Reading Diary: One Speaking Mouth (Lubitz and Hall)

“The Passion of the Pedagogical” by Jan Vermeort

As a high school English teacher, I can fully connect with the ideas in Vermeort’s article. Interestingly enough, I just had my students engage in a “challenge” that speaks to the ideas in the article.

To get students to read a book nowadays is damn near impossible. So I had my students engage in a “willpower challenge”. We first studied willpower (what it is, where in the brain it lays, how it benefits us, and what type of lifestyle supports it). Then, as the authority figure, I related to my seniors all the benefits of reading. I gave them their—formally assessed—reading levels (all below grade level—some critically so). I promised them that if they started reading today just 20 minutes a day, that they would be fine when college started. I also promised them that if they did not, they would most assuredly not be fine in their first college year. The willpower challenge challenged my seniors to read 10 pages a day for 8 days. If they failed (and they did—all of them) they were to record the failure and the circumstances of the failure. These 8 recordings were to culminate in a paper about willpower, teenagers, and reading.

Like the article states, it was something of a seance and, by the experiment’s end, we did in fact bring forth a specter.

In Kelly McGonigal’s book, The Willpower Instinct, the author claims that we have two selves: a rational self (that tells us to do what we should be doing) and a tempted self (which gets us away from that). My students discovered (without my aid) that their rational selves and tempted selves were in alignment: “Why should we start reading for 20 minutes a day now”, they queried, “we’re seniors. We’re graduating high school in 5 months and we got this far without reading much at all”.

It was not an ideal conclusion, but it was rational. In that moment the “mirage of my authority” as the you-must-read-to-be-successful-in-life-monger was “vanished” and the seniors are now on their merry way to writing papers about their idea of the rational self (a self that has rationalized not-reading) and are researching why teens like them cannot connect with a NEW self they created (the specter at our feast) and called: the “informed” self (reading will benefit you).

Ironically, this type of pedagogical passion—the discovery of a new idea in the moment—is both revered by education experts but hobbled by administrators demands for detailed lesson plans that include “expected student responses”.