Friday, January 30, 2009

How Much Should English Teachers Read?

Recently, someone thinking about becoming an English teacher asked me, “Do English teachers need to read constantly?”

Quickly, I thought, “Gosh, no. English teachers just need to want to read constantly!” But the more I thought about it, the more I focused on words like “need” and “constantly.” Then I wondered, read what? Fiction? Historical documents? Convoluted student prose? Poetry? Professional journals? Do English teachers “need” to do the kind of reading that made them love the subject in the first place? How much do I nurture my love of reading as it competes for time with the reading I do grading, preparing lessons, and keeping up with the profession?

I also read newspapers to keep up my citizenry, and I read aloud to my kid. I flip through a variety of cooking magazines. However, my love of fiction and poetry, the reading that led me to teaching English as opposed to chemistry, doesn’t get much dedicated time. Honestly, when I sit down with some serious new fiction, I often fall asleep. Unlike in my college years, when I found poetry cathartic, I now find the emotional potency a bit overwhelming. I read some light fiction for fun, but I’m running dangerously close to becoming one of those English teachers who thinks 1984 is cutting edge contemporary fiction.

So what’s my answer? “Do English teachers need to read constantly?” Well, I think good English teachers probably do read pretty constantly. It just doesn’t happen to be the kind of recreational reading that we loved before we taught full time. This sincere question, from someone reflecting on whether or not she should pursue the profession, has reminded me that making time to read new, contemporary voices in literature is part of my professional responsibility. I think I need to prioritize reading new fiction like I prioritize other parts of my job instead of leaving it on the nightstand to usher me into sleep. Keeping up with new voices in literature will only enhance my ability to teach tomorrow’s students, right?

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher


Nicole said...

I always feel guilty that I'm not constantly reading. This makes me feel a little better!

Kevin said...

The answer to the question posted in your blog is this: I DO think we, as English teachers, owe our students and ourselves the time to read and explore new, contemporary literature (but where to find the TIME or ENERGY with all of the many jobs we already have on our shoulders?)

I think short stories and essays are one way to approach the problem. They are relatively less time consuming than the novel, and I think they are taught (as a form) moreso than novels in English classes (at least, they have the monopoly in our literature anthologies - no?)

I look for bargain sales racks and tables in the major book chains and recently found two great collections: one of essays from 2008 and the other a collection of the best "new" writing coming out of the top writing programs across the US (2007). I really enjoy squeezing these stories and essays in wherever I can - at lunch, with my morning coffee, before bed. I just think it's important to see and read what others are saying are the "best" of new writing.

Yes - we owe it to ourselves, and to our students, to find the time to read regularly. It's hard, granted, but we need to find ways to make that time and fit it into our jammed lives. If for no other reason, it fuels our own passion for what led us into this profession in the first place - the power of literature.

Anonymous said...

Personal reading has usually taken a back seat during the school year. Who has the time to read fiction, 'guiltlessly', when those corrections are so enticing? I suspect, as it is with most of my "teacher" friends, reading will be left to sunfilled days and iced tea, by the pool. Venturing to pick up a book from that stack so precariously stacked for later, one risks a sleepless night and sharing the joy with my classes; only to hear "Huh, you don't have our essays!"

Kate Kellen said...

Kevin, I think your suggestion about short stories and essays is an excellent one. I think I'll start there myself...Anonymous, your characterization of a class of students being disappointed not to have their essays rather than excited to hear of their teacher's literary journey cracks me up--so true! Nicole, I'm glad this discussion makes you feel better; I enjoy sharing this community, too. Thanks for reading, everyone!


ceyo said...

I agree with your point about wanting to read. Where there's a will there's a way. But as an English teacher, I'd have to say "no" to "constantly." Maybe "regularly" or "whenever I get a chance," though it may seem like a "constant."

Shannon said...

I've taught English for the past 16 years, and finally (two years ago), decided during a New Year's Resolution to let myself read again, even during {gasp} the school year. I had never squeezed in any pleasure reading before, because I have always made myself wait until my list of "to-do's" was finished. I finally realized that day was never coming!

The downsides: there ARE days that I stumble in on 4 hours of sleep because I could not put down a book.

The upsides: although my students may be disappointed that I read instead of grading, a great many of them understood my sleeplessness when I FINALLY read the Twilight series they'd be harrassing me to pick up. It was such a joy to discuss the sheer LOVE of reading with some of my students. It caused even more of them to get the books!

All in all, I'm glad I'm reading for pleasure again. It's worth it!

Anonymous said...

Yes! We do need to read constantly! I can say with pride that I read constantly, and I have two kids under 14, and another job AND I run marathons.

Time for me? THAT is my time, when I read! I can only read Friday and Sunday's newspaper, but I read the New Yorker every week (great essays), and I am rereading Heart of Darkness, and I read Junot Diaz's novel when I go to the bathroom.

I read while I cook and I read when I wait (if I have to wait anywhere in line).

I only sleep five hours a night, but I catch up during the weekend. I am healthy and I thank God for such passion...every now and then, though, I do feel the negative effects, but thinking about the summer just keeps me going, when I read at least four novels from the best seller's list. Happy Reading!

The Shadow of the Wind seems to be my favorite novel.

AHSNelson said...

Hey, I hear you! I agree. English teachers need to keep reading. I somehow manage to squeeze it in when I can't manage to find the time to exercise. When my kids were little, I'd treat myself to some new fiction every long weekend or holiday break we had. Then over the summer, I'd squeeze in a bunch. I think it helps students to see teachers as reader models. It's also a great connection when I get to know a student and can make a personal recommendation. Thanks for bringing up such an important issue. Hope lots are following your thoughts!