Saturday, 4 August 2012

Who says reading's boring??

A little while back I posted a photo I'd scavenged from a Facebook post of a bookcase built to look like Dr Who's tardis. You can have a look at it HERE. I didn't mention, at the time, the chat that happened on Facebook in relation to the image. It wasn't relevant to my post, but a couple of things have happened since, and it's niggling me now. One bright spark - who protested after he'd been slammed by a number of others that he was only having a go... - said something along the lines of it being such a shame it was filled with 'boring books' instead of windows to other worlds and times. I will leave the various responses that prompted to your imaginations...

It comes to mind because I'm struggling at the moment with one of my students. I am blessed (!) with a bunch of sixteen year old boys who are all doing year 11 English, and are poised to transition into their final year of school. It means that they're in the throes of discovering that there are some very different expectations when it comes to dealing with texts. For starters, the books they're reading have a lot more substance than previously experienced. They're getting more than one book simultaneously for the purpose of comparative analysis. They're being required to annotate what they're reading. Soon, they will be given the text for their first major topic - 'Belonging' and the text is Romulus, My Father by Raimond Gaita - and they're going to have source their own related texts - at least two, and one must be a medium other than a novel.

The student in question, so his mother tells me, used to be a bookworm. Everywhere she went, she had a small boy attached with his nose in a book. So far, in my time with him, he hasn't completed reading a single book he's been given for English. He's scraping through, using other people's notes, cheats obtained on line, and an attitude that says as long as he passes it doesn't matter how well he does. It's frustrating, because he's a bright boy. It's not even, so far, as if the books themselves have been particularly onerous - most recently, they had George Orwell's Animal Farm. I suggested, to try and pique his interest and give him a fairly straightforward bit of comparative literature, that he have a look at William Golding's Lord of the Flies. This was just prior to three weeks of holidays. Both are short books. He had to read Animal Farm. He didn't have to read the other one. He didn't even bother to get the copy of Lord of the Flies out of the family bookcase. And he still hasn't finished the Orwell, and won't now, because the topic is over.

He says it's boring. All of it. I asked him - reasonably enough, I thought - what happened to turn such an avid bookworm into this apathetic can't be bothered creature. He grinned - he has great charm, the ratbag - and said, "Gym, and girls."

DB says I should give him up, that I'm not doing him any favours nursing him through. I'm not doing his work for him - that isn't going to happen, regardless of what he thinks are clever strategies to trap me into it... The part of me that is stretched too far as it is agrees with DB. Why waste my time, which is in short supply, in a situation that is so frustrating, where I'm not being met even close to halfway? It doesn't pay well enough to make it worth sticking it out just for the money and, in any case, I can't take his parents' money if there's no progress being made. On the other hand, I look at him, like so many of the current generation - being dubbed, in a variety of media, 'The I Generation', or as one witty type wrote it, iGeneration... - waiting for it all to just drop out of the sky and happen for him. He had an exam recently on Animal Farm. He was so affronted by the prep sheet he was given, which reminded them of the need to have read the text carefully and to have made comprehensive notes. There was a second text, a doco on a rock star, Strummer, the topic for the exam was 'Rebellion' and the brief said to prep for the possibility of either an essay, an opinion piece, a conversation or an interview as the genre with which to respond to a question on issues of rebellion in both texts.

Needless to say, with typical Gen I why should I attitude, he kept asking why it had to be like this. Why couldn't they just ask a straightforward question? Why couldn't they say what the exam was going to be? Why was it so hard? As I pointed out, his teachers were doing something very helpful by offering them, before it really mattered for the HSC, a taste of how HSC exams worked, so they could see for themselves that being asked to read a certain way, annotate and absorb more than just the words in a text, was for a reason. It isn't because the teachers just want to make them do work they don't want to do, it's because if they don't learn to do it this way, come the real exams, they'll have no idea what's hit them.

At bottom, I think that one of the issues for him is that it takes time to read, whether it's for pleasure of study purposes. It's not that he doesn't have time - his timetable is geared to allow for necessary reading. It's more that he, along with so many of his peers, doesn't consider it a worthy use of his valuable time... But, you have to wonder what's going to happen when they hit the real world where their time is no longer their own...


  1. I always feel great pity for those who won't read; they only get to live one life...

    1. Agreed.

      Allowing for the fact that I may have a somewhat twisted perspective on this subject, it occurs to me to wonder why more of iGen AREN'T reading - after all, they're spending an awful lot of time and energy trying to escape from numerous potential responsibilities. Why not vanish into a book? It's all there...all you have to do is read the words and turn the pages and a whole new world is laid out for you...with none of the demands of the real one - and it even LOOKS like you're doing something legitimate!

      Just a thought!

    2. Ah, now here we go Mum. If you look at one of the biggest explosions in industry $ value, and popularity with iGen and Gen Y (which I am on the edge of both) - when escape into a book; where you go down a path dictated by the author; when you can get into an interactive game where you feel that your actions as the player affect the world around you. Not only do you get to escape into a world where you are stronger, faster, smarter (maybe), the hero and potentially have all sorts of whacky abilities such as psychic powers or magic but you actually feel like your actions change the story, no matter how scripted.

    3. My greatest escape has always been to imagine myself into the story while I'm reading...and that part of it isn't necessarily dictated by the author. The amount of fan-fiction that's out there these days might suggest that I"m not alone here!

  2. I worry about kids like this to. I think maybe something is wrong in how we are presenting reading to this generation. I used to work in a primary school but lately have been working in a couple of different high schools it has really bothered me that kids I know were big readers in primary have gone to high school and just seem to have stopped reading, part of the problem is the libraries themselves. One high school I did a contract at had a TL who had an openly adversaral attitude to the boys and seemed to take delight in making it as difficult as possible for them to find what they wanted to read. The result was they simply ceased to use the library, they didn't feel welcome and the books held no appeal for them.
    I was just thinking your student might respond to Hunger Games which is a dystopia novel that can be linked to Lord of the Flies and to Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984, I have had kids go from Hunger Games onto those titles and with boys I have used the argument that if you read this you will impress the girls who are currently keen on Hunger Games and it is just a very masculine kind of story anyway. Did he like the doco on Strummer, does he like the music of the Clash, there are lots of great books out there on muscians and the music industry.
    I feel school libraries are partly to blame for letting these kids down and I wish they would just invest more in good staff and decent collections and show them that reading has its own rewards. Sometimes I find what I do endlessly frustrating but it is not the kids themselves that are frustrating just some of resources, environments and other adults. At the last school I worked at a student was sent to the library for punishment because of behaviour that resulted from her hostility to school and learning and they wanted me to make the library a place of punishment and put yet another nail in that kids learning coffin, I suspect the fact that I talked to her about books and offered to let her have her detention time reading or talking to me about books did not go down well with the powers that be as I didn't get any more kids sent to the library as punishment.

  3. Hi Arabella,

    I think if I put The Hunger Games in front of this kid, he'd do the same kind of prevaricating he does about anything that fits within his category of 'work'. One of the things I asked him to do - because he had to write some short assignments like newspaper articles - was to get into the habit of reading at least one article in the papers every day. He's online goodness knows how many hours a day and it doesn't take long to surf a few headlines and pull an article up. And it's the Olympics, so there's no shortage of sports related pieces there for a gym junkie who thinks it'd be really cool to be a pro athlete and get paid for playing sport.... He hasn't bothered.

    He was totally lukewarm about the doco, didn't know who the Clash were, even. Bit like young stepson who trumpeted loudly his superior knowledge of all things music recently, but, of course, doesn't, because that would mean listening to things he doesn't like and putting time into reading about long gone bands he's never heard of...

    I think I'm a bit jaded too, at the moment, because I'm bashing my head against the wall with him. He's not done a single thing I've asked him to do. Nothing's changed. He just doesn't care enough, or want to do better, and I can't make that happen, it's got to come from him.

    Did you see my Hunger Games posts?

    Nice to hear from you!

  4. Just went back and read the Hunger Games posts, particularly liked that you talked about age appropriatness, time and time again I have found books like Tomorrow when the war began in primary school collections and I know of at least one local primary school with Hunger Games on the shelf, which does concern me. I just wish more parents and in some cases teachers would read books before throwing them at kids who may not have the maturity for them.
    Maybe your young friend just has to grow up a bit, a taste of failure may not be a bad thing, and may be an important lesson, it does take some kids awhile to get their act together. My other half stuffed around at high school, still managed to get into uni, just, where he stuffed around even more and totally failed his first year, it was only after taking a year off and working that he went back to uni. When he graduated after his initial stuffing around he did so as the highest achieving student of his year, so a big turn around. He went on to complete his masters, he thinks boys just take a lot longer to grow up, at least thats his excuse, I know his mother had just about given up on him at the time. Some kids are just so frustrating. You can't even get him to read a sports article at the moment! Good luck!

    1. A friend of mine told me recently that her son's class - final year primary - has been reading the Marsden series. I was horrified. Sixteen has the enviable situation of being at a school that has a personal connection with Marsden, and has had the benefit of some of his writing workshops (thou shalt not covet...). I very much doubt that Marsden himself would condone children that young reading that series, and more than Collins intended kids under 15 to be reading The Hunger Games. Unfortunately, I think that, these days, teachers as well as parents are all too ready to go with either the hype around a particular book/movie and/or the demand from the kids themselves, regardless of whether it's appropriate material for them or not.

      I am a great advocate of letting kids mess things up in reasonable increments so that they a. learn what not to do, and b. acquire a healthy respect for putting in effort in order to achieve things. Too much of what appears to be ailing the current group is an inflated sense of their own abilities due to being praised for the sake of their self-esteem rather than their actual achievements. See my other blog for more on this...

      Thank you for your comments, I really appreciate your insightful input.