Monday, August 30, 2010

“READ IN THE NAME OF THE LORD!”

PART ONE: WHAT AND WHEN
When thus commanded to read, the prophet Mohammed exclaimed that he was illiterate; whereupon the Archangel Gabriel once again told him to read in the name of the Lord, and that worked just fine as Gabriel had God to back him, enormous powers of his own and a very willing and able student: the prophet Mohammed. If things were this “easy” in the classroom, the great squares of world capitals would be teaming with wonderful statues of teachers but alas, the reality on the ground is very different indeed as teachers aren’t archangels, they are supervised by assistant directors or principals not God and the students, aside from being human primates, have no resemblance to Mohammed. This being so, one needs to come down to earth, cease dreaming and face the reality that getting students to read is a Herculean task. A few days ago, I was chatting to a colleague, who is also a dear friend, and she explained she had told the students she wanted them to read a novel of literary worth during the summer school. The summer school at our university is organized for prep students who fail the proficiency test. Another colleague and I sort of looked at each other and shook our heads; especially when she said she thought “The Catcher in the Rye” would be a good choice. This, I feel ,is a noble ideal but not really in keeping with the realities on the ground as students these days are, unfortunately, used to bite sized chunks of anything and everything: information (in tests), the answers to said questions (a box or a sentence if you are lucky; although due to the obsession with short answers, they can’t manage that either), emails, text messages in text speak, TV programs broken up into nice fifteen minute morsels with ten minute breaks for commercials… The list goes on and on. I remember years ago Michael Parkinson used to have one guest for a whole hour now it’s three or four and the conversation is punctuated with songs. I once told a class all this during a discussion and they stared back at me with wide eyed amazement: “Weren’t you bored?” they inquired and were flabbergasted to discover we weren’t. Students have chronic attention deficit hyperactivity disorder brought on by their primary and secondary education, fed and aggravated by the media, technology and modern life which can best be compared to the 100 meter dash. The former, their primary and secondary education, is one of the major culprits with the emphasis on endless tests – not papers; Heaven forbid! Technology comes next; the internet and the world of computers, with the emphasis on speed, are not conducive to concentration for any length of time. Then there is life itself were everything needs to be done yesterday. The modern student is a product of this world yet teachers have to teach them to read, understand, analyze and also appreciate reading, as language learning would be impossible without it. It is a mammoth task not to be underestimated, requiring strategy and subterfuge the details of which are the subject of this paper. This paper is dedicated to all those teachers who feel that “The Catcher in the Rye” is the best first step for the modern student.

The inappropriate

By far the most important obstacle to reading in the modern classroom is inappropriate reading material. Whatever activity the teacher devises to accompany it, the unsuitable text will fall flat; in short, get this right and you are ready to rock and roll as the saying goes. How should one go about selecting reading material for a generation of students who don’t read much and have no real desire to mend their ways? What must not be done is pretty obvious: the classics and all those wonderful immortal works of literature are out unless the aim is to guarantee that nobody will ever read anything again – and that includes The Catcher in the Rye. I was talking to a young Serbian couch surfer staying with us who was reading Michael Bulgakov’ s famous work “The Master and Margarita” a while back, and he told me he had first been assigned the book in secondary school and had, not very surprisingly, thoroughly detested it. Unlike many of his peers though, he was rereading it at 26. Another couch surfer, an Aussie this time, informed me that “To Kill a Mockingbird” had been forced on him at a similar unsuitable age and this had been followed by Macbeth, a work I personally truly appreciated while reading it for the umpteenth time after the age of thirty. He dealt with the first assignment thanks to the film, which his teacher eventually showed the whole class in despair. Of all the authors, Shakespeare suffers most due to this misplaced zeal leaving the average person with the unfortunate misconception that his works were created specifically to torture modern day students. Assigning reading material the sentiments, language, characters and even the plot of which is beyond students is a very common fault of teachers. As discussed in the previous paper on motivation, the zeal and over enthusiasm of teachers to get students to adore works they themselves are moved by adds fuel to the fire, hastening the demise of a wonderful means of communication. I remember once explaining to a class during a discussion on the role of technology in entertainment that it was common in the 19th century for people to sit together in the evenings listening to someone read out loud; needless to say, they thought this was very weird and wondered if it was perhaps a freak occurrence. The details of the education students are subjected to, not only in the Middle East but in many other parts of the world as well, have been analyzed in previous papers – An Elusive Quality: Motivation – and won’t be gone into again here. Suffice to say that students are fed a diet of what is deemed good for them, rather in the fashion of a 19th century nursery with the nanny in charge, resulting in a natural loathing for reading. Rekindling the flame requires stealth rather like the enemy agent slipping, unawares, into the ranks of the unsuspecting army. It also requires the teacher to be flexible and be ready to back pedal should the need arise. Like a good chess player, the teacher may have to take his time, never taking his eyes off the queen. Crying “Checkmate” five minutes after sitting down at the table is often not possible. The teaching of reading, like chess, requires patience. After all, even the best take their time: Gabriel’s delivery of the Quran took 23 years and he had the advantage of working with a riveting text.

Not everyone has the advantage of God’s word so what should we poor mortals do? It might occur to you – talking of books – that reading books hold the key but you would be wrong. There are various problems with reading books currently on the market, the foremost being that the passages in the books don’t get progressively harder and if, on rare occasions, they do, this doesn’t happen fast enough. Reading books often come in sets of three or four starting with the elementary and ending with intermediate or upper intermediate. The idea is that they get covered over a period of two or three years. The writers of these books must be tucked away in a parallel universe where everything moves at snail’s pace for nothing happens that slowly in the current climate; the language needs to be learnt in a year; sooner if possible. That means unit two needs, lexically, to be harder than unit one and unit three needs to be more challenging than unit two and so forth. What is more, all this needs to happen at decent trot! We, as an institution, have been looking for such a book for years, rather like the quest for the Holy Grail, but have thus far been unsuccessful. We do use books to a limited extent but we get through them fast and don’t drag them out, moving quickly on to handouts we ourselves prepare. The second problem with a lot of reading books is the choice of text: there is often no wow factor. As stated in the paper on motivation, before starting out to work with a team, the leader needs to acquaint himself with them. The writers of many reading books assume the team to be composed either of young professionals in the private sector or children, which is not, strictly speaking, right. There are a lot of language learners between the ages of 18 and 20 who are not the least bit interested in issues of the modern business world for instance. A lot of reading books don’t have the content to interest this group, which is our focus at Boğaziçi University. The solution is simple: the content needs to be such that it appeals to young people and young professionals alike; more all encompassing if you like.

And the appropriate

In order to discover what the universal favorites are as topics, the popular haunts of modern man need to be studied. These include papers and magazines, computers and the internet and the entertainment industry in general. When one does so, certain facts leap out at one besides the obvious one that everything takes place very fast; one discovers to one’s surprise, that little has changed since the Middle Ages. The most popular forms of entertainment back then were public hangings, the gruesome details of which we don’t need to go into here, jousts and games. All this is still popular only it has all been transferred to the web; so is news about daring feats, murders, stories of bravery and shocking news on the whole. Murder mysteries such as “Criminal Minds”, “Law and Order”, “CSI”, “Cold Case” and the like; futuristic films and series such as” V”, “Flash forward”, Battle Star Gallactica and the like; vampire films such as True Blood, Vampire Diaries and the like; medical dramas such as “House”, “Grey’s Anatomy” and the like; and soaps involving regular people in their everyday lives are spawned by television companies at an alarming rate. In the last couple of years, it was “House”, a medical drama, and “Dexter”, the story of a serial killer with more than a couple of screws loose who is nevertheless made to seem appealing, that won Golden Globes. It is pretty obvious that that is the rout one needs to take as it is most likely to get the readers engaged. This does not mean one needs to give up on one’s dream of getting students to read publications like The Scientific American, The Economist, Psychology Today, The Guardian, the Times or the Observer; quite the reverse, postponement is a much more effective means of achieving that aim. The concept of “reading” needs to precede all those publications that we have on a pedestal. A good teacher has to swallow his pride if needs be for the greater good, and do the unthinkable as I had to do some years ago. I had a class who, try as I might, I could not get to cooperate. In the end, I put my cards on the table and confronted them: read we had to so what was it to be? They answered that they would be fine with The Cosmopolitan. I took this blow to my pride bravely, without a murmur; one does occasionally lose the battle but never the war. We did read The Cosmopolitan and I still have a few copies lying around, but we did get round to those five star magazines and papers and even books, just not immediately. The best thing was that when we did, the whole class was with me.

All time favorites

One does, over the years, get a feel for texts that will always take off no matter who the readers are, and it might be a good idea to look at a few examples here. I can’t stress often enough how vital it is to get the text right; when one does, the students will want to read and then all you will need to do will be to stand by and man the door while knowledge and skills go floating in. Keeping in mind the areas of interest listed above, I have trawled the internet regularly for years and built up an archive of suitable material one of which is “Overdose Kills Right-to-Die-Man.” It is the tragic story of 21 year old Vincent Humbert who is left completely paralyzed and blind after an accident. From the text, the reader discovers that he is a model citizen and has written to the French president to ask to be allowed to die – he can move his right thumb and like all his peers knows the computer keyboard off by heart. The request, it is discovered, has been refused whereupon his mother has put an overdose in his drip three years to the day after his accident. The text, which I have covered in class on numerous occasions, goes like a dream: there is a lot of excited discussion with students interrupting each other and yelling across the room, the writing task gets done in record time without a murmur and in the meantime vocabulary, critical thinking skills and the like get practiced too. Another text I use is titled “The Ethics of Climbing Everest” and combines excitement with an ethical dilemma. Mark Inglis, a double amputee, has climbed Everest with a team of 40 climbers. During the ascent, quite close to the summit, the team discovers a seriously injured climber who has been abandoned by his own team and left to his fate. Mark Inglis’ team does the same, not interrupting their race to the summit. This text too has never failed to fly; the ethical dilemma is obvious and many arguments and even scenarios are possible all of which are guaranteed to be dealt with noisily by any class. There will be some who will sympathize with the climbers, others who will quote the Bible and the Good Samaritan and still others who will say they should at least have stayed with the man and until he had died. With students focused so completely on the text, you can teach them pretty much everything: outlining, summarizing, vocabulary, you name it. From a text like this, you could move on to something like “Chad Child Kidnapping Angers Sarkozy” which concerns a charity organization which tried to bypass the red tape and take a hundred Darfur orphans out of the country to be adopted by French families. Were they orphans though? Where the motives of the charity pure or were they kidnapping children for the sex industry? Why did the families, who we discover exist, not turn up to receive the children? Finally, what is best for the children; to live their lives in a Chadian orphanage or with French families, who it turns out have paid through the nose for them? I am sure you have noticed the slow movement towards current dilemmas; a hop and a skip and you progress to dilemmas like “Instead of two states side by side why not one superimposed on the other?” which is a brilliant essay published in the Guardian outlining a novel solution to the Palestinian conflict. By playing into students natural inclinations, the teacher can, eventually, get the students to read and enjoy texts about more serious political issues as well. What one should never do is present the Guardian text first, Catcher in the Rye style, despite its quality. If this is done, perfectly good material will be wasted and students’ basic belief that all long texts without pictures are for nerds will be confirmed. The conclusion to be drawn from all this is that “When” is as important as “What”.

Waiting is hard though and impatience to just get on with that wonderful text out of The Economist on the Crusades, for example, will be eating at one; yet, desist one must. This only means that the Crusades need to be shelved temporarily while the ground is prepared for the edifice to follow. One possible first building block is a text off the bbc website called “The Origins of the Swastika” which explains the completely innocent and rather surprising origins of the symbol. In the current climate, as one might imagine, it goes like a dream. Like in most things in life, the starting point is the conceptually simple and palatable; the complex must come last. In Europe, democracy followed from the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment, the Industrial revolution, the French revolution, even the English Civil War. It is a form of government one needs to grow into so to speak; which begs the question why so many intelligent people, who should know better, are experimenting with nation building in Afghanistan but I digress. One needs to grow into reading in much the same way. The problem is that syllabus design should not just involve one particular period in a student’s life but the whole of their education. This, however, is beyond the scope of this paper. Suffice to say that this process of growing into reading needs to mimicked in the classroom with the students throughout the year. The syllabus needs to be designed with this in mind. The reading passages aspired to – the end result in terms of reading – need to be determined, and then the reading passages that will lead the students to this point need to be placed in the syllabus. If the order is got right, students will be reading whatever the teacher wants them to and enjoying it to boot come the end of the term. What is more, the students will even develop a lifelong reading habit, a feat secondary education fails to accomplish. In the second paper on reading, how the actual task should best be tackled will be addressed.

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