INSTRUCTION — Foil Google, Baidu, and Cliff Notes by Making Different Classroom Reading Choices

Look for something with immediacy or obscurity.

BACKGROUND — I might not be able to beat City Hall, but I have managed to put a wheel clamp on teen students’ tendency to avoid the required readings by looking for summaries, spoilers, and answers online. Trying to teach One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Catcher in the Rye? By the latest count, Cuckoo has close to 3 million links on Google. Catcher has 17 million. The student-in-a-state-of- avoidance can scan and copy whole synopses, analyses, or reviews and never crack the cover of the actual book.

I’ve become a master at finding the source of student plagiarism. The key, as you know, is finding a literate content phrase, copying it, and inserting it in Google between quotation marks. In a nanosecond, up pops the exact source with the relevant phrase in bold. Sometimes it’s an article, a review, a quiz, or an analysis. However, with 20 students in one class and 14 in another, that could turn out to be a lot of checking. Much better to just avoid it.

FUNCTIONAL LOSS — With millions of shortcut options, many students don’t bother to read essential course material, and, as every teacher knows, reading is the “Open Sesame” for not just literacy, but a myriad of other skills as well, including:

  1. The ability to follow plot through changes in scene and character.
  2. The ability to follow, understand, and anticipate dialogue as it moves between two or more characters and to and fro between locations and time periods.
  3. The ability to discern an author’s theme within a chapter or series of pages.
  4. An awareness of scene changes and the transitions that signal them.
  5. The ability to follow expository (who, what, when, where, why, how, beginning, middle, end) elements in a story and comprehend their connection to the characters and the plot.
  6. The ability to read extensively (Say, for an hour.) and understand what happens in a text and to each of the characters.
  7. The ability to visualize what is read in order to anchor impressions and recall them later.

The use of online shortcuts prevents all of these skills from being acquired. And that’s just for fiction. As Dr. John Reed from the University of Bedfordshire wrote to me on this subject some years ago, additional issues are:

a. decoding. There is increasing evidence that many weak readers have
poor decoding skills. Because of their uncertainty at word level, they
keep backtracking and so lose the gist of what they are reading.

b. comprehension building. Weak readers do not appear to be capable of
building elaborate comprehension hierarchies, in which there are macro-
and micro- ideas and in which some ideas depend critically upon others.
They also have problems in linking pronouns and similar referring words
to the part of the text or the previously-mentioned person/item that
they refer to. And they do not monitor their comprehension to see if it
is consistent or not.

c. strategy use. Skilled readers have the confidence to cope with text
that is only partly understood — perhaps by reading at a higher level of
generality until they get through the difficult section. They handle new
words by inferring their meaning.

To become skilled readers, students need to do the reading, so choosing text a carefully and creating the right structure are essential.

CHEAT PROOF TEXTS AND ASSESSMENTS

Instead of pulling out the classics or those Top 10 High School and College Reading Texts, I look for a well-written book that is not on anyone’s radar. For example, this quarter it was Arthur Slade’s fantasy horror adventure Dust, in which children begin disappearing from small farming communities in Saskatchewan. This is not a new book, but as the author is Canadian, few people in the US have heard of it, and none have written lessons, quizzes, summaries, or character analyses on the text. As a result, Dust comes to the classroom with a clean slate, and I work to keep it that way.

ASSESSMENTS — FICTION

  1. Vocabulary as Used in the Text — First, relevant words are introduced before the reading. Keith Folse, expert in second language acquisition and vocabulary, encourages a pre-read set of words to prepare the brain for their later appearance and prod those synapses to start firing. After students finish the reading, cover the vocabulary again in class. Students need to be able to discern correct usage, to use the word correctly, or to recall its antonym or synonym.
    EX: a. cower — synonym _____cringe____
    OR- a. cower — antonym _____greet_____
    OR- a. cower — The boy cowered in the corner as his father yelled.
  2. Open-Ended Quiz Questions — These are questions that defy “yes” and “no” answers and may not specifically be discussed in the text. They could be based on inferences.
    EX: a. How does the town’s people’s behavior change between Ch. 4 and Ch. 6?
    OR-b. Why doesn’t Robert tell an adult about the strange knowledge that pops in his mind?
    OR- c. Who, among the main or minor characters is not sold on Abram’s plan and what happens to those people in these chapters?
  3. Give Advice — Choose one of the main characters and write him or her a letter, offering advice on the current situation.
    EX: “Dear Robert, I understand your hesitation in sharing the strange things that pop into your mind. but your Uncle Alden is a man who cares deeply about you and would probably listen. He is also a rational man who knows you well and knows you would not make any of this up while Matthew is in danger.”
  4. Finding hints — Ask students to find phrases that foreshadow, that give a hint about what might happen later in the text. This strategy teaches an important reading skill, anticipating. It aids in keeping parallel schema awake in the mind.
    EX: “blood eggs…and if he took them back home and his mom broke them, she might think the Devil had wormed his way into the house.”
    EX: “Did you see any strange vehicles?” “No. But I did hear one — a truck passed while I was reading.”

Any of the above forms of assessment are fairly cheat-proof. The student has to have read the material to have any chance of answering thoughtfully. The book’s lack of online presence is a critical factor.

Annotation for comprehension — Full use of the newspaper

ASSESSMENTS — NON-FICTION AND NEWSPAPERS

I became an advocate of open book, article, chapter, and newspaper quizzes when I realized that by promoting heavy annotation I was also promoting close reading. Students in my intensive English classes have a specific amount of reading to accomplish and they are allowed to annotate the material any way they want! They can create a list of vocabulary words, important people, relationships, statistics and numbers, whatever. After instructing them in how to annotate according to cues and specific pieces of information and by using agreed-on symbols, students highlight and notate in all colors of the rainbow. Orange might be people, yellow vocabulary, etc.

Then, text in hand, they answer open-ended questions for any one of several different types of assessments. Students use their notes and their enhanced understanding of the material to respond to questions:

1. What type of government policy helped farm-workers’ children get an education and why?

2. What was the basic and social purposes of the program?

3. How are the words Latinx, Chicano, and Latino connected?

4. Why did the population of these farm-workers grow in the 1940s?

5. What is the meaning of diaspora in the context of the article?

By using newspapers and current articles from reliable sources (I love the New York Times!) and following a specific presentation structure, students are more likely to do the reading and build their comprehension and proficiency.

These methods have also cut cheating and plagiarism by 90%, and while they may miss the opportunity to explore Catcher in the Rye, or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, students will gain the ability to read effectively, analytically, and academically — a skill that will serve them ever after.

Writer, ESL instructor, editor, traveler, seasonal ex-pat— my life is both an intentional and serendipitous circumstance. Motto — “Buy the ticket, and go!”

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