Perhaps the most valuable result of all education is the ability to make yourself do the thing you have to do, when it ought to be done, whether you like it or not. – Walter Bagehot, British economist, essayist, and critic
A colleague recently attended a workshop and brought me back a delightful book, What Teachers Make by Taylor Mali. Among many inspiring quotes in the book, this one is at the beginning of chapter in which Mali discusses why he doesn’t let middle schoolers leave class to go to the bathroom or especially ‘to get a drink of water’. Though not trying to be mean, Mali says that “much of life is simply learning to buckle down and do what you have to do even though you don’t really feel like doing it.” Furthermore he says, “Great teaching moments happen in the classroom all the time when you least expect them! It would be a shame if a students missed one just because he had a short attention span or a habit of cutting out when things got slightly uncomfortable.”
I see adult life all over that quote. Mature adults don’t just “cut out when things get slightly uncomfortable.” Isn’t some of working, parenting, marriage and homemaking buckling down and doing what you don’t really feel like doing? I remind my students when they are tempted to complain about their assignments that changing their diapers and doing their laundry isn’t the fun part of parenting, that paying bills isn’t something anyone ever feels like doing, that entering grades on the computer is boring to me and I’m never in the mood to do it, but it’s part of my job and pretty important to them.
This quote and Taylor Mali’s point are perhaps most poignant this week because I am in the midst of teaching ancient Greek literature to fourteen-year-olds who like to remind me daily, “This is hard,” “I don’t understand it,” “ But I don’t like to read.” As if somehow those statements will make the curriculum optional. They might could skate through life without having read Homer’s Odyssey, but they will not skate through life without the ability to read a complex text. In a college preparatory school, the expectation of their parents is that they will attend four-year universities and receive a professional degree. To think one can do that without reading complex material is asinine. History, biology, calculus: do those college texts come in easy-to-read entertaining formats? Are nursing students and future engineers and business majors now getting degrees without reading? No matter how tech savvy this generation may be, the need to read complex material, critically think it through to discern its meaning, importance, and validity will never go away. In fact, it may be more important than ever in this digital age where communication is its various forms is more subtle than its ever been.
Technology provides all sorts of ways to make the task of reading complex materials easier. For my students who are in an Apple 1:1 school, their textbook in online with an audio feature. Struggling readers can listen to The Odyssey being read to them. The internet provides an infinite number of possibilities to search for supplemental materials to help one understand the story. As a teacher, I scaffold the reading with guiding questions, comprehension checks, visual aids and class discussions. Still, as Carol Jago, one of the leading English educators in the field, says, “It is not possible to teach classical literature to students who will not read outside of class.” I might add, even more impossible if they won’t read in class either.