Had a conversation between classes today, during what students love to call my “free period,” with a fellow teacher who’s also the mom of a kid I will likely teach next year in IB English 1. After a few minutes, the conversation returned to a familiar place: boys who love to read when young, but whose zeal gets pounded into submission so that when they come to me as juniors in an advanced English class, they’re drooling slightly and reciting the same old mumbo-jumbo: “Why do I have to keep taking English? Don’t I already know how to read and write? How is this going to help me in life?”
So what happens? I’ve been puzzling over this a lot this year, since it’s my fourth year teaching and I’m starting to pick up on familiar patterns. My working theory has to do with the importance of story as an entity or an experience and the gigantic impact it has on us as humans. (I think that sentence just sounded slightly Carl Sagan, but I don’t know how else to word it.) I’ll have to revisit this in more depth at a later date, since it’s getting late and I have theories about Tuesday’s episode of Lost to construct, but for now, I want to get down that it has to do with the fact that without a proper appreciation for the vital importance of stories in our lives, readers can gradually become non-readers. For young readers to turn into old readers, they need to continue to find stories which connect to them on a meaningful, visceral level. Sadly, the type of teaching that passes for reading appreciation in schools involves a whole lot of worksheets and, as Billy Collins wonderfully called it, “beating it with a hose.” Reading is not a scientific process; it’s not a punch-your-card type experience. The benefits are much less tangible. It’s not about an accumulation of knowledge to be able to stick a pie piece in your Trivial Pursuit mover.
But stories matter. There is no other experience similar to that of entering a character’s world and holding a mirror up to the soul.