Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Topic: Purpose in Reading

Purpose of this blog: Reviews of interesting ideas in past professional English education journals.

10-second review: How I learned that I did not have to read every sentence from first page to last page.

This excerpt is taken from my book, Teaching English, How To…. By Raymond Stopper, Xlibris, July 2004, pp. 325-328.

In my first year of teaching, a dramatic example of the power of setting purpose for reading changed forever the way I read for information. Suddenly, I understood the meaning of Bacon’s 1625 advice that some books need to be read only in parts. At no time in my schooling, from first grade through college, had anyone ever suggested that “you don’t have to read everything.” I almost always read as if I had to read every word from beginning to end, and the only alternative, I thought I had, was, frankly, to decide not to read long assignments at all.

My first year of teaching English was very busy, I needed time to plan my lessons, to mark tests and compositions, and to find interesting ways to teach difficult subjects like writing and grammar. In addition, all teachers were required to oversee an extracurricular activity and, in the spring, I became co-director of the Junior class play. Still, in addition to the duties associated with teaching, I picked this particular spring to enroll in a master’s degree program in English. One afternoon a week, I had to drive many miles down to the university, which was just outside Philadelphia, to attend a class, and then turn around and drive back again to southern Lancaster County to be in time for play practice, usually held in the evening after supper.

The course in which I was enrolled was called The Life of Johnson, Dr. Samuel, that is. In addition to the texts of Johnson’s poetry and essays and Boswell’s biography, the instructor required that we read one book of criticism of Johnson and to report on it in class.

With everything else I had to do, that book went on the shelf. Occasionally, I looked at it and said to myself,” I really need to get to it or I’m going to be in trouble.” But I didn’t “get to it.” Weeks passed, then months, and, suddenly, it was the day before I was scheduled to report on that book in my graduate class. I was desperate. I had not even cracked the cover.

After play practice that evening, I came back to my room, took down the book and thought about what I could do. I was tired. I had just completed a full day of teaching and play directing, faced the same prospect tomorrow and with no break, needed to drive down to the university immediately after school for my class on Dr. Johnson. And this time I needed to report on a book I had not read.

At first, I thought about calling the professor and telling him I was sick. “No,” I decided, “that’s ‘bush league.’ He’d see through that excuse in a minute. This is not an undergraduate course,” I told myself.  “This is a graduate course. Faking illness on a day when an assignment was due would be a bad strategy in the first course of my master’s degree program.”

Finally, I decided to spend two hours learning as much as I could about the book, taking another two hours to write my speech, and then, regardless of how good or bad it was, to take my chances. It would be late, but I needed to have some sleep before trying to teach the next day. l was no longer capable of pulling “all-nighters.” I would allow myself four hours to do what I could. Not a second more. I planned to be in bed at 1:00 a.m., no later.

To be continued.

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