SparkNotes and the Desire to Read: Mutually Exclusive?

This post is the transcript of the notes I posted to our English Department Group page.  I thought I’d make them public here as some of our discussion might spark some conversation elsewhere.

This month’s meeting had a dual focus:

  • Resource Sharing
  • Summer Reading Discussion

We began the meeting by discussing the following passage:

“I am a second year teacher who teaches at a high school where the
SparkNotes epidemic is in full force. In fact, I had students in a
college prep class gloat over the fact that they hadn’t read a single book all year and were passing (barely, mind you).

We all know the list: SparkNotes, Cliff notes, BookRags, Pink Monkey,
etc. etc.; and for some, like myself, it’s difficult to imagine not
reading the book and simply relying on a website as a primary source.
(After all, you don’t get that lovely used book smell. Aahh.) Ugh, but
it’s happening…a lot.

I’ve talked to my collegues about this, and we’ve griped about it
together. I’m very creative with my lesson plans and want to teach
heavier concepts, but it’s extremely difficult when

no one
is reading. One teacher told me she purposely goes on these websites to
create her quizzes based on information not mentioned in the plot
summaries and character analysis. It sounds a bit malicious, but what
else is there to do?

Does anyone have a suggestion how to combat SparkNotes? Or do I throw
in the towel whenever I assign a bit of reading that contains more than
fifty pages?”


The purpose behind this was two-fold.  Obviously the piece generated discussion amongst the group regarding how we work with this, and how to find the holes in the SparkNotes summaries that students read.  Several of you discussed how you read the SparkNotes summaries and use them to create you assessments.  Doing so enables you to focus on details and elements not included in a pat summary.

Questions that came up (both during the meeting and in my head after):

  • Do we take the role of “gotcha” with our assessments?  If so, what affect does that have on students desire to read?
  • What other sites are out there for them to use? (Schmoop, BookRags)
  • If we don’t acknowledge the use of it and use it as a tool for ourselves as well, will it become abused?

The second purpose of reading this passage was to give an example of the type of discussion that is occurring at a social networking site created by English teacher Jim Burke called The English Companion.  The site has over a thousand members from around the world, most of them English teachers.  The amount of sharing of resources and ideas that is occurring there is truly phenomenal.  I find myself reading and commenting often.  Learning as we know it is changing rapidly, and our ability to find sources of dialogue about these changes is crucial to our understanding of it.

The second article we shared was an editorial from the Washington Post by Nancy Schnog titled “We are Teaching Books that Don’t Stack Up.” The article originally ran in August, but I wanted to tie it into our discussion on summer reading.  Schnog argues that as much as our desire as teachers of literature is to engage our students in the thrills we have all found in literature and the requisite critical analysis of it, we might be doing them a disservice.  Jamie pointed out that she remembers being a student and wanting to just read a passage without having to dissect every nuance and literary symbol.  Schnog also spoke about the timing of literature and the genres offered to students at their various age levels.  She spoke about students reading Catcher in the Rye as Juniors rather than as 8th graders because of how they could relate to it on a completely different level.  When we speak about summer reading, we often include similar ideas: is this book going to engage the boys?  is this title going to pull in reluctant readers.

If our goal is to push students to read for enjoyment, are we accomplishing that?  If that isn’t the goal of summer reading, what is?  Andrew brought up a point at the end of the meeting regarding what we can ask students to read and what we can ask them to respond like.  His reading, he stated, has become focused on editorial and opinion pieces over the last year, and looking at the summer reading list, Angela asks her students to keep dialectic journals while reading a self-selected group of editorials from either the New York Times or the Washington Post.  What if we asked our students to do this at every level?  Due to the participatory nature of politics and news at the moment, this might work to engage them in reading for pleasure.

Advertisements

One thought on “SparkNotes and the Desire to Read: Mutually Exclusive?

  1. I understand the problem. But, it’s solution doesn’t come from choosing more student-friendly texts, as Schnog more or less suggests. (Also, a recent NY Times article suggest the decline in reading Schnog points to has reversed itself: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/12/books/12reading.html). Great books are always relevant–that’s what makes them great; granted it takes a great teacher to show that to students without butchering the text. But even with great teachers, great books and great students, the SparksNotes sort of problem won’t go away.

    Students, who are very good at figuring out what is really being asked for as opposed to what’s officially said, will tell you that schools are all about marks. At my daughter’s school the winners of the annual bronze, silver and gold awards for top academics are typically separated by a few thousandths (!) of a percent. Frankly, that is ridiculous. And it sends a strong message through the whole school about what is really important. In spite of any other programs the school runs–band, shop, sports, service clubs–at the end of the day it comes down to a grades on report card. I don’t think the SparkNotes kids are disinterested in literature so much as they are obsessively interested in getting good grades. Their motivation to find out how to get the mark–how to find out what the teacher wants to hear–simply outweighs their motivation to read deeply. And the pace at which many English depts. move through texts doesn’t help either.

    The SparksNotes issue is a reflection of a systemic problem, not a student or teacher problem.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s