Saturday, January 15, 2011

Growing The Readers You Want

But what kind of readers do we want?

It's the beginning of the semester, and we professors/instructors of any and all ilk are always faced with the same challenge: getting our students to read. I addressed it a little bit in my previous post about homework, but at the end of the day, we can (eventually) get our students to write because of a big fat grade attached to it, but it's really, really hard to get them to read. I went to a PD session this week that addressed this very concern. We were told the session was going to be about our State embracing the Common Core Standards, but instead we learned about "Growing the Readers You Want."

The PD was given by a wonderful literacy professor from WKU, Dr. Pam Petty (please don't judge her by her Geocities-looking website). WKU has done a fantastic job of creating a university-wide literacy program that is also available to professors looking to improve the reading skills of the students they teach, regardless of the subject matter. She painted us a depressing picture of what the true literacy levels of our students are (way too low) and asked us how we expected our students to read at college-level when they were barely reading at a high school level? But she also chastised us for allowing the students to "drive the bus" so to speak when it comes to developing our courses: slowly eliminating the need to read, or at least read anything challenging. 

We, she told us, needed to keep the challenging, college-level readings in our classes but help the students with their reading, giving them more guidance and direction in how they should read. She also reinforced the need to somehow hold the students accountable for the reading. We discussed various methods (guided reading forms with general and specific questions, visual keys, etc) and saw how one professor almost double his retention and passing rate for a large Intro to Psych class. 

I think it's important for those of us who teach writing to keep these things in mind as we design and teach our courses. I tell my students much of the time: it's not that you can't write; it's that you have nothing to write about, and that's where active or critical reading skills come into play. Technically, we're not supposed to teach reading skills in our developmental writing class; there is another class for developmental reading. But if I want my students to be able to write a college-level paper, I need them to be able to do college-level reading. I cannot and will not divorce the two. And most of the advice she gave to us were variations of exercises I already do with the students (but she also reminded me of the importance of letting go a little on the guidance by the end of the semester). 

So now I'm torn again about the readings I am going to require my students to do this semester in their 100-level class and even in my developmental writing course: pop culture and short op-ed essays are more interesting, relevant, and accessible, but do they suitably challenge my students? Am I doing them a disservice by asking them to read Fahrenheit 451 (I hate spelling that word) instead of 1984? Should I even be asking them to read fiction in a college writing (and reading) class? Is it fair to assign them to read a textbook "Everything is an Argument" when only one form of argument (and critical reading) is even acceptable in higher education? Have I, have we, allowed them to take the wheel of the bus?

I am so glad that I haven't invested too much manual labor (as in typing and formatting) my syllabus for the upcoming semester; I would have junked it more than a few times now. I just got my student evaluations back from last semester; one of the comments that kept coming up was that I genuinely care about my students and that it shows in my teaching. I do genuinely care about my students, which is why I take forming my syllabus and selecting the readings so seriously. And why I am worried about pushing them to be their best and succeed in college. 

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