English teachers are lucky, but they have a tough job. It is fun to be able to continue reading, writing, and learning while working to help students develop their minds and personalities. It is not so much fun, however, to put up with unmotivated, apathetic, and disruptive students who want nothing more than to be out of your classroom and one hour closer to going home. That’s the challenge–reaching students who prefer to remain distant. As Diane Ravitch puts it, teachers “have to find ways to educate even those students who don’t want to be there. That’s the dilemma of public education” (136). It makes for a difficult situation indeed, and one way to address the problem is to approach education in a mechanized fashion–a notion that, 35 years ago, struck Elliot Eisner as particularly alarming. It is not be a stretch to suppose that he is still sufficiently alarmed.
His paper, “Reading and the Creation of Meaning,” originally delivered as a keynote address, deals with the various modalities we employ to read expressive forms. He notes that people generally consider “words, sentences, and paragraphs found in books, articles, and stories” when they hear the term reading (14). But Eisner is quick to point out that reading in a generic sense–making meaning out of expressive forms–is something ubiquitous enough to make it virtually imperceptible. Though we may be unaware of it, we are often reading people, buildings, and media in rather sophisticated ways, taking into account and synthesizing discrete components in order to derive meaning from our experiences. Eisner contends that such coalescence is equally as crucial for reading text on the page as it is for reading social situations, musical performances, or modern art. In fact, that fusion of individual characteristics into an intelligible whole is integral not only to understand the content of the writing, but also to experience the joy of the work. Of course, knowing the structure, content, and context of a piece of writing is essential to understanding it, but until all of that can come together with the aid of the imagination, the spirit of the art will elude the reader.
When confronted with that brand of student who would rather be anywhere besides the classroom, it is tempting to pare down lessons into mechanics and skills, which can be helpful, but will prove detrimental if lessons stay in that realm too long. Most students who have decided not to care about school complain that the work is boring and seemingly pointless. To reach those students, it is imperative to construct experiences where they can discover the joy that a text can provide when allowed to do so.
It did not strike me until recently, but I think that idea of orchestrating joyful experiences is the reason I enjoy reading aloud to my students. I ask that they follow along as I read, but I truthfully only want them to be paying attention. As long as I have their attention, I am confident that I can make the text come alive enough to spark their imagination. And once the imagination is running on all cylinders, joy is soon to follow.
I cannot, of course, always be there to read for the students. It’s fundamental that they develop their reading skills in order to be able to provide joyful experiences for themselves, but sometimes teachers need to ease off teaching the mechanics so kids can practice using their imagination. I like Eisner’s suggestion of trading the bookshelf for the dress-up corner in kindergarten classrooms. Perhaps strong imaginations will lead to joyful experiences, and then to quality lives for our students.