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Can a text be inherently worth reading, even if it wilts your soul?

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Calling all readers! Bring your friends, bring your students, and answer this simple question in the comments. (This is a great warm-up activity for your students, by the way.)

Do you agree with the following statement?

“If some curriculum guide you were handed says ‘This Text Was Deemed To Be ‘Close Reading Worthy’ but you find your soul wilting as you read it, then it is not worth reading. Your enthusiasm and wonder matters.”

This is a tiny portion of Chris Lehman’s recent blog post on close reading, and it’s not a central claim of his post by any means. But this line, in my opinion, captures the zeitgeist of many in the choice-only camp of ELA teachers, and I’d simply love to hear whether you, dear reader, agree that if we (as teachers or as students) find a text soul-wilting, it’s not worth reading.

To pose the question another way: does a text’s worth come from the reader or from the text itself?

This is central to the Common Core debate, so bring your passion in your responses, and I promise to bring mine, too 🙂

State your stance! Explain yourself! And if you haven’t yet, check out one of Chris’ books — he is a good guy, and I want to meet him someday, and I respect and subscribe to his blog.

Cheers,

Dave

P.S. This conversation (or dare I say debate?) has been spurred on by the great thinking at Chris’ blog-a-thon, “We are Closely Reading #CloseReading.”

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14 Responses to Can a text be inherently worth reading, even if it wilts your soul?

  1. Chris Lehman October 3, 2013 at 10:58 pm #

    While I love the opportunity for a debate, and I actually would love to see what discussion comes from this, I think taken out of context that line seems more controversial then it is.

    I don’t believe I was speaking in “choice-only camp” per se, because I wasn’t referring to kids. Instead, and I do believe, we as teachers need to find joy in the texts we read to our class, then add to that being sure that we vary texts so more students see themselves in this as well. A teacher who LOVES Shakespeare potentially can bring more passion to their instruction then a teacher who doesn’t, no? Just as a teacher who LOVES Sharon Draper will demonstrate more joy then one who doesn’t. If it’s controversial to suggest we should love what we do and watch for engagement in our students as well, then mark me controversial.

    • davestuartjr October 4, 2013 at 7:11 am #

      Chris, thanks for starting off the comments!

      My reference to the “choice-only camp” referred to folks who value choice and passion above all else. Trust me, I love choice and passion: my recreational reading life is mostly around texts that excite my interests or fire me up. But when it comes to my job as a freshmen English teacher, for example, I don’t think it’s right for me to throw out shared novels like Fahrenheit 451 simply because my soul may wilt every time I read it. The fact is, this text is part of the Freshman Comp/Lit curriculum at my school, and if I were to abandon it, I would be undermining the guaranteed viable curriculum my district is trying to create.

      But much, much, much more importantly than that, if I were to abandon F451 because it makes my soul wilt, and if passion were to be a requirement for everything we read in class, my student would never get to see me model for them the simple skill of gritting through hard things. I’m transparent with my students, and so, from the very beginning of that text, I allow them to see my frustrations, but also my thinking around the concept of grit, and around the concept that there are sometimes things that are hard that can still be growth opportunities.

      Although I pretty much despise F451, that is one of my favorite units because, during it, my students and I can practice discussing things we don’t like in an intelligent, fair manner. We can argue about whether or not Bradbury’s use of figurative language is overboard (as I think it is). And we have the most incredible discussions around the impact of technology on contemporary society, and on whether censorship ever has a place.

      Basically, Chris, I’m saying that, when we’re handed a curriculum guide, we should think less in terms of “what texts am I passionate about” and more in terms of “how can I teach the tension I feel when being forced to read this text; how can I model doing hard things and actually having a heckuva lotta joy while doing it?”

  2. davestuartjr October 4, 2013 at 1:48 pm #

    Here’s a response from Laura Quinn, a Media Specialist who submitted her answer via email:

    Yes, some texts are worth reading even when they are crazy boring, especially if the student is college bound. If he/she wants to be able to hold his/her own in academia or intellectual circles, then the student must read many articles and books that do not speak to them. Also, students must be exposed to various types and genres of text because we teachers cannot determine what will move them. I enjoy reading JAMA but I understand it is not for everyone. (One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.) Lastly, I believe that kids should be taught that everything they do in life or in school or anywhere else is not always fun. Students need to realize that some assignments are just stepping stones to where they are headed (Moby Dick, yikes!) and just get it done.

    Having said this, I do not purposely pick out reading material that is dry and uninteresting, and furthermore, I believe the instructor can make almost anything interesting with the right approach. This is why Marzano emphasizes not only the science but the art of teaching.

    Yes, some texts are worth reading even when they are crazy boring, especially if the student is college bound. If he/she wants to be able to hold his/her own in academia or intellectual circles, then the student must read many articles and books that do not speak to them. Also, students must be exposed to various types and genres of text because we teachers cannot determine what will move them. I enjoy reading JAMA but I understand it is not for everyone. (One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.) Lastly, I believe that kids should be taught that everything they do in life or in school or anywhere else is not always fun. Students need to realize that some assignments are just stepping stones to where they are headed (Moby Dick, yikes!) and just get it done.

    Having said this, I do not purposely pick out reading material that is dry and uninteresting, and furthermore, I believe the instructor can make almost anything interesting with the right approach. This is why Marzano emphasizes not only the science but the art of teaching.

    • davestuartjr October 4, 2013 at 2:23 pm #

      Laura, you said:

      “…I believe that kids should be taught that everything they do in life or in school or anywhere else is not always fun. Students need to realize that some assignments are just stepping stones to where they are headed (Moby Dick, yikes!) and just get it done.”

      This, to me, is a critical observation: that, first, hard work is valuable, and hard work is not always synonymous with fun; and, second, that a student’sactually read the stepping stone pieces, and that, therefore, assigning these kinds of texts isn’t logical. And while I do agree with these folks that, if we’re not going to creatively attack the problem of non-reading or, even worse, fake-reading, we are going to have too few students actually reading, I think they miss the fact that we can creatively attack this problem without abandoning the text that wilt’s our teacher souls.

      You are wise, Laura, to acknowledge that this is where the art of teaching comes in, and this is also where teacher grit comes in.

  3. Susan October 4, 2013 at 1:58 pm #

    Fahrenheit 451 is a remarkably taut love story. It is a chick book disguised in the baggy courdorouy pants of a philosopher king. That said, interactions with text (an people and other media) help to shape one’s worldview. Gritting it out while sucking one’s teeth through odious turn of phrase is required for the fullness of a “reflective life”. Perhaps a more important question in those moments of distaste is not “What is the author’s purpose,” but “Why do I need something different from this text?” We learn to reframe our own values in light of disconfirming ideas when we slog through soul-wilting text.
    Excellent conversations around this issue, gentlemen. I will soon add my blog to the ‘thon.

    • davestuartjr October 4, 2013 at 2:27 pm #

      Susan, I would like to read Fahrenheit in your class 🙂 “A remarkably taut love story” — now that would get my attention! And I also see what you did there: referring to F451 with an abundance figurative language. Nice 🙂

      And wow, what a question for reflection–“Why do I need something different from this text?” These are the kinds of self-reflection questions that some claim the Common Core gets rid of, but I think a class devoid of them is giving the Common Core far too much reign in their room. I don’t advocate totally abandoning the Common Core’s emphases when we simply disagree with them philosophically, but I also don’t advocate treating the Common Core as if it’s the final word on everything that should be happening in our rooms.

      Susan, please come back and link to your blog in these comments when you do make that post!

      • Susan October 4, 2013 at 7:02 pm #

        Critical review embraces questions about author/reader interaction. Perhaps a nuanced understanding of the Common Core standards for close reading provides for teaching our students some of the critical lenses through which we can “evaluate the argument”. My students and I have been closely examining the role of perspective in analysis of text, and recently we were presented with an example of the importance of perspective when viewing the statue of the “Little Rock Nine” located on the grounds of the Arkansas State Capitol building. My own tourist’s photograph of that statue shows a raggedy looking group of confused mouth-breathers without any semblance of unity. But my point-and-shoot camera did not capture the same upright courage and undaunted facial expression as that of a professional photo of the statue that appears on the State website. The professional took the picture from a few feet lower than me, looking up at the faces of the Nine. As my students and I studied the difference between the two views, we realized that from the perspective of a child looking up at the statue, the Nine appear courageous and focused on the future, framed by blue sky. Maybe adults are not the intended audience for the message of that statue. Maybe we don’t have to be. If my students and I studied that particular image only from “the four corners” to arrive at an understanding of its meaning, it would have been tantamount that the photo NOT be the one I took while on summer vacation.

  4. Susan S. October 7, 2013 at 10:10 pm #

    Link to my blog about close reading:
    http://atfunion.org/2013/10/05/tocc-james-and-the-benchmark-assessment/

  5. Bon Crowder (@mathfour) October 8, 2013 at 2:39 pm #

    We could make the same argument for math – if math class wilts the soul, should you be forced to go?

    I say no (and won’t allow my daughter in such a place either).

    Math (like literature) should be uplifting. You should be able to choose how you do it, which parts of it you learn and enjoy the process of it all along the way.

    Students should be shown all the variety of math and literature, but that doesn’t mean they have to take it.

    • davestuartjr October 22, 2013 at 10:00 pm #

      Hi Bon,

      It sounds like you’re saying learning in math and literature should always be uplifting. But what about when it’s not? I mean, I love reading, but there are some texts that require a lot of mental sweat for me to get to the uplifting part. I’m assuming math is similar. Where does this fit into your argument?

  6. Alan Blanchard October 23, 2013 at 3:00 pm #

    I feel that even if something “wilts your soul” you actually do get some worth out of it. If you are having such negative feelings about something you read you are still having an extremely emotionally invested reaction to it. Negative emotion can be just as productive as positive, so I absolutely think that something can be worth reading even if it is soul-wilting. Now, if you read something that causes no reaction at all, spurs no emotional investment positively or negatively, then that piece has lost its efficacy on you as a reader. Only when writing, whether it be literature, persuasive, informational, or any other type of writing presented in a classroom, fails to make you think is it then not worth reading.

    • davestuartjr October 28, 2014 at 7:23 am #

      I think you’ve nailed it, Alan — only when it fails to make you think is it not worth reading. And this lies more in a student’s curiosity and our ability to ask great questions, both which I think we can cultivate as teachers, than in a given text’s “inherent” worth.

  7. Kirby November 21, 2013 at 1:28 am #

    Hunger Games Trilogy … third book, when Finnick Odair is ripped apart by the mutations. AHHH! I was so disturbed, sad, disappointed.

    Harry Potter Series … The Half Blood Prince, the inferi. I am so disturbed by that portion of the story. Those words still haunt me. Now, I skip that part every time. (i like to re-read books, or listen to it in audio format multiple times in the car. Way better than music, in my opinion.)

    Perhaps this is not the “withering” you are referencing, but they have given me aversions to parts of literature. One may argue, these have a purpose; which we should explore.

    ~Keira @ CA

  8. Mary Jo Casilio December 16, 2013 at 11:17 am #

    Great dialogue. (Love the blog & the entire site!) I would recommend researching some of the work of literary scholar and educator Diana Senechal. I hesitate to put words in her mouth, but, essentially, she argues in favor of the inherent worth of texts. For this reason, she suggests that educators guard against a “choice only” / workshop-only approach to literature. She explains this well in a few of the below articles.

    http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/mar11/vol68/num06/Let-Strategies-Serve-Literature.aspx

    http://www.aft.org/pdfs/americaneducator/winter1011/Senechal.pdf

    While I realize we are all pressed for time, her work on solitude (Republic of Noise: The loss of solitude in schools and culture, ) certainly worth a look. Need to re-visit it myself.

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