Tuesday Tips: Read the Sparknotes


Yes, I just said that.

I know, I know. Cliffnotes, Sparknotes, Book Rags, etc. are supposed to be the bane of an English teacher’s existence. At least they were when I was in high school.

Now that I’ve gotten your attention, but before you start throwing virtual potato peels and rotten tomatoes at me, let me set this up a little.

When I assign a difficult text for my students to read, I know full well that they have access to all kinds of study guides and criticism online that I never had access to until I was at a university.

And even at my university, in order to locate this criticism, I had to take questionable elevators, uphill both ways, into the bowels of the library to dust off volumes of bound journals embossed with “1947” on the spine.

But the world is different now.  I cannot control or limit their access to this information. And one of my life principles is that I don’t allow things I cannot control to keep me awake at night or otherwise harm my mental health.

As David and Tom Kelley would say, constraints produce creativity.  When I face a problem in the classroom, instead of asking “How can I solve this?” I tend to ask instead, “How can I use this to my advantage?”

When I considered the problem of students reading notes instead of the actual text, I used to ask, “How can I keep them from doing this?”

Now I ask, “Since I can’t stop them from doing this anyway, how can I exploit this tendency to create more learning?”

Here are some of the principles that emerged when I began telling my students, “Hey, you know what you should do? Read the Cliffsnotes!”

Know What’s Out There

As teachers we should, obviously, always strive to learn more about the subjects we teach. For literature teachers, this means that we should familiarize ourselves with the most common interpretations of the texts we work on with students.  Because I am familiar with what these online sources say, it’s quickly obvious to me if a student is trying to submit the ideas as his or her own.

Teach Students to Use Resources to Develop Critical Thinking

We no longer live in a world where we should ask students to know, memorize, or cram a body of knowledge.  There is, in fact, no way that we can conscionably think of education in this way any longer. We cannot, I repeat, cannot master a certain set of facts or a certain limited body of information and expect that to be enough to be considered educated.

There is just way too much information available to us now. The amount of data created every minute is mind-boggling.

What we need to do today more than ever, I believe, is teach students HOW to navigate this sea of information.  Like Odysseus trying desperately to get home through monsters and goddesses. Or maybe just like pirates.

Most students have no idea what to do with all of that information available to them.  Even if they can understand the information, they most likely won’t make it past the first page of Google results, much less know which information is worth their time.

I consider it my role to help students learn how to evaluate and use the resources available to them.  One small way in which I do this is to recommend online resources to help them with their reading.

Do I worry that they will read these and not the text? Sure, but they will also pay the consequences for that limited knowledge because I will never ask for recall of basic facts on an assessment.

Think of Online Study Aids as a Baseline

Instead of feeling embittered that someone thought to summarize chapters, identify key passages and symbols, and even provide sample essay questions, I just feel grateful that I no longer have to spend class time to teach all this rather basic information. I regularly tell my students that what is in online notes is the baseline–the foundation of what they should know.  They need to start from these ideas and then expand to prepare for class discussion. To make sure that they know what I consider to be the baseline (in the event they actually aren’t reading these sites), I include the basic symbols and concepts on the reading bookmark.

And as far as I have seen, students will still have to consult peer-reviewed journals for meatier commentary and more insightful interpretations.  Nothing found in the for-profit sites or products will be enough to give that wow-factor to a student’s discussion or writing prowess.

Learn to Speak Back to Literary Criticism

Not only do I consider that most of these online study guides are fairly minimal in their analysis, there have often been times when I disagree with their assertions.  I want my students to be able to do the same thing: to analyze and evaluate the criticism, not just the primary text.  We need to push our students to develop their own thoughts, to speak back to criticism, to enter the conversation about a book, to challenge even the “experts” on the Internet.  I will often start talking with students by saying something like, “You know, I was reading online about this.  Here’s what this website said. . . .I’m not sure I agree. What do you guys think?”

Use Online Resources as Comprehension Aids

In the case of an especially difficult work, a reader can read an online summary before reading the chapter, just to have an idea of what is happening before tackling the text itself.  In reading there are several processes happening at once. One process that has to happen before comprehension is possible is decoding:  where a reader comprehends the actual words on the page.  When children are first learning to read, for instance, they decode but don’t always comprehend; they are sounding out words one by one, which is necessary but not enough to understand the whole of a text.

What giving chapter summaries for a difficult text can do is to help a reader not have to use too many processes at the same time. If a student is trying to read Shakespeare, so much of reading energy will be spent decoding old English that the comprehension just can’t take place.  If I give a student the summary, they’ve already, in a sense, “comprehended” it, and now they can get back to the work of breaking down the language to see how that story occurred.

So Yes,

I actually encourage my students to read online study notes and other, more robust study guides. I even provide links for them to guides that I think are the most helpful to understanding their reading.

You know what’s funny, though? Asking students to read Sparknotes is often the surest way to make sure they won’t do it.

Kelley, David ; Kelley, Thomas ; Kelley, Tom. Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All.  Crown Business, 2013. Print.

P.S.  Cliffsnotes, Sparknotes, et al. do not know that I exist. I am not intentionally promoting or endorsing anyone’s products.

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