We gathered for this final meeting to discuss how we might develop activities and assignments that encourage students to read deeply. We used Anson and Davies’ articles to brainstorm some ideas. The value of multimodal assignments came up a bunch and the problem with textbooks emerged again. Participants noted that instructors are responsible to teach students how to read textbooks” and to problematize them if their Department mandates the use of a particular textbook. The textbook, as the main book for a course, inherently excludes students from the discourse, since they are often consist of dry and passive prose.
FIG members shared some of their own pedagogical practices which theoretically hope to provide students with access into the disciplinary discourse.
We grounded this meeting in chapters from Maryanne Wolf’s book Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. According to Wolf, “[r]eading can be learned only because of the brain’s plastic design, and when reading takes place, that individual brain is forever changed” (5). In thinking about Wolf’s discussion on the evolution of the reading brain, we learn that humans do not have a natural ability to read, in the same way they are designed to see and speak. The ability to decode, recognize, associate, infer and analyze texts is a product of practicing and exercising reading processes incrementally, which eventually enhanced our reading ability.
Underlying the brain’s ability to learn reading lies in its protean capacity to make new connections among structures and circuits originally devoted to other more basic brain processes that have enjoyed a longer existence in human evolution, such as vision and spoken language. We now know that groups of neurons create new connections and pathways among themselves every time we acquire a new skill. (5).
To align with Wolf’s text, Gene McQuillan provided a short, but complex, sample Proust reading assignment, in which he scaffolds very carefully with his students. Gene showed us a two page long Proust excerpt he distributes to his students. He asks them to italicize lines, phrases, or sections they understand. The meta sample he shared showed a range of accessible content in which students felt comfortable italicizing. This segued into a discussion about how to get students to complete the readings we assign and how valuable this exercise might be in showing students how much they do in fact understand of seemingly complex text.
We know too well how frustrating and deflating it can be to walk into our classes excited and ready to work with a text we assigned, just to find out that a majority of the class hasn’t actually read the text, or even bought the book. In trying to understand our students, their resistance to reading, and their habits of mind, we brainstormed some possible solutions. It seems important to note that figuring out the best ways to integrate more readings into our courses can take some time/semesters before one finds the sweet spot. Also, worth remembering is that each class has its own sort of personality, so what works in one semester may not necessarily work in another.
Some ideas that come up in the group:
assign accessible texts as primary or supplemental material (do not assume students will be able to engage with texts we (faculty/staff) find “easy”
prepare your own reading packet and assign readings from your own customized reader
teach students how to annotate, and model how one should read for and within a particular discipline
regularly check to see that students have annotated the text (making this a part of your grading policy is helpful and can incentivize completing this process)
At this meeting, we discussed our observations of our students’ reading habits and how they often inhibit students from excelling in our courses. In conjunction with Ihara and Del Principe’s article, we also discussed how the use of textbooks, and department selected texts, often do not allow instructors to do the kind of reading work they know their students need. Often times, we see that our students need to start with texts that are accessible, before they can begin to grapple with abstract prose that present information using more complex language and conceptual and theoretical frameworks, which are often baked into formal textbooks.
As we continued to talk about Del Principle and Ihara’s article, we also thought about how we can ensure students are completing the reading. It was suggested that instructors do “completion checks” and assign credit for completing reading assignments. While this can be time consuming, one tool that came up was an online reading tool called Perusall. Perusall was created specifically to offer students a space to engage with texts, and each other, through online annotation. The platform also collects data on students completion and reading speeds, so the instructor can easily and quickly document when students have or have not come to class prepared, or where and what students found most confusing. An instructor could create a menu option on their course Blackboard site, named “Perusall”, and add a link to reach the site, so students could have easy access to the site. Instructors would need to simply upload all their readings to Perusall and provide assignment instructions and program a deadline for each reading.