.

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Things that are also wonderful:

#7: Looking Problems in the Eye

#6: Rereading

#5: Exceptions

#4: Harry Potter

#3: Early Mornings

#2: Incorrect First Impressions

#1: My IB Students

Image by Martin Boose

Ten Wonderful Things, Part Six: Rereading

The sixth of ten wonderful things about this semester.

#6: Rereading

One day my IB students and I were discussing how much they wished they had time to reread all the novels we were working on in order to more fully understand them.  I said, “If any of you are considering becoming an English teacher, I can tell you that this is one of its great joys.”  Then I paused.  “Well, sometimes it’s a joy.  Sometimes it’s tedious.  But when it’s a joy, it’s really a joy.”

This semester, I didn’t reread Franny and Zooey or Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, because I have read each of them about forty times and needed to invest my time in other things.  I did, however, reread each of the four books for my IB course: Talking it Over (Julian Barnes), Unless (Carol Shields), Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro) and Kitchen (Banana Yoshimoto).  Anticipating having to reread them felt like a chore, but once I began, I remembered what a pleasure rereading is, and how seldom I indulge in it.

When I was a child, I reread everything, usually twice.  I grew up in a small town with a small public library and an even smaller bookstore.  There was no Amazon; the closest we had were the Scholastic book flyers we received at school once a month or so, when I would order as many books as I was allowed and then devour them all in a matter of days.  So my reading choices were limited.  I had to reread.

What was more, because I read very, very fast, I missed a lot of stuff.  The second time I read a book, it was almost as new as it was on first reading.  When I came across a book in the library that I had first read, and liked,  a few months before, I felt a special kind of excitement: I knew I was in for a treat, but I wasn’t sure exactly what kind of treat it would be this time around.

Now I only reread books I have to teach, and I don’t anticipate them with that kind of excitement: reading for work, like reading for school, feels like, well, work.  Nevertheless, when I’m rereading a novel I love, I realize how lucky I am to do this job.  Reading Never Let Me Go for the third time made me particularly aware of how great I have it: I get to spend my time talking about books I love.  I get to introduce these books to people who might also love them.  But most of all, I get to read them and read them and read them again, and, if I get really tired of them, I get to pick something else to reread.

(If you haven’t read Never Let Me Go, please do.  If you have, please read it again.  It’s my favourite recent book right now, and it gets better every time.)

For the fall, I’m planning a list of eight memoirs for my students to choose their texts from, plus one full-class text (The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls).  This means I need to reread (or, in some cases, read) all of them.  Much of my summer will be taken up with this task.  It could be worse.

Are you a rereader?  What books do you reread?  Which ones would you like to reread but never get around to it?

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Previous wonderful things:

#5: Exceptions

#4: Harry Potter

#3: Early Mornings

#2: Incorrect First Impressions

#1: My IB Students

Image by Benjamin Earwicker: www.garrisonphoto.org/sxc

Ten Wonderful Things, Part Four: Harry Potter

The fourth of ten things I loved about teaching this past semester.

4. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about reading lately.

Since I began teaching CEGEP, I’ve become aware of a problem that directly influences everything I do (or, at least, it should) but I don’t know how to grapple with this problem.  The problem is that students don’t read books unless they’re required to read them for school.

This has become a little less true in the last couple of years, though, and I put it down to two things.

I would wager that this year, most of my female students had read the Twilight series.  I can’t count the number of times I was subjected to loud conversations outside my bathroom stall to the tune of, “Not Edward, I love Jacob!”  “No, Edward!  He’s sexy!”  “Jacob!”  “Edward!”  I could have assumed they were talking about the films, but I regularly saw the covers of Twilight installments sticking out of bookbags, and what’s more, it felt like I was seeing more other books sticking out of their bookbags as well.  Mostly vampire-themed romance novels, but still.

I believe that any book-reading is better than no book-reading, and I believe that students who read for pleasure have huge advantages over students who don’t. That said, I tried to read Twilight.  Or, rather, I tried listening to it as an audiobook.  About three chapters in, I was ready to puncture my eardrums to make it stop.

I shouldn’t assume that the book was wholly at fault – maybe reading the voice of the insipid narrator Bella would have been less irritating than hearing it.  But I was also offended and bored by the whole premise: girl with no discernible attractive qualities becomes the object of the obsessive desires of all the boys around her, including a vampire who is not a boy at all, but old enough to know much, much better.  Laura Miller of Salon has written and spoken about the problems with the messages that Twilight sends to teenage girls, and I agree with her.  Rescue fantasies are always troubling, I find, but it helps if the heroine is at least spunky, and Bella, at least in the first part of the first book, is about as spunky as low-sodium polenta.

Which brings me to what I believe is the second reason that these days, more of my students have read SOMETHING that wasn’t assigned by a teacher, and that reason is of course Harry Potter.

At the time when the Harry Potter books were really taking off, my students would have been around the age of the first book’s target audience.  A couple of years ago, when I asked classes if they’d read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone as kids, only a smattering of them raised their hands.  This semester, at least half of them did, and a good percentage of those said they’d read all or almost all the books in the series.  (The percentage who said they’d seen the movies but never read the books was about the same as it had ever been.)  Some of them had read the first book for school, but a lot had either read it on their own or, once they finished the assigned first book, went on to read the rest of the series of their own volition.

I assign it in my Child Studies course, where we first read Franny and Zooey.  They almost all hate F & Z, and they all, almost without exception it seems, love HP.  The reasons for this are a focus of discussion for much of the course; “What makes a book good?” is a running question from the beginning of the semester until the end, when they write a story themselves and evaluate it according to the criteria they come up with.

Harry Potter is special because they think it’s good, but it’s also special because I think it’s good.  It’s a good story.  It has lots of important messages about the value of courage and the danger of judging by appearances.  It has lovable characters, and most of the nasty characters are complex.  And it’s full of wonderful funny writing.  Assigning Twilight on a course would leave a bad taste in my mouth, but assigning Harry Potter doesn’t.  If they haven’t read it, they should.  If they have read it, they should read it again and think about why they love it so much.

What strikes me most about the Harry Potter lessons is the level of engagement in the discussions.  Students are almost never off-task.  No matter what question I ask them about the book, they have something to say about it.  They’ve DONE THE READING.  (If you aren’t an English teacher, you may not be aware of how significant this is.  It is VERY SIGNIFICANT.)  When I walk around and observe them, they hardly notice me, so absorbed are they in discussing whether Harry’s relationship with Draco Malfoy is more important than his relationship with Ron, or whether there is anything morally questionable about the role of witchcraft in the series.

Some would ask whether pleasure-reading should really be the focus of the college English classroom.  I would argue (and am hoping to soon write a literature review that argues) that it should be at least one of the foci, at least in the context that I teach in.  This might not have been true thirty years ago, when a large percentage of the students admitted to CEGEP already knew how to read for pleasure, and didn’t need to be given opportunities to discuss books they easily loved – they did that on their own time, as all “readers” do.  At that time, it made sense to introduce students to books they might not come to on their own, and to challenge them to find value in works they didn’t particularly like.*

I think it’s still important to do this (and when we work on Franny and Zooey, finding value in the difficult is the main thrust of our work.)  However, I think we also need to acknowledge that for many students, the only books they ever read are the ones they read for English class.  If they haven’t learned how to love books, English class might be the only place they can learn that, the only place where they have natural, invested discussions about books the way “readers” do, the only place they get to practice the skill of being a “reader.”

And if Harry Potter is the only book, or set of books, they’ve ever loved, then it might be a good idea to pause and look at it deeply and think about that experience: the experience of loving a book.

I try to mix up my assigned texts, mostly to avoid semester-to-semester plagiarism, so I’m trying to find a replacement for HP and the PS next year.  I’m considering introducing the students to A Wrinkle in Time instead.  I think of it as one of the Harry Potters of my generation.  (It was actually published seven years before I was born, but my friends and I were obsessed with it.)  It’s also the first in a series – a trilogy, actually – so you never know; it might lead some of them to read two non-required texts that year.

What book did you love when you were seventeen years old?  If I gave it to my seventeen-year-old students now, would they love it?  I might not teach them anything else, but if I give them the chance to love at least one book, I’ll feel like I did something right with my life.

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*Katha Pollitt’s essay “Why We Read: or, Canon to the Right of Me” elucidates this topic in a way that has stayed with me for many years.

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Previous wonderful things:

Thing #3: Early Mornings

Thing #2: Incorrect First Impressions

Thing #1: My IB Students

Image by Nino Satria