It took the better part of a week, but I think I'm over the jet lag now. The laundry is done, the passports put away, the souvenirs displayed. My vacation is, clearly, over.
And if my vacation is over, so is my sabbatical. I've spent much of the past year on my own schedule, working from home on a variety of projects (including this one). I've written conference papers, read stacks of books, put the finishing touches on one article and written another one. Bits and pieces of chapters are scattered about my hard drive. In a year without teaching obligations I've refocused my energies on my research, spent more time with my kids, and scoped out free wifi all over town.
In less than a month, though, it comes to an end, and that means I've got to start thinking about teaching again. Or, perhaps better, start thinking about it more concretely. I actually spent a lot of last year thinking about teaching, both because one of my projects focused on education in children's and young adult literature, and because my daughter spent last year reporting to me from the front lines of teaching, her senior year of high school. My project on education had me re-reading the Harry Potter novels; the reports from my daughter had me wishing I knew some magic.
For the first time since I began teaching, I had close contact with someone who could report to me directly from high school, and the report was someone depressing. For example, my students have always spent far more time than I thought necessary on formatting issues. "Do you want MLA style? Where does the title go?" When I say that as long as I can read the paper and the formatting is consistent, I'm not particular as to style, they reply: "But in high school our teachers said we'd fail if we didn't use MLA style!" I was never sure I believed it, but in fact Mariah heard the same line from her teachers. When I lamented that my students cared more for formatting than content, she showed me the rubric from her paper that allocated, indeed, as many points for formatting as for content. Sigh.
I also know how many papers she wrote last year (hint: more for her history and music classes than for her English class), what kinds of questions her teachers asked her about the books she was reading (more focused on plot than interpretation), and how invested her fellow students were in their reading (not much). I began to realize that my reading of Rowling provided me a better insight into my students' preparation than I'd known. When Harry and Ron have a paper to write, they measure it out in inches, just as my students want to know how many pages are required. They are more interested in quidditch than history of magic, just as my students--or my daughter and her friends -- are sometimes more invested in America's Next Top Model or the fate of the Redskins than in their assigned reading.
Perhaps most importantly, they -- that is, Harry and his friends -- read almost exclusively for information rather than to interpret, discuss, consider. If Hogwarts had google, they wouldn't need their books at all. In this, too, Harry and Ron are like many of today's high school and college students. In a recent article on online vs. print literacy in the New York Times, Motoko Rich writes about the internet reading habits of teens and young adults. In the piece she cites a University of Michigan study that suggests that novel-reading relates to higher academic performance -- but, intriguingly, the fictional characters in the Harry Potter series read almost no fiction. (I'm not counting Rita Skeeter's "journalism" as fiction here.) In this, too, they are much like my students and, again, my daughter's friends -- they read what they're assigned, but often not much more. Is the problem that novels aren't interesting, that TV and movies and the internet provide more entertainment? Is it that novels, as Rich's article suggests, are too hard, or too long, for attention spans nurtured in the digital age? Is it that their classes are so demanding that they don't have time to read anything else? Rich doesn't answer these questions, and I'm not sure I can, either. But thinking about them helps prepare me for my return.
I'm looking forward to getting back in the classroom, don't get me wrong. I'm hoping not to be Snape to my students, though I also hope they're more Hermione than Ron. And I'm also hoping I can make novels interesting to students who don't necessarily come into class excited about reading, ready to talk, and eager to devote themselves to my class. Without a magic wand to help me out, though, I may find myself turning back to my daughter for her insights -- and, perhaps, to you, my readers, for your tips when I fall short.