The knack, and how to get it

Reading seems a simple task. But Bob Blaisdell, a teacher of English and a voracious reader, knows just how tough it can be

April 2, 2009

Anybody with a grasp of English can write well, so I don't think much about how to teach writing in my developmental classes at the community college. I play it by ear, and sometimes I take chances and sometimes I fall back on successful assignments, and when I get tired of them, I think of others.

Even young people as inattentive and edgy and uncomfortable in the classroom as some of my students can, after a few minutes (sometimes I think, "No, they're not going to ever settle down! Today's the day the writing won't happen!" - but it always does), settle into the writing. Busy, they're busy, writing, looking around, making something. Everybody can make something. I know that one doesn't have to have written a lot to write well (we all know examples of this) and we all agree that someone can have a knack for writing, but I don't know how you can have a knack for reading well without having read a lot and with a passion.

So I can trick students into writing well - they're more surprised than I am that they have something inside that they have been able to express on paper. I can also prep students for portfolio reviews of their writing and for taking system-wide exams, and I can get them through those about as well as anybody I know. (I have to say again, as I have said elsewhere, that that's not only to my pride but to my shame.) But nobody I know knows how to teach reading to people who already know how to read. I teach writing by having the students write. I ask for and receive - to their own pleasure, sometimes - the objects that students produce. But reading? There are no tangible products. The reading goes in, but how does it come out? What does it do inside there?

If our students know how to read, what do we mean by teaching reading? We all of us read happily and lazily, intently and ravenously, with difficulty and with ease. Yes, most of us professors read better than our students, but we all of us have to fight for those moments where we are fully engaged, fully alive to the writer and the writing. (How often are we fully engaged, fully alive to the people in our lives?)

Rather than scold my students for their preferring other amusements to reading, I have taken to confessing to my students that reading just happens to be something that I love to do. I tell them I am addicted to it. I tell them that in the same way that some adventurous people never panic even if they're lost in the woods, I never panic when I'm reading, wandering around, lost, because I know I'll find a way out when I need to. I'll make it to a clearing. I'm armed with dictionaries and I'm smug enough that I figure that if I can't make it out, almost nobody else could either.

I tell them about how way back when I was their age, I went on a weekend getaway with a girlfriend, and that one of her rules for our 48 hours was that we occupy ourselves solely with each other. We could do anything we liked in bed except read. I went out the first night to a convenience store and bought us some food but also sneaked a newspaper into my haul. As I walked slowly back to the motel, I sucked up the words as if they were vitamins. When I got back with the loot, she made me put the paper down. Later, after she fell asleep, I sneaked into the bathroom with a book I had smuggled along in my backpack, and I read and read, cheating on her. I never forgave that girlfriend for that weekend.

I understand that addictions dominate us, and that it's hard to imagine the lives of people who do not share our addictions. Reading is a good, healthy, enlightening addiction, but so is exercise, and I know that there's no use sharing that self-congratulatory information with anybody. What I can't live without, my students can and have - so we're different. Most of my colleagues do not read as much as I do, so I admit that I feel testy when they get uppity about students' lack of aptitude for reading. I think our feelings of moral superiority to our students about our affinity for reading are no more attractive or useful in the classroom than they would be in our friendships or marriages. Admitting to my students that I have this passion, I do not fall so often into the feeling that they are pitifully impoverished. Without reading, I would be pitifully impoverished, but let's assume when we teach reading that they're not impoverished.

Let's assume that reading is a physical skill - akin to dancing or singing. How many repetitions does it take for a dance step to look smooth, natural, well timed?

I write this watching my nine-year-old daughter in her tap-dancing class - the teacher is a pro, my daughter and her classmate are not. While the girls take a minute to get a drink of water from down the hall, Eliza, the teacher, dances to herself, watching her movements in the mirror, figuring out the steps. She then, on the girls' return, teaches the dance, they observing and imitating. The girls have tap-danced for a few years, they naturally imitate. They repeat and repeat. There is no pity - as far as I can tell - in the teacher for the girls.

Several years ago, when I was more limber and daring, I took some capoeira (a Brazilian martial art and dance form) classes with my son. One day we had a substitute teacher who spoke no English, and his directions to me were simple, because he observed that my problems were simple - he pointed to his eyes, pointed at me, and then back at his chest. He then made some sweeping leg movements, trunk twists and one-handed vaulting push-ups. I followed suit and fell on my face. He shook his head, seeing what had gone wrong. It was simple: I hadn't done what he did. So he pointed to his eyes, to my eyes, and then at his chest and did his moves again. I gamely and lamely tried again, prepared (this time) to fall on my face, and I did, and my son asked, "Are you all right?"

What our teacher did not appreciate - and what many of my non-teaching friends cannot - is the depth of ignorance, or perhaps the vast plain of ignorance, of those who do not have our experience. As a teacher I have next to no contempt for my students' ignorance. I understand it, sympathise with it and know its comforts - because in many other areas, I am slow-to-go. Watching my own children learn to read - it was watching more than teaching, nudging more than leading - I soon saw them, in their drive, by the time they were eight, surpass some of my students. The repetitions, at their ages, were frustrating, but not humiliating. When I pushed I got tears.

Many of my students from Russia and Ukraine have read many books, and some of my female native English speakers read as a hobby, but usually trashy stuff. Yet my remedial students, these young men and women who almost never read, pretend all the time that reading is easy. They pretend, but they know - they know in their depths, it's hard.

Anthony Trollope, The Claverings

Men and women say that they will read, and think so, - those, I mean, who have acquired no habit of reading, - believing the work to be, of all works, the easiest. It may be work, they think, but of all works it must be the easiest of achievement. Given the absolute faculty of reading, the task of going through the pages of a book must be, of all tasks, the most certainly within the grasp of the man or woman who attempts it! Alas, no; - if the habit be not there, of all tasks it is the most difficult. If a man have not acquired the habit of reading till he be old, he shall sooner in his old age learn to make shoes than learn the adequate use of a book. And worse again; - under such circumstances the making of shoes shall be more pleasant to him than the reading of a book. Let those who are not old, - who are still young, ponder this well.

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