Sunday, January 6, 2013

Dear Authors: I Won't Buy Your Books If...

Dear Authors:

You are my heroes. Seriously. If not for writers, I would have been a lonely child, and I wouldn't have much to talk to students about either. Many of you give selflessly to students and teachers. 

Just this past summer, Kate Messner devoted most of her time to mentoring teachers in her Teachers Write online workshop. A whole plethora of writers joined in, offering free books, teaching ideas, and time, such an important commodity. Every Friday, Gae Polisner hosted Friday Feedback on her blog, taking the time to respond to my amateurish scratchings and enlisting her network of writer friends to do the same. Jo Knowles honored us with a Monday morning warm-up, and responded to our submissions both via her blog and Kate's. Many other writers also selflessly gave. 

A whole host of you Skype with students, read and respond to teacher and student letters, travel to NCTE and ALAN and sign hundreds of books so we teachers can bask a little in your celebrity. 

Many more talk to us on Twitter and even follow us there and on Facebook. The prolific John Green has even created a whole YouTube channel called Crash Course devoted to speaking directly to students and sharing stories about life, school, etc. I love how he focuses on two of my favorite classic texts, Romeo and Juliet and The Great Gatsby in "How and Why We Read: Crash Course English Literature #1: 

The only way I know to thank you for your commitment to students, teachers, and literature is to buy your books, place them in the hands of students, encourage others to do the same via my blog, f2f conversations, and other online forums. Really, it doesn't feel like enough given your generosity. 

If you have read this far, you might be wandering what the title of this post has to do with the conditions that make me say, "I won't buy your books if..." Simply, I am making a conscious decision not to purchase the books of writers who make disparaging remarks about English teachers, particularly MS and HS teachers. 

This morning I read a blog post on The Nerdy Book Club blog in which an author confessed that she was a reluctant reader during her adolescence and for most of her twenties. Here's what she said about the cause of her reluctance: 

My reluctance was born at the typical time: about middle-school, and more seriously in high school, when required reading became part of my vocabulary. . . .I didn’t like any of the books I was reading (and also, I was very busy trying to be cool). Confession time: I cheated and watched the movie instead of reading the book more than once. Sorry, teachers…

This anti-reading attitude continued into my twenties, when I didn’t read a single book...
Well, I've been teaching thirty-two years, and when I read a comment like this, it hurts. So I did what I do best when my feelings get hurt: I hunkered down in bed and I cried. 
I'm a tired old teacher who spends hundreds so dollars on books for my classroom library. Do I really want or need to purchase books from a writer who blames teachers like me for her decision not to read in MS or HS? 
Over on Facebook, where I posted a comment in response to the NBC post, I received this response back:
I don't think it was the author's intention to offend secondary teachers. I think most educators can voice the reasons for required reading with older students. I think her point was not to lose sight of the value of choice with young readers. As adults, we get to freely choose most of what we read (and some choose whether they read at all). I was talking just this morning about a book "everyone" loves that I'm trying to read - and I just don't like it. I get to choose if I will finish it - and I cherish that right to choose. I think it is important that students have time and space to read the sorts of materials that appeal to them as we'll as the texts we (or our curriculum) choose for them.
Perhaps. Yet the writer states she was a "nerdy" reader until MS and became even more of a reluctant reader in HS. How then should a teacher such as myself, a teacher who **GASP** assigns students classic texts to read while also offering students choice reading interpret these words? 
As I have shared many times, I attended school during a time the classics were eschewed. Instead, we had a smorgasbord of trivial language arts courses, the content of which is now vague in my mind. I do, however, remember that I did not read the classics as part of my required reading in HS English. 
In junior high, my teachers had students nominate and vote on books we'd read. Thus, I read popular fiction that includes many books now considered classics and now assigned by MS teachers, including: Sounder, The PigmanThat Was Then and This Is NowThe OutsidersThe Witch of Blackbird Pond, and The Island of Doctor Moreau. I also read Willard, the story of a boy's friendship with a rat. 
I loved all the books listed above, yet they are books I was required to read as whole-class reads, and I had to pay for my own copies, too. Granted, this approach to required reading bears little resemblance to the approach of selecting books from the book room. 
Recent years have put teachers in the unenviable postion of society's whipping post. We literally get blamed for nearly all of society's ills. Now we have to worry about getting verbally scolded by our heros. It's just too much to bear at times. 
Were I not to offer students a taste of the classics in their literary diets, I'd miss out on some of the most joyous conversations I've had with students, and more importantly my students might leave school deprived of the nourishment that comes from the joy of these books, too. 
Recently, a student said this about Frankenstein: "It's so much better than all the rewrites and movie versions."
Another student said this at the end of the first trimester: "I'm glad we read Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, and Macbeth. Otherwise, I probably never would have read them, and I really liked them all, especially The Canterbury Tales."
These days I feel like a relic of a bygone era, an era in which we acknowledged the value of both classics and choice in reading, an era in which we teachers built bridges rather than binary relationships, an era where I'd never imagine a writer criticizes teachers for assigning her to read classics. 
There was a time when teachers, by virtue of our profession, received academic freedom and respect. While I will continue to offer students the best of both choice reading and required classics, I'll also choose to support those authors who honor my profession and respect my expertise with the words they choose to use. 
To that end, dear authors, I won't buy your books, nor will I put them in the hands of students, when you make me cry by blaming me and my colleagues for your choice not to read when you sat in our classrooms. I need better from my heroes. 
Thank you for your time and responses,
Glenda Funk


  1. Good post! It seems that we (teachers) are getting blamed for anything and everything.

    1. Seems so, Kathy. Thank you for reading and responding.

  2. I came from a family that embraced intellectual stimulation more than most in my schools and community. Video games were non-existent in my house, Saturday visits to the library were my favorite time of each week, and watching documentaries with my dad was what I called a great time. Since early elementary school, I secretly loved being the geek of castles, anglophilia, and biographies.

    Never did I quite take to reading fiction. I remember being in the fourth grade, and my school's librarian physically picking me up (or trying...I was a hefty young duffer) and moving me to the fiction half of the library when I asked for additions to the biography section as I'd already read all that my school had. In high school, I found an intrigue in the writings of William Shakespeare...and I have you to thank for that introduction as I first read 'Romeo and Juliet' in your freshman English class.

    As I finished high school and college, I had encountered a great deal of fiction. I'll be honest: I didn't care for a lot of it. But it was through Flannery O'Connor, Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Mary Shelley, and many others that I learned to exercise my mind and appreciate the various elements that form the multiple facets of our eclectic society. But, an interesting thing, the more I hated a piece of fiction, the more I couldn't wait to have a few minutes to read a history book.

    All these years down the road, I haven't changed much...I still hardly read fiction. But those experiences shaped me socially, immersed me in cultural literacy, and reinforced my love of reading. I wouldn't trade any of those experiences. And now, when a particular mood hits, I always delight in 'Hamlet' or 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.'

    If it wasn't for my freshman English teacher's hard work and dedication in opening a door that I was determined to keep closed (fiction), I would have missed out on so much that has enriched my life.

    1. Matt,
      Thank you for this thoughtful, honest response. You remain one of my favorite people, and even since your days in my class, I've continued to work on the ways I teach both fiction and nonfiction to reach more students.

  3. Glenda --

    I said my piece, plus a little, over on Nerdy Book Club. Onward.


  4. Glenda,

    Thanks for your post and thank you for your work in the classroom to promote literacy and a love of reading. I am sorry if some of the comments in the NBC post may have come across as blaming teachers and the educational system. I know I can't speak for all reluctant readers, but my personal experience was rooted in my difficulty reading and a stereotypical jock laziness.
    In fact, teachers pulled me from the ledge of my unwillingness-to-read abyss and,through their patience and persistence,taught me to appreciate ALL literature.
    Of course, I didn't like it all at the time and some of it I still dislike today. But adult me and writer me are forever grateful they introduced it to me and did not give up.

    I hope you continue to do your good works in the classroom without feeling like a "relic of a bygone era". Keep building the "bridges" you mention no matter the curriculum or external forces, because without people building a bridge for me thirty years ago, my life would not be nearly as fulfilling.

    1. Mike,
      I think folks have the right to respond to blogs pretty much as they choose, so my blog isn't a response to those who commented on the NBC.
      I think cause/effect reasoning is pretty complicated, and rarely is there only one cause.
      So thank you, for you comment and concern.

  5. I responded at the Nerdy blog, but thought I should post here too.

    I apologize for sounding like I was blaming my teachers--that was not my intent at all... It makes me sad I gave that impression, because I feel the opposite way.

    It was MY failing, cheating by watching the movie, which was why I apologized to my teachers. I had amazing teachers, particularly in the language arts.

    But I wasn't given the choice you mention; I wish I had been.

    Given the challenges teachers face today, with pressure from administration, on curriculum, from parents, all while expected to work for meager pay and investing your own time and money without much appreciation if any... You're my heroes.

    Again, my apologies.

    1. I wish we had not been given so many choices when I was in high school. That's why I advocate for both choice and assigned texts.
      I read the NBC post several times before writing my response and even lost one version into cyberspace. I wish your "I had amazing teachers, particularly in language arts," POV were a bit more privileged in the NBC post. I also think younger teachers aren't nearly as road-weary as those like me who are still in the profession after so many years.
      I do appreciate your clarification and very kind words. Thank you.