No Book?

We’ve already discussed the value of real, paper textbooks and what to do when schools don’t provide them. Now, let’s turn to another increasingly common problem: when schools don’t provide copies of the novels students read for language arts classes. Let me paint the picture for you.

There aren’t enough copies of The Great Gatsby to go around, so instead of each student checking out a copy to take home and read, there is just a single set of books shared by all of the classes. During class, each student is handed a book, and the teacher then begins playing the audiobook. In theory, the students read along at the exact same pace as the audiobook, and everyone experiences the book at the exact same rate.

Some of Seattle’s public high schools (I’m not naming names) are running English classes in this way, and I imagine others around the country are doing the same. I’m sure they have their reasons – lack of funding is probably at the top – but as someone passionate about student learning, I find this methodology upsetting. Oh, and by the way, the students don’t like it either.

While it may be obvious, we do need to talk about why this is bad.

Many students process language slower than the pace of an audiobook, and they quickly fall behind. Then, they spend the entire rest of the book lost, confused, and getting nothing out of their classroom time. And remember the 3 P’s? How can students pause, paraphrase, and predict when they’re listening to an audiobook as a group? Listening is too passive. Reading should be active. You should have as many chances as you like to stop and think about what’s going on, to reread a confusing section, to jot down notes and questions, to imagine what happens next.

Later, students are asked to write an essay about the book. But when they sit down at home to write their essay, they don’t have a copy of the book to use! Ideally, they’d have a book full of sticky-notes marking good quotes that they might use for their essay. Instead, they’re online, pulling up a free PDF of the book, and hunting through that for quotes. Ugh.

And that is to say nothing about how this is an incredibly poor use of class time. At the risk of sounding like an old man, I want to point out that back in my day (which wasn’t that long ago), we read the books at home and then discussed the books in class. And the teacher spent class time leading those discussions and, well, teaching rather than just clicking a play button. But don’t get me wrong – I’m not judging these teachers. I imagine most English teachers dislike this system as much as I do, and they’re just locked into it by insufficient funding and administrative policies. The point is, if you’re hoping to have your students arrive at a deep understanding of the text and internalize the lessons that it offers, the in-class audiobook program isn’t going to cut it.

Of course I want parents to speak up on behalf of their children, and of course I want voters to approve greater funding for our public schools. But, in the meantime, I also want students and parents to know how to take matters into their own hands.

Classics like The Great Gatsby are easy to get from your local library, commonly available at used book stores, and dirt-cheap on Amazon. Whatever route you choose, it’s definitely worth it to get your own copy of the book. Parents can support this by offering to buy the book, or helping students learn how to navigate the library’s holds system. (You can reserve a book from anywhere in Seattle’s libraries and pick it up at your local branch, all from the comfort of your home computer.)

And because you’re missing out on classroom discussion, you might need to seek out some other analyses of the book in order to understand it. My favorite source for this is CrashCourse Literature with John Green, which is both entertaining and very informative. (But CrashCourse is really fast, so pause often and take notes!) Sadly, he hasn’t covered every book students read in school, so you might need to look elsewhere.

So, should you find yourself in an English class with no book to take home, I hope you take it upon yourself to make the best of this unfortunate situation and go get the book.

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