Tuesday, November 6, 2012

On Book Love, Barthes and Uncertainty

I. A Necessary Habit

I am reminded as I read Penny Kittle's new book, Book Love: Developing Depth, Stamina, and Passion in Adolescent Readers, of the pleasure of the text and how that pleasure is coded differently depending on our emerging stances with a text.  Roland Barthes in S/Z explains how there are readerly and writerly texts.  Readerly texts are ones we devour whole (or as whole as one might perceive). These are texts that makes sense to us without conscious work on our part. In contrast, writerly texts are ones we co-create, wrestle with, parse and rethink.

Both experiences offer pleasure.
Each is necessary.

I think of these differences as I read Book Love, as it seems to me that Penny is asking us to not forget the readerly text in these days when 'ladders of text complexity' and ensuring the right percentage of text types are represented in the enacted curriculum tend to dominate academic discourse. Beneath these imperatives though is a simple truth: We need to dwell in the habit of reading before allowing ourselves the agency necessary to assume writerly stances with text.  This truth seems to be less noticeable and acted upon as our children age and make their way to middle and high school.
Reader by Jennifer Zwick.

II. A Short Interlude

As I read Penny's text I thought about Robert, an 18-year-old I taught more years ago than I might count on two hands. Robert arrived a month into the school year after he had been expelled from a vocational high school. He was sent to a regional high school where I would become his English teacher. It was the 1980s and the class Robert would enter was experimental and largely based on the work of Donald Graves and Don Murray.  I was often uncertain about what I was doing, save one belief: as Don Graves taught so many of us, I too believed that children (and teens too) want to write and read. Why I recall Robert is that he began the year of independent composing by reading Ace Hits the Big Time (1981) the first book he claimed to actually finish reading and concluded the year reading and writing in the margins of Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The distance between these texts is a story about pleasure, authorship, and uncertainty.

III. Where Uncertainty Enters

Penny writes:
It feels radical to suggest we look at individual students instead of groups in a time when the Common Core Initiative is driving thinking in education, but a reading appetite is quirky, singular, and essential. At the core of what I know about students, teaching, and learning is passionate engagement. Passions are peculiar, but passions drive readers to devour books (p. 19).
What Penny labels, peculiar and quirky, I understand as that which signals a teacher's uncertainty.  The teacher is not the relationship, but rather one (albeit an important one) in relationship(s) with others. What gets made between and among students and teachers is informed by interest, love, knowledge, and context.  All of these are expressions of uncertainty.  As I read this book, I wondered how much better at teaching I might have been had Book Love  been in my hands those years ago. Surely, the guess work would have been less chaotic, less chancy, and frankly less wrong.

Penny arranges a tour through her habits and tendencies as a teacher by carefully showing us the types of experiences (in detail) that help adolescents turn on to books and form communities of readers and writers.  This is a smart book--and one I wish I had had then and am glad to have now.

The power though of this text rests not in the individual read, but rather in what it might inspire among people. This is a book that that should be passed on, much like love is passed on to others--a book that is shared, discussed, argued with among teachers.

At the end of the book, Penny writes:
one classroom of readers in a school is not enough. It may be where we need to start, but when we're ready, we have to talk with our colleagues (p. 153). 
I hope you'll read this book and pass it along to others so that the conversations we have as secondary English teachers might shift a bit,  grow unsteady, and unmoor themselves from recanting the ways we have taught students English in earlier times to the ways we inspire and craft classrooms so that readerly and writerly ways with text are known by all.

Let me know what you think?

1 comment:

  1. The NY modules are telling teachers to give children homework that they can't easily read. Let them "struggle," they say. They also say they only expect children to get the gist. The prof in the office next door is special ed, and is crazed by these types of assignments. What to make of all this? We are forcing children to have writerly experiences before they are ready? I am not notified when you respond, so maybe email to me.