SparkNotes Nation

Sparknotes-Fahrenheit 451SparkNotes Their EyesSparkNotes Huck Finn

Amid all the cries that the Common Core Standards are asking too much of us—at least without more time and support—are a smaller but still vocal group of voices that say they’re nothing new. Many of these voices belong to high school teachers who’ve been asking text-based questions for years and requiring students to support whatever claims they make in discussions and essays with evidence. For them, the only new requirement is to add more nonfiction to the mix, which, again, some were doing already, assigning books such as Jon Krakauer‘s Into the Wild and Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickeled and Dimed.

Many of these teachers do a fabulous job of engaging their students with great literature and building their capacity for critical thinking. But the emphasis on teaching texts instead of readers—particularly on teaching that attempts to direct students toward a particular, pre-determined and/or widely-accepted interpretation of a text—has also had the effect of sending thousands, if not millions, of students to SparkNotes where they can find out what they ‘should’ think without actually reading the book.

This was, in fact, the sad discovery of the head of a high school English department I worked with several years ago, who had asked his students to anonymously fill out a questionnaire at the end of the year after grades were in. His American Literature class had read a wide range of texts that year—poetry, essays, plays and short stories, along with four book-length texts. And for each of those four books he asked the students to put a check beside one of the following four statements.

I read the entire book on my own.

I read part of the book and then turned to SparkNotes.

I only read SparkNotes.

I read neither the book nor SparkNotes.

graded-paper-300x225What he found gave him serious pause. While over 80% of the students read Angela’s Ashes, the first book-length text he’d assigned, less than 20% actually read the last book, The Grapes of Wrath, with the largest percentage just reading SparkNotes, and some not even doing that. What was almost worse was that every student had passed the class, which meant that they’d either doctored or plagiarized papers they’d found online or were able to figure out what they were supposed to think by attending to the cues the teacher gave during class discussions.

And so on the heels of those dispiriting numbers, we decided to experiment with the idea of choice and book groups the following year, with the students actually reading in class then discussing what they read with their peers. We wanted them to read multiple texts, and so we designed a unit using short stories that all had teenage protagonists and were written by American authors, such as Joyce Carol Oates‘s “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?”, Tobias Wolff‘s “The Liar“, and Michael Cunningham‘s “White Angels“. And we asked them to use their groups to consider what the author of each story seemed to be saying about the challenges of growing up in America.

CHOICEWe gave the students a brief description of the stories, let them choose which ones they wanted to read, and formed groups based on those choices. And since it quickly became apparent that many of them had no strategies for talking or thinking about books on their own, we recruited several other English teachers to demonstrate a discussion of Sylvia Plath’s story “Initiation,” which was one of three stories the whole class had read before breaking into groups.

During that discussion, we asked the students to pay attention to what the teachers did—not just their ideas about the story, but how they constructed those ideas. And from what they noticed, we co-created a list of strategies and discussion moves they could use that looked like this:

Text-Based Strategies 2

© 2008 Vicki Vinton, Literacy Consultant, http://tomakeaprairie.wordpress.com

Noticing and naming what the teachers had done helped many of the students to notice more in the stories they were reading. A group of students, for instance, reading Maxine Swann‘s story “Flower Children,” about a counter-culture couple in the 70′s attempting to raise their brood of children without rules or inhibitions, noticed how often idyllic or utopian exclamations—such as “They’re the luckiest children alive!”—were paired with images of darkness or death. And as they read additional stories, students started noticing patterns across texts, including many characters who longed for the past and many who ultimately felt let down by the people who supposedly cared for them the most. And noticing this, they began to consider what these patterns suggested the different authors might be saying about what it means to grow up.

This process invited students to independently engage in the kind of close reading that is now being promoted by the Standards and to construct their own interpretations based on what they’d noticed. It also allowed them to develop a new appreciation for literature and of themselves as readers, as can be seen in this student reflection:

Student Response 2

BookCaps Study GuideFast-forward now to our present moment when, if search engine terms that bring people to this blog are any indication, close reading and text-dependent questions are on lots of teachers’ minds. Bringing the reading of texts into the classroom rather than assigning them for homework may reduce the reliance on SparkNotes—though they now offer apps for IPhones and Androids, which many students manage to use, despite prohibitions, in class. And lest this seems just like a high school problem, it’s worth noting that new companies like BookCaps are cropping up, selling study guides to books like Because of Winn-DixieBridge to Terabithia and Sign of the Beaver for, as SparkNotes’s motto puts it, “When your books and teachers don’t make sense.”

I believe that unless we make room for diverse interpretations built from what students notice—and focus as much on teaching readers as texts and on thinking as much as on answers—it’s highly probably that students will continue to rely on SparkNotes or find alternatives to beat the system, because they’re actually resourceful and smart. They read us as closely as we’d like them to read texts, trying to figure out what we want in order to give it to us. And I think that means that if we truly want to students to construct their own meaning and not just take on established ideas that are available at the click of a mouse or the touch of a screen, we may need to take a closer look at what messages we’re sending out about what we really want from them.

More Ways to Skin the Information Writing Cat

I certainly believe that, as teachers, we need to prepare students for the kinds of academic writing they’ll be asked to do as they move up the grades and into college by teaching them to write powerful essays that demonstrate deep understandings of content. But I don’t think they need a steady diet of thesis-driven essays. And so last week I looked at using Dummies books to engage students in information writing.

This week I offer three other ways of writing engaging nonfiction pieces that explain and inform. All three are grounded in one or more mentor texts that students can study for structure and craft. And all three invite students to write with passion, voice, insight and even humor in a mode of writing that sometimes runs the risk of becoming mechanical and dry.

Compare & Contrast: Using a Children’s Picture Book to Explore Different Perspectives

As opinion writing made its way to lower schools, many teachers discovered the wonderful picture book Hey, Little Ant by Phillip and Hannah Hoose. In rhyming couplets, the book recounts the debate between a boy, who is poised to squish an ant, and the ant, who pleads for his life by mounting a persuasive argument that provides all sorts of facts about ants. And it ends with the following invitation for readers to decide:

Many teachers use this question as a prompt to write opinion pieces about the merits of killing or letting the ant live, using the arguments in the book to support their position. In fact, the book is so popular, it spawned its own website, which one year sponsored a Hey, Little Ant essay contest for kindergarten through third-grade students. But I like to use the book instead as a mentor text for writing information pieces that set two characters with opposing viewpoints together, say, a gray wolf who’s been reintroduced in the west and a rancher who wants to hunt him, or Columbus and a Taino Indian discussing who was here first. A Hey, LIttle Ant-inspired book would let students explore both the facts and misconceptions about each side’s position—while letting kids play around with rhyme without sacrificing meaning.

Narrative Procedures Re-Invented: Unleashing the Power of the Second-Person Point of View

While narrative procedures do not appear, as such, on the Common Core Standards, they are a kind of writing that informs or explains a process or procedure, which makes them a good vehicle for meeting the information writing standard. Unfortunately, though, for some students that means explaining how to make something like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich year after year after year. And so at some point I and a few intrigued teachers began rethinking procedural writing in middle school by introducing how-to essays and stories written in the second person, such as Lorrie Moore‘s “A Kid’s Guide to Divorce” and two pieces by high school students.

The first is Chris Kanarick’s hilarious “How to Survive Shopping with Mom,” which appears in the wonderful anthology Starting with ‘I’: Personal Essays by Teenagersand includes many priceless moments, such as the following:

As you and Mom begin your leisurely stroll through the first floor of the mall, Mom will suddenly veer off to the left, arms out-stretched, eyes wide, and nose in the air looking like something out of The Night of the Living Dead. Mothers can smell a sale from a mile away. There is no scientific explanation for this, it just happens. Follow her. You have no choice. Remember who’s got the money.

And then there’s Dorsey Seignious’s incredibly moving “When You,” which appears in another great anthology for older students, You Are Here, This is Now and acts as an instruction manual for grieving:

When watching someone die, you must be very quiet. Always look down at the ground and examine your feet. Be uncomfortable and very somber. Allow your eyes to fill with tears. You will bite your lip until it bleeds, but you won’t notice until you wipe your tears with your sleeve and feel the sting of the sleeve on your lips. You will see the bloodstain on your sleeve, and then you will believe.

There is something strangely liberating about writing in the second person. I’m not exactly sure why this happens. I think it gives the writer more distance from his subject than the first person point of view does, while allowing for more intimacy than the close or omniscient third person. Whatever the reason, students are often eager to try it on after reading pieces like these, and when they do they write with more voice and detail than they have before—even when exploring more academic topics.

Real-Life Responses to Literature: Appreciations & Forewards

Finally, in Thinking Through Genre, Heather Lattimer uses Tobias Wolff’s introduction to Raymond Carver’s short story collection Cathedral as a masterful example of real-life reading response for her “Response to Literature” chapter. I was happy to discover it there, but it was only when I started reading forewards to re-issued classic children’s books, such as Anna Quindlen’s “Appreciation” to the 2007 edition of Madeleine L’Engle‘s A Wrinkle in Timethat I began to consider the possibilities of studying forewards as a genre.

Writers of forewards and appreciations explore the meaning a book held for them, while also summarizing and talking about elements such as characters and themes. They also usually include a memoir-ish vignette about reading the book for the first time and they frequently touch on the reasons why we read, as Michael Chabon does here in his foreward to the 50th Anniversary edition of The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. “Milo’s journey, Chabon writes,

. . . was mine as a reader, and my journey was his, and ours was the journey of all readers venturing into wonderful books, into a world made entirely, like Juster’s, of language, by language, about language. While you were there, everything seems fraught and new and notable, and when you returned . . . the ‘real world’ seemed deeper, richer at once explained and, paradoxically, more mysterious than ever.

To try on forewards, I like to invite older students to think about a book they loved as a child—whether it’s The Cat in the Hat, Captain Underpants, or Tuck Everlasting—and re-read it to try to better understand the magic it once held for them (and perhaps holds even still). These books are clearly not on the complexity band for these students’ grade level, but I’d like to make a case for this being an example of the “Simple Text, Complex Task” approach, which helps students practice the kind of critical thinking they need to do at their grade level with an accessible text that ultimately helps them write about more complex texts.

All three ideas also help students deeply engage with writing—and for that reason alone, they’re great.