If there is one thing I am sure of, is that if you force a child or teenager to love a film, book or food, you are more likely to find the child or teenager doing the opposite and loathing it with a passion. I was that teenager. My parents told me I would love Scotland as a holiday destination; I didn’t love it as a teenager – I do now, Kenny! My parents told me I would love ‘Dad’s Army; I didn’t enjoy it as a teenager. My parents bought me clothes and told me I’d love them: I didn’t even let the polyester hit my skin. I refused, rebelled and opposed everything, and anything, my parents deemed as being brilliant. I rebelled so much that at the age of eighteen I had a tattoo. They didn’t love them, so I wanted one.
The latest debate in English is the government’s latest list of books a student should read at secondary school. As usual with anything to do with what books students should or shouldn’t read put out in the public domain it has caused anger and dismay. Some people questioned the relevance of these books. Others praised the quality of books on the list. And, one or two people shrugged their shoulders with indifference. The problem I have faced time and time in teaching is the idea of enjoyment. We have people arguing that the aforementioned books to be used in secondary schools are inappropriate. The initial fear is that students will not enjoy the books and that in turn will prevent students from loving books.
I have always felt uncomfortable about forcing this idea that students will love books. We have phrases banded about like ‘reading for pleasure’ and we ask students to review and rate the books that they have read. Teachers will enthuse about books they love and tell students that they will love the books too. In fact, everything about reading is all shaped around this view of enjoying a book. And, we are peddling a lie. A big fat lie. We are telling students that they must love books. We are telling students, who often do the complete opposite of what their parents and adults tell them to do sometimes, to love books.
Given that it is Valentine’s Day, I think it might be appropriate to talk about the love between you and that someone special, if you have one. I doubt it was an arranged partnership. I doubt your parents were forcing you to go out with that someone special because it will be tough at the start, but you will learn to love it by the end. Typically, relationships are built on experiences. You try it out and if you like it you continue it further. A bit like books. You try and stick with it if you like it. It is the experience.
Last term, I taught ‘Lord of the Flies’ to a group of Year 9s and I said:
I don’t want you to love this book. I want you to experience it and learn from it. But, if you do love it, I will be worried about you, and I might have to contact your parents.
I am a teacher of English and want students to experience books. I am not hung-up about them loving or enjoying books, because in this age of retweets and Facebook ‘likes’ everything has got to be praised or criticised. We have become ‘bi-polar’ in our approach to all aspects of life. Social media makes things simplistic. We either like or dislike things. Where’s the indifference to things? Do you know what, I am neither liking nor disliking this book? I am just experiencing the book. We have, in part, reduced education to about enjoyment. I can recall numerous conversations on Twitter where I have been criticised for suggesting that enjoyment shouldn’t be the main concern for a teacher in the classroom. Teaching shouldn’t be about entertaining students. It should first of all be about learning and that, if we are honest, isn’t easy, fun and clear. The more we focus on enjoyment, the more we negate the learning process. If a student says a lesson is boring, then the focus should be on the student and not the teacher. Why does the student think lessons should be entertaining? Have we given the impression to students that learning is fun and easy? Enjoyment can be a by-product of learning, but it isn’t the purpose of it. Yet, we are being led this merry dance of conga and enjoyment is at the head of this learning conga. Teachers must, it seems, lead this dance of learning with enjoyment leading this wild and merry path.
Before the ‘What about the children?’ brigade get involved, listen: we are the adults; we know best. By reading, complex books students will learn complex words, sentences and ideas. They will get better. If we pander to their wants and not their needs, then we will give them simple books which are enjoyable and they will learn simple words, sentences and ideas.
My parents took me to Scotland. They knew best. It was and is a lovely country. I was a teenager and I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but I do now appreciate the experience. Now, I love it after all these years. The experience was the most important thing. That experience created the love and enjoyment and not some person telling me to enjoy or love it. We need to get students experiencing lots of different and challenging books. Lead with our heads and not with our bleeding hearts.
I read books and experience lots of different things when I do, but I never tell children I love readings books. That is just between me and the books.
Thanks for reading,