Procedural Display and Fake Reading: My Story of Coming to Teaching Literature

I am the fake reader.

I was a master of procedural display in high school. And one key version of this is fake reading.

Procedural display is student behavior that looks like learning but isn’t actually student learning. Procedural display is how I got through my AP English Literature class and much of my college English classes without reading the books assigned to me.

I was fake reading–pretending to read, but not actually. I was able to engage in conversation about books assigned to me and write about them successfully by listening very carefully to what my teacher said about them in class.

Let me explain.

I loved to read as a child. I can remember one evening in particular, sitting on my front porch, reading until the light was too low to see the words on the page any more, my rear end becoming cold as the concrete chilled in the diminishing light. Just couldn’t tear myself away from the book.

But somewhere along the way, I didn’t love it any more. I cannot pinpoint the exact moment when reading lost its appeal, but I’m fairly certain it had something to do with school.

Fast forward to my senior year in high school. I’m in AP lit and comp, and sitting before me on my desk is the syllabus with a list of all the books we would be studying that year. I made a promise to myself that I would really, truly, actually read the books. I wanted to use AP lit as an opportunity to become a reader again.

Book 1: Gulliver’s Travels. I’m reading. I’m really reading! And having thoughts about what I’m reading! How fun! And there we are in class one day discussing the reading. My teacher said, “and so, since the Brobdingnagians are rational beings…”

I sat up, a thought growing within me. Rational beings? No way. They think Gulliver is a rodent. They cannot rationalize the fact that he’s a human being. So I took a risk and voiced my disagreement with my teacher.

If I remember right, there was some back and forth, which she ended by walking to my desk, looking down at me over the top of her glasses, and saying calmly, “Sarah, you’re wrong.”

“How can I be wrong if I can support my interpretation with evidence from the text?” I asked.

“You’re wrong,” she clipped as she turned around and walked away from my desk.

This moment was pivotal.

I want to qualify here to let you know that I hold my high school AP English teacher in high regard. In fact, when I first taught AP Lit myself, I contacted her for help. The class was on the whole meaningful to me and it taught me a thing or two about thinking. But as a reader, this one moment was catastrophic.

I learned in that moment that it was not necessary for me to actually read the books on the syllabus if the teacher was going to tell me what to think about them.

In fact, it would be NO FUN to read the books on the syllabus if the teacher was going to tell me what to think about them.

I stopped reading. I started listening very carefully to every word my teacher said about our books. And it worked in a grade sense.

I got a B in the class and a 5 on the AP lit exam. I didn’t read a single book that year. Not even The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—which I chose for my research paper and which I used for the free-response question on the AP exam AND about which I wrote for my first paper in my first college English class—a paper that came back to me with a note on it that said, “best in the bunch!”

I didn’t read this book until I had to teach it for the first time years later.

And despite my lack of reading books assigned to me in school, I persisted in the world of literature study. I became an English major. I entered a program to become an English teacher.

Becoming a teacher was always kind of a foregone conclusion for me even though I didn’t admit it to myself for a long time. As a child I used to line up my stuffed animals in my bedroom and teach them.  And I remember deliberating seriously about whether I would become an English teacher or a math teacher.

But I couldn’t see how I could teach about life in math class.

I DID start reading finally in my junior year in college. It wasn’t a teacher but a book itself—Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. It blew my mind. I had no idea it was possible to do with words what Ellison accomplished in the prologue of that book. I HEARD the song Ellison described just by reading the words. It was unbelievable.

I began to look back at all the books I never read and became sad for what I had missed. I wondered how I could craft a classroom that would demand the genuine engagement of a student like me. That is where my quest began, but it has evolved as I learned some things as a teacher.

Like the fact that school always came pretty easy for me, and that’s not always the case for my students. So it isn’t about making reading and LA class engaging for a student like me, but rather making it engaging for all of my students, regardless of what they bring to the table with them. Each student presents a unique challenge in this, and it’s up to me to figure out who my students are as individuals and how to invite their genuine engagement in reading and writing and thinking in my classroom.

My quest continues. Every year I tweak things a little bit more, shift things here and there, work to make it better. But there are things I struggle with and worry about.

Like whether or not I’m helping my students grow their literacy skills in ways that will support their future success in life. Or how much they’re really truly engaging in the work I ask of them. Or if they’re actually reading and getting something out of it.

Or when I’ll be able to engage that lit geek side of my brain again with a group of students since that’s not the explicit focus of the course I teach now. Or if my students are missing something critical because I’m NOT teaching them a traditional literature course.

Or how much the common core standards are really going to change things? Or how my state will assess my students’ achievement toward these standards (and MY “effectiveness” in teaching them as will be required by Colorado Senate Bill 191).

Or how to navigate the competing philosophies in our field about the purposes and practices of an English class. Or whether or not we need to completely re-think and re-structure the 9-12 LA curriculum in the school where I teach. Or if any of the curriculum writing my district is asking of me right now will actually matter in the end.

Or if the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers is right in the recommendations that we need to get back to a unified set of literary texts taught to high school students with the sole purpose of the close, analytical reading. Or how to counter those recommendations effectively by reminding people of the demands of the 21st century world (a fact not mentioned at all in the ALSCW report).

Or how much longer I can keep up the pace as a full time teacher trying to have a writing life too and trying to cultivate my voice.

So that’s my story, and that’s what I’m worrying about.

What’s your story? What are you worrying about?

 

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