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The Rebel Reader

Our students, throughout their academic lives, have had every important adult they know tell them that they should read.

Yet once they leave school, nearly everyone they meet hopes that they don’t.

This is the paradox I present my students with on the first days of school each year: a confrontation with the reality that, by and large, there are deeply rooted, systemic arguments for everyday people (citizens, consumers, voters, subscribers) to not read information, to not question the structural validity, or the rhetorical intent, of the texts that continually race through their fields of vision. To decode, parse, comprehend, and deconstruct these messages would only slow down the intentions of their authors; these systems thrive on an implicit assumption that, when given the choice, people simply won’t read.

Thus, to choose to read, not when the act is thrust upon the student expectantly, but when the alternative, the seduction of passive ignorance, is so culturally encouraged, is itself an act of rebellion.

Contracts, leases, insurance policies, ingredient labels, parking violations, journal citations, which types of stains (and from what sources) are covered under the warranty for your new sofa...

“Yes, Apple, I have read the iTunes terms and conditions...”

These and countless more, lines of fine print that stretch to the horizon, are presented with the implicit assumption that we as recipients will not engage, and as such, will be complicit in our own ignorance.

Moving away from extrinsically motivated reading is, admittedly, intimidating. Nearly all language arts curricula involve some degree of compulsory reading; in these environments, the notion of a student choosing to finish a course text is beside the point.

I ask you, however, to consider which is preferable: a student who reads the book you gave them out of obligation, or the one who reads the book they chose of their own volition? Is forcing a student to complete a book they hate a defensible act of tough love, or could it actually be creating citizens who will avoid reading by default? It will always be easier to not read, just as it is always easier to not stand up for one’s beliefs, to not engage in meaningful struggle. What makes this continual choosing to read so beautiful, and powerful, to those who take up the task, and what we must make a cornerstone of our literacy practice, is that it is both challenging and worth it.

This opportunity is available to all of us, but we have to understand, and convey to our students, that rather than helping us shed our blindness, many of those in positions of power, be it cultural, economic, political, or otherwise, would prefer for us to remain, willingly, in the dark.

Now this should not be read as the detached fatalism of a keyboard warrior (we certainly have enough of that), nor the hyperbolic Chicken-Little catastrophism of an anxious age. I instead ask the patient reader to view this as the first of several opportunities to reflect on our current practices in literacy education, consider their overt and implicit intentions, and propose means, both small and large, through which we can help our students reconcile their roles as readers, writers, thinkers, citizens, and humans.

To rebel is to read; to read, rebel.

This is the first post in the Rebellious Education series, which attempts to challenge inherent assumptions in literacy and propose alternative approaches that empower both educators and students.

Matt Morone is an award winning literacy coach and English teacher at Pascack Valley High School in Hillsdale, New Jersey, where he currently teaches and advises the school’s literature and arts magazine Outside/In. You can follow him on Twitter @MrMorone and read his education blog at FailSafely.com