Students in my class read a book and write an essay almost every month. I call them Humanities Papers for a couple of reasons but mostly because I teach Humanities. (I also remember fondly reading and writing Humanities papers at Earlham College, and I lifted the name from them.) Anyway, students pick their book from a list of over 300 books all of which I have read. Sometimes they want to read something I haven’t read, and so I will get the book and read it with them. So this time around the returning students were given the genre “Horror/Thriller” (what with Halloween coming up). One student had read all of them on my list, and so I agreed to read Cujo with him. What the hell was I thinking? This is going to kill me.
On a brighter note, one of my students came to me with a problem about his book. He’s reading Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, but he felt he wasn’t understanding it. Students are required to read the first chapter before they are allowed to switch their book out. He had read four. So, instead of listening to him cobble together an argument for what he didn’t understand, I asked him to list what he did understand. He gave me a point by point perfect summary of the plot so far and then looked at me in agony. “I don’t get it!” he wailed.
It took me a minute to check to see if he wasn’t pulling my leg. But he did get it, and I said so. I told him that if he was writing a plot summary he would be getting an A+. The kid actually glowed. He grew a few inches. “Really?” he asked. “But there are all these words I don’t understand.” As we looked at the language of the book, I realized that it was the occasional nautical term (loosely used) that he was tripping over. He thought that he was missing major parts of the story because he wasn’t getting them.
We talked about the difference between reading for fiction and reading for non-fiction. In non-fiction you must, must understand every word. But with fiction, you can go from context clues to get a “down and dirty definition”. As long as the paragraph makes sense and the story is buzzing along, you don’t need to run to the dictionary. In fact, it slows you down. The trick is to keep checking in with yourself.
Then a mother wrote me in a panic. Her child was upset because he didn’t understand what he was reading. She was about to run to the store to get him another book. It was almost the same issue except in The Wee Free Men if you don’t understand what the Feegles (little blue men who are good at drinkin’, fightin’, and stealin’) are saying, you really don’t understand the story. The Feegles speak with a Glasweigan accent so if you read it out loud you can usually get it. They tried that and it worked. Today when I checked in with him, he was pretty satisfied with his progress. Just in case, I gave him a glossary of Feegle terms which shows up in a later book called Wintersmith.
I’m often amazed at how students underestimate themselves. They really don’t know what they don’t know. And in many cases, what they do know. I know I don’t want to read Cujo. Me and my big mouth.