Response from the Faculty: Outside Reading

Hunter Herrera makes some excellent points in his recent editorial printed on this site. One of the goals of our outside reading program is to promote a life-long love of books. To that end, every member of the English department has contributed to the discussion of just the right books to include. We have also had years of discussion about how to test over those books.

Herrera’s problem with our reading program isn’t with the books themselves. He is a good student and an avid reader; he appreciates the choices we’ve made. He argues that our method of testing is flawed. He’s right. In a perfect world with endless hours, no family obligations, and no need for sleep, the teachers would indeed assign discussion questions and essays for each and every book we assign. We are stuck in a world that has finite time lines, endless family obligations, and sleep deprivation. With each faculty member teaching at least 125 students and testing over eight books each year, we would be faced with over 1000 essay tests to grade in addition to the huge work load every English teacher already faces. Time just won’t allow for such a plan.

Our method of using objective testing started over 40 years ago. Over the years, the English faculty members have discussed changing the format and have come to this conclusion: Objective testing is the fairest way to assess whether students have actually read the books. These tests also allow for almost immediate feedback, usually “one-day service.” Every student is on an even playing field with objective tests. One does not have to be a great essay writer to read well and make a 100% on a book test. It is rare that any student receives a 100% on an essay written at this school.

From the first book we put into a freshman’s hands at registration, we caution that reading a book for a class is different from reading for pure pleasure. We coach students to make character lists, to write chapter summaries, and to mark up their books with notes and highlights. We give students a full month to read each book.

It is true that once in a while, a very picky question will surface in an objective test. Some students try taking the easy way out and do nothing but read Sparknotes. To convince students that they should read the text of the book instead of a brief summary, teachers feel they must include questions on each test that could be answered only by those who have spent adequate time reading the book. This is the fairest way to deal with diligent readers as well as those who do only the minimum.

What students may not know is that we do listen to their honest appeals and complaints about specific questions on a test. We have thrown questions out because they were ambiguous or unclear—or just too picky. We rewrite tests every year with notes from previous tests.

Since he is a new junior, Herrera is just beginning to experience the upper level English class format. Eleventh and twelfth grade teachers have the luxury of spending more time on individual books in class discussion. Books on the junior list in particular dovetail nicely into the discussion of American literature. The choices for the books and even the order of the books are deliberate. Herrera will soon discover that the upper class teachers include discussion questions about books on quarter exams and finals; they often assign in-class formal essays based on the reading selections. Herrera may have forgotten that several of the books on the freshman and sophomore list merited class discussion and questions on big exams. Books such as Of Mice and Men, The Chocolate War, Animal Farm, and Night spur many class discussions.

Our outside reading list and our objective testing leads students to a satisfying cool clear pool of appreciation for the written word. We do wish for each student to gain a life-long love of books. To do that, he has to open that first book, read it carefully from cover to cover and drink down every detail the author has to offer. Only then has he truly read a book.

Mrs. Gretchen Gowen

CHS English Department Head

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *