A Healthy Disrespect

http://www.flickr.com/photos/sophiadphotography/8060451224/Adult literacy and GED students have enormous respect for text–too much respect, I think.

They may fear text, or be confused by it. They may loathe the printed word, and/or ignore it. They may have a hundred different coping skills to get around the fact that they do not read well, but they respect text.

Text as Monolith

Many see it as one solid, monolithic block. Every piece of text is equal: equally valid, equally useful, equally difficult and equally beyond them. Their respect gets in the way of learning to read; it gets in the way of thinking critically about text.

Good Readers Have a Healthy Disrespect

You and I don’t have that kind of respect for text. How often we talk about books in a very disrespectful way:

  • “I bought it for my e-reader, and it’s been sitting there for weeks, but I always seem to choose something else.”
  • “I’m really interested in the subject, but the writing style was so convoluted I felt like a pig hunting for truffles.”
  • “I was reading along and I realized I couldn’t keep the characters straight in my mind, and I didn’t really care about them anyway. So I tossed it.”
  • “I know I should read the Russian masters, and I’ve been meaning to read them for years, but they are so heavy that I can’t get through them.”
  • “I read the headlines of the tabloids when I’m in line at the supermarket, but I’d never buy that junk.”
  • “I’m looking for some light summer reading–I can’t deal with deathless prose in July.”

When we don’t want to deal with a piece of text, we usually find something wrong with the text (too hard, too dull, too depressing, too light, too long, too…) or with the occasion (not enough time, not enough light, too late, too many worries…).

When our students don’t want to deal with a text, they find fault with themselves. They are too lazy or too stupid. They respect text too much to find fault with it. They do not differentiate between one kind of text and another. Bad writing, good writing, simple language or convoluted, it’s all one to them. Text. To be respected.

The Power of “No!”

One of my favourite lessons to teach is that it’s okay to reject a piece of text for any reason, serious or frivolous. Reminding them of our class rule “refuse to be bored,” I give everyone a copy of the same collection of short pieces–often a collection of writing by students at the same level as they are. We start on the first page. I ask someone to read the title and the first sentence. Then I say, “What do you think? Shall we read the rest of this or not?”

Usually they don’t think I’m seriously inviting them to NOT READ, so they say they’d like to go ahead. We read that piece, and I ask someone to read the title and first sentence of the next piece, and again I ask if they want to read the rest, or not.

Eventually someone says “No,” and we skip a story. Then another. And another. Soon more and more stories are rejected, and the room is giddy with the unaccustomed satisfaction of saying no to reading any given piece.

That is the beginning of power over text. After all, you can’t say “Yes!” wholeheartedly unless you know you can also say “No.”

That is the beginning of breaking down the monolith, of differentiating between one text and another. From noticing that one text is more or less interesting than another, they can go on to notice that one is more or less difficult than another, more or less reliable, more or less factual, more or less opinionated, more or less manipulative.

That is the beginning of critical thinking about text.

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4 thoughts on “A Healthy Disrespect

  1. I used to find it impossible to stop reading a book I was bored with–I MADE myself finish them. I’ve discovered that there are so many good ones out there I’ll never have time to read that I don’t waste my time any more on ones I don’t like. Students don’t seem to be able to distinguish between those worth reading and those just wasting paper (or digital space). Giving them the freedom to say no to a text is good practice.

    • Oh thank you–I thought I was the only one who couldn’t stop reading a book in the middle, for any reason!
      I remember Clara Barton of the Red Cross when I was about nine. 200 pages of excruciating boredom, because I thought I owed it to the author to finish it! 😉

  2. I found this very liberating. Though I’ve had many more educational advantages than your students,life’s interruptions have shaken my confidence and left me feeling quite shamed by it. On the other hand, I still like reading things that are interesting (like this blog) and have no “duty” to them. So I like your point.

love to hear your ideas or experiences!

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