Every English teacher I know chose our subject because, at some point, a great writer got us just a little drunk on words. For us, it’s intoxicating to read a well-turned phrase. We buy coffee mugs with famous first lines and tee-shirts with our favorite authors’ quotations. We get students to paint murals of book covers with insightful book excerpts on walls in the English hallway.
If words are the grapes in the hands of a skilled vintner, then reading quizzes have to be the ultimate buzz-kill. No English teacher became one because her own English teacher gave a multiple choice assessment on every homework assignment.
Tenth grade is my only year of high school that I don’t remember a single work I read with fondness. In fact, though I recognize as a teacher that some of the greatest speeches in Shakespeare sing from the pages of Julius Caesar, it remains, to this day, my least favorite of the bard’s plays.
Why? My tenth grade teacher gave a multiple choice quiz on nearly every reading assignment. And one day he announced to the class, “I’m going to keep making these quizzes harder until Estelene fails one.” I remember his toothy smile in that moment as the closest grin to Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat’s that I’ve ever seen on a human face.
My friends begged me to take a bullet for the class. But knowing that I needed scholarships if I wanted to attend college, I refused. Each time the teacher handed out new paper, still smelling of chemicals from the mimeograph machine, the class erupted in a collective groan. To my classmates’ credit, they never bullied me as the teacher did, and after a few weeks we all sighed with relief when he pulled out quizzes that had clearly been handled by many grubby hands before ours.
After that experience, I wonder now why I ever gave a single reading quiz when I became a teacher myself. But I did. And when, with the advent of an ever-expanding menu of cable television channels, students became less interested in reading, I did what many teachers did: I gave more frequent reading quizzes to hold students accountable.
I remember the exact school year when I realized that reading quizzes were having the opposite effect on my own tenth graders than the one I wanted. I had broadened my reading list to a more diverse group of authors that I thought might interest my students. It helped, but it didn’t solve the problem. Faced with a large number of failing grades early in the marking period, I told students that if they hadn’t read, they’d be dining with me for lunch until they did. I enlisted the support of their parents and the administrators, and their grades came up.
But two things happened that changed my thinking about English teachers as reading police. I looked up from my desk at the sea of miserable faces jailed in my classroom at lunch while their friends were enjoying the fall weather in the courtyard below. My students were reading. But they weren’t getting a buzz from the literature I loved.
That afternoon in one of my honors classes, a few of my students displayed far more courage than my classmates and I had. “Ms. B.,” one pleaded, “I swear I read. But who pays attention to how Holden is dressed? Let me come in after school, and you can quiz me face-to-face, and I know I can prove to you that I read those chapters.” And she did. And when word got out, I had a line of students asking for the same opportunity.
The next day, I asked students to write down four or five quotations from the reading that they found interesting or that raised a question for them, and I had them write about one of those passages. I rarely led whole class discussions of books, preferring instead to give small groups topics and have them lead the discussion. But that day, I had them begin their group discussions with what they wanted to talk about. Their discussions were lively, and the surprising thing to me was that they were drawn to all the things I would have pointed their attention to had I been leading a whole-class discussion.
I never gave another multiple choice reading quiz. After that fall, I tried to find creative ways to make whatever happened in class meaningful and engaging, both for the students who had read and for those who had not. I gave choices of books more often, and some students would finish one and ask for another and then join the discussion on the one they liked best.
As I let go of policing the reading, I experienced more of what I’ve always considered my favorite moment in the classroom—when a student has an insight that has never occurred to me.
I’m certain that some students didn’t read the books I assigned, even though I never stopped expecting them to. But I’m equally certain that once I gave up demanding that they pay if they hadn’t read, I saw more students discover favorite authors and get a little tipsy as they sipped the words on the page.
So as long as we’re having a national conversation about the assessments that are imposed on us from outside, let’s also think about what we ourselves are doing either to kill or instill a love of reading and writing and learning.
How do we share with students our love of the great writers?