With the start of September and the start of the school year, we return to our blog which aims to disseminate some of the initial results of the project, “Reading Changes”, and to present themes that are relevant to research on reading and young people, not only in Mexico but in other parts of the world.
In this entry, inspired by the “back to school” moment, we will touch on the theme of reading in school. In the State of Morelos where we carried out the project in 2014 and the original investigation in 1992, around 500,000 children are of school age and 150,000 of them are in secondary (ages 12-15) or preparatory (ages 15-18) school. [Note: for those readers who are not familiar with Mexico, the country is made up of 31 states plus one Federal District]. As we know, these middle years of schooling are key in the formation of readers given that it is a time when adolescents tend to ask questions and look for answers outside the home and when they have more opportunities to discover and choose their reading for themselves. These are also the years during which the deep pleasure of reading can be discovered and rooted or lost, usually for ever.
The secondary school therefore has the possibility and responsibility to provide a space for the enjoyment of reading to develop but this will depend on three fundamental aspects: the programmes that are required by the educational authorities (with their respective readings, pedagogic strategies and evaluations), the access to a wide variety of texts and the teacher’s attitude.
In Mexico, among the curricular standards for the subject of “Spanish”(which includes language and literature), it is stated that during the secondary school stage, the student will develop an “enjoyment of reading” as well as a “positive self-concept as a reader” and that “the intention is to help student approach reading through the knowledge and enjoyment of different types of texts, genres, literary styles and, at the same time, to obtain sufficient tools to form competent readers who obtain an accurate interpretation and a sense of what they read” (Programme of Study, Basic Secondary Education, Spanish, SEP 2011). To help reach this objective, government initiatives such as the National Programme of Reading, launched in 2002 (now, the National Plan for Reading and Writing) and the Classroom Libraries Programme, provided book collections for school and classroom libraries for all the schools in the country. Despite political change and problems with its use (which will be discussed in another entry), schools have a greater and more varied collection in 2014 compared to 1992, which include different genres, picturebooks, graphic novels and also contemporary YA novels, by both Mexican and foreign authors.
From what we could observe in 2014, however, there has been less change in the selection of texts for the class, the pedagogy and the teachers’ attitudes. This can be seen in the same unenthusiastic attitudes to reading in the Spanish classroom in 2014 and 20 years ago. In general, the young people interviewed in 1992 did not “dislike” their Spanish class and made an initial effort to read the prescribed texts, although the majority did not finish them unless they were “short, easy to understand and entertaining”. The participants in 2014 expressed something similar and this attitude is sustained by the fact that, among the texts which they did remember reading with enjoyment were the “myths and legends” from their first year of Secondary School. In this sense, the graphic novel Justicia Divina by Haghenbeck and the picturebook, The Girl in Red by Frisch and Innocenti (which we have discussed in previous blog entries) turned out to be ideal for continuing this theme in terms of, for example, the way traditional myths and legends survive and the existence of different versions or endings.
In 1992, the adolescents complained loudly about the obligatory readings in school because they found them “long”, “boring” and “confusing”, such as Marianela by Benito Pérez Galdós (a 19thc Spanish author). In 2014, they complained mainly about their current text, the Poema de Mío Cid (an epic poem from around the 12thc): “it doesn’t grab my attention”; “it’s not interesting”; “it’s totally boring”. One student gave more details: “it’s like you don’t understand anything… because the poem comes in a different language which is the vulgar… the words puzzle me and also, the author who made the book, like he does not specify the development clearly and he confuses me, then, between the characters and the events.” These young people will probably never again try to read this text and they will lose the pleasure that this magnificent epic poem can offer. (It is no coincidence that this text figures in a blog from which the illustration for this entry was borrowed: “Diez libros obligatorios que te hicieron odiar la lectura” [Ten obligatory books that made you hate reading] http://blogs.publico.es/strambotic/2015/03/libros-conazo/).
In both 1992 and 2014 the students criticised the pedagogy related to the prescribed texts: taking dictation, copying from the blackboard, reading fragments in silence or aloud and answering comprehension questions. One difference was that, in 2014, one group of students was asked by the teacher to create illustrations for El Poema de Mío Cid. While this may seem a more creative approach, the students also complained because they said they could not illustrate a scene if they did not understand what was happening in it. As one of them rightly noted: “You have to read the page well to be able to specify it in the drawing.”
In an interview with one of the school authorities they recognized the fact that to carry out these more creative strategies, there should be a reflection and discussion to start with, about what the students understood; otherwise, this type of approach would not be successful: “We must take into account what the student has discovered, followed, visualized, brought to the text and imagined.”
It is certainly important to take into account the requirements of the curriculum which force teachers to cover the programme within a certain time and show results. There are also pragmatic students: “I don’t much like to read the book for Spanish, I’m just interested in the final mark.” However, the students themselves can suggest ideas for improving the situation. Near the end of the project in 2014, we asked the participants what they would do to make the Spanish class more interesting. Taking the question seriously, among the responses, they said it would be better if they all helped to choose a text and to discuss it and that the teachers should “explain better” what the text had to do with their lives as young people in the 21st century.
The great writer Philip Pullman (author of His Dark Materials trilogy, among many other books) attributes his success as an author to one of his secondary school teachers. She so enjoyed reading the “classics” –legends, The Odyssey, Paradise Lost- to her students that she passed on her deep pleasure in these texts. Of course there are also committed teachers in Mexico who know how to inspire their students to read the “classics” and who know how to make the best use of excellent contemporary texts and creative strategies (and we shall see an example of this in the next blog entry).
With this type of approaches, the vicious cycle of boredom and the obligation can be broken and then, perhaps, “back to school” will not mean “back to the same old issues”.