Good Books

“Hmm, this looks like a good book,” I hear the high pitched voice Chris from another aisle at the Boulder Public Library. “Yeah,” comes an audible nod of acceptance.

But how do you know? How can you tell?

I remember trolling the library in Brookline every week, wandering to the front with a stack of novels and books I had collected. I would burn through them, lounging on the couch in the living room, dragging them into the grassy back yard, hiding away beneath sheets late at night. I generally could read three books a week, most of them with wizards or warriors gracing the cover. In retrospect, few of them can be considered truly good books, but I guess that’s the downside to judging a book by its cover.

My friend and fellow teacher Mr. Newman and I have been discussing what makes a work worth reading. In part, we’ve discussed what makes it matter or what makes it meaningful. In whole, we’ve chatted about what makes something great or memorable. While our lists of great or important books overlap, they aren’t identical. Yet our rationales and criteria for how we choose those books are extremely similar even with different results.

Books matter when enough people read them. They gain meaning through interacting with each reader, providing different connections to their lives and/or the other texts they’ve experienced. They’re great when they provide multiple meanings to different people and remain fresh enough in our minds to have conversations about them days, weeks, months, or even years later.

It’s especially interesting to note that none of these criteria directly have to do with authorial intent or the content of the book. Instead, the act of reading is experiential, and, in the case of a good book, affirmational. Books, like all interactions we regard positively, need to make us feel intelligent and a part of something. We need to reach the other side feeling like we’ve learned something, whether it’s as complex as the nature of the universe or as simple as a few facts about a character. By the end, we need to feel as if we’ve come away a better person, even if what is better is knowing to avoid other books by the same author or on the same topic. Books connect us not simply to the content within, but to the people around us. Every time we read a book, we join a non-exclusive club of people who have read that book. We open the door to conversations and discussions, to finding our fellow club members. They bridge a divide and offer us the ability to talk beyond our own experience and to connect the experience of others, whether true or fictional, to our own lived experiences.

I can’t see these things in a cover. Even with the blurb on the back or the jacket.

I miss being able to pick up a book and, simply on first impression, believe it’ll be the best thing ever. Hyperbole aside, I continue to be impressed and surprised by all the new things I’m reading. I’m working on turning the cynicism of college back into the excitement of my youth.

Soon, I hope I can set the example by picking up every book and saying or thinking, “Hmm, this looks like a good book.”

The Pedagogical Problems with an Imaginary Classroom

My imaginary classroom doesn't need Stalinist propaganda posters like this one that reads, "Every farm hand, peasant and poor man should become a reader at the library."
In the imaginary classroom, constructivist theory would have us believe that education doesn’t need to be propagandized through transmissive means. This poster reads, “Every farm hand, peasant and poor man should become a reader at the library.” Image from here.

In my pre-service teacher preparation program we’re often asked to perform a task with our imaginary classroom in mind. The students we’re teaching don’t exist yet. The space we claim as our own doesn’t exist yet. The lessons we hope to impart are merely twinkles in our teacher eyes. Yet we have to take the practice of teaching, one currently steeped in the idea that lessons need to be engaging and applicable and serve our students needs, and apply it to a real that doesn’t seem applicable, which relies on us for engagement, and which I fear doesn’t serve my needs.

Yesterday in my English Methods and Materials class, we were asked to choose a constructivist practice we might want to use in the classroom and come up with a rationale and explanation for our students. Each group chose a different one: engaging in a dialogue with text, creating a culture of self-assessment, and using exploratory language.

Constructivism is a theory of learning that states meaning and knowledge are co-created through interacting with information in conversation, experiment and activity, often in group-based learning.

Transmission-based learning is a means of labeling the traditional classroom and criticising the structure of power that makes knowledge defined and static, to be transmitted from the teacher to the learner.

In every group, our first instinct was to come up with activities for our imaginary classroom that would help our students engage with the practice. As we sat there, excitedly building on our initial ideas, our professor came around to each group and joined into the discussion. She reminded us that the exercise wasn’t to come up with a routine or application for our imaginary classroom, but a reason. When that student in the back who resists and fights back against everything demands a reason, what do we say to them?

Needless to say, this stymied me.

I was that student. I sat in the back staring out the window, disengaged, but still able to raise my hand and ask the question you dread: Why are we doing this?

I was resistant to the structures of education because so much work seemed to be a waste of my time, grunt work. I was resistant because it didn’t seem relevant to my needs and interests nor fun. I was resistant because being resistant was more challenging than school.

In the imaginary classroom, our answers are functional and will sway the class. In reality, though, our answers must be catered to our actual students in our classroom. When a student resists, the odds our impassioned explanation and warrant sway them to action are slim to none. Every minute we spend arguing and rationalizing and explaining in hope of engaging that student is a minute away from the activity we actually want to be doing.

When I speak to science teachers, they spend a minimal amount of  time explaining the rationale before jumping into the activity; it’s a given that science classrooms are exploratory and constructivist. Experimentation is the mode of science and the crux of engagement.

Books, literature, math, and history don’t often have tactile sensations or explosion to draw in students. The constructivist method may be better for deeper understanding, but how good can it be when we need to lecture or explain in traditional transmissive modes to get kids to engage?

To my professor’s credit, she acknowledged the flaws inherent in designing for an imaginary classroom. We cannot tailor to individual needs without individuals. Adjusting to the active, current needs of students is impossible without active, current students. The resistance we get is our own.

It’s this last one that’s perhaps the most damning for me. As I sat there, contemplating the resistance, I knew there’d come a point where my teachers would have to move on because I would not give in. In my imaginary classroom, I was my problem student, and I wasn’t giving in. I wanted to react the same way as my teachers did: to hell with rationale and introduction; let the activity and action speak for itself.

This is an viable way to teach, but it will not serve every students’ needs. The rest of my class struggled with this too, wanting to focus on the means and exercises instead of the rationale. And where we struggled, wanting to dive into the means, I’ve since realized that the rationale isn’t really for the resisting student, but for all the others who listen when your troublemaker speaks up.

When I resist, it’s for my benefit, no one else’s. There’s no denying the rest of the class is an audience. The rationale my professor asked for didn’t need to be perfect because it can’t truly be meant for those that resist. Instead, it needs to be good enough that everyone listening, who just had their learning interrupted, is secure that they made the right choice.

If we want our imaginary classroom to truly embrace constructivist methods, we can’t let ourselves spend too much time resisting and seeking perfection.