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How Teachers Make Children Hate Reading: a Marxist Struggle

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You can read the full story along with other nonfiction pieces of different categories and genres from the book above!

This post comes from a larger essay that I wrote for literary theory.


The power struggle in the education system is a constant form of social Darwinism. For the purpose of this analysis, race refers to a difference in ethnicity, class, socioeconomic status, national origin, and gender within a culture. In How Teachers Make Children Hate Reading, nonfiction author John Holt goes through a revelation on how teaching methods have profound effects on his students’ feelings towards reading. Believed to have inherent power in the classroom, teachers seemingly have a Marxist authority towards students in order to see growth, but who is the power wielder? Using a critical theoretical lens of Karl Marx’ Marxism, the idea of the classroom when engaged in literature and reading is more than it seems.

In the excerpt of this nonfiction piece, Holt goes through realization with a parent, his sister, about how he learned words. While he, and many teachers today, conventionally and universally incorporate vocabulary drills, quizzes, and definition activities, he did none of those as a child. Holt tried different methods and strategies with his fifth-grade classes over the years including letting them choose what to read, having writing contests, and writing a one-sentence summary. He then decided to discard tangible assignments as a whole. Instead of being graded or turning anything in, Holt has his students read anything they choose simply for their enjoyment. The story soon focuses on one little girl who chooses How the Grinch Stole Christmas first and ends the fifth grade reading Moby Dick without any pressure or hatred for reading.

Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic defined and explained the abstract idea of critical race theory. Used with the intent on racial differences, socioeconomics and class division also play a role in the critique. The theory examines the appearance of racism in dominant forms of culture and evaluates how the affected are perceived as well represented to counter prejudice (Purdue Owl). Diversification as a whole is an important addition to this model. Three important terms in this theory are institutionalized race, social construction, and intersectionality. An institutionalized race is the restrictions a dominant culture embeds into another, yet the majority overlooks the issue. Social construction occurs when race becomes the byproduct of a social thought while intersectionality is the social unjust conditions within the culture. Critical race theory is a five-tier system in the suspicion of binaries, social unjust of the oppressed, predominated narrative to blanch or water down cultural narratives, call to action, as well as locating the power holders. Questions such as artifacts that reflect the culture’s perception of race, how equality can be combatted, ways access of rights and force appear, as well as the ways each diverse group interacts with the dominant culture craft this theory.

Likewise, Marxism focuses on power struggle and the beneficiaries. Instead of fixating on the individual psyche, Marxism looks at the motive behind the discourse a person experiences within (64). Influenced by economics, capitalism, and class system, Karl Marx’s theory uses general classifications including the bourgeoisie, or wealthy group, versus the proletariat, or working group. However, others can include identifications and labels such as leaders versus trainees. An end result is a person of high authority or influence contrasting someone who lacks these qualities whether it be in prestige, commodity, or power. A Marxist view in the literature is a product of socioeconomic and ideological conditions where the actions of a piece influence the work (66). Questions this view answers are who is being benefitted and by what, which views are reinforced and subverted, and which contrasting elements of the hierarchy are present (Purdue Owl). In the end, a person’s social and economic construct is the source and cause of their experience.

Holt’s piece explains how interacting with a parent made him realize the fault in his teaching methods. He made his students consult the dictionary regarding words they did not know while he could not recall if his household owned one. The reality is a widespread teaching practice of incorporating summaries, vocabulary quizzes, and reports become overly popularized without thought of the student’s best interest. There becomes a focus on higher-grade averages, national totals, and district ratings. Academia is formatted and runs like a business instead of an enriching learning environment. Intellectual students, many from literary backgrounds, read less contrary to their expected identity. It is a normal concept for teachers to believe this form of understanding and comprehension is a means of growth.

Since grade school, “we make books and reading a constant source of possible failure and public humiliation. When children are little, we make them read aloud” … to ensure they know every word (Holt). But, when they come across a word they do not know, effects such as an overcorrection by a teacher, responses from peers, or “just smiling a sweet, sad smile-often one of the most painful punishments a child” can endure (Holt). Academia becomes a paradigm. Instead, it is an object of scorn with a negative relation to entrapment.

Reading is categorized and attributed in a stigma. After humiliation, the convergent thinking methods of memorizing one meaning behind a symbol or theme of literature instead of divergent thinking dictates a single-minded individual. Teachers desire a regurgitation of information to show knowledge rather than thought-provoking ideas. Later in the piece, Holt’s asks “Mr. Holt, do you really mean” that they can choose their book without receiving a reading grade and receive an explanation to parents of the abstract rules of a customary approach. The reality is, as the teacher, Holt can change his mind at any time. 

Using a critical theory lens on Marxism, Holt can dictate and direct his class in any way he desires abiding by the school system. In some cases, knowledge becomes solely information as each group of students are treated differently. The beneficiaries are the school districts and counties that receive ratings of literacy and writing scores from an Educational Testing System (ETS) such as the SAT and ACT.

Holt realizes this as he reflects, “I never gave my students an opportunity to say what they really thought” because the education system, academia discourse, and socioeconomic culture as a whole is a game of wits (Holt). There is a hierarchy, guidelines, and code of ethics to keep each group in line. A student would not go directly to the superintendent with complaints. The system keeps everyone contained in a routine made up of rules in order to achieve success. Thus, in many ways, teachers instill a fixed mindset as students forego their right to be an independent thinker. In education, teachers ask students to define, describe, state, or list instead of analyzing, creating, inferring, thinking, and evaluating. The wielder of power tells the oppressed there is a single meaning to a theme and a set group of novels worthy of being called classic literature.

There are ways to fix the system from intersectionality in a limited Marxist environment in order for students to enjoy reading again. Incorporating multiculturalism in reading not only brings inclusivity but also teaches students that self and identity is about embracing change and considering contemporary matters. Teachers can present their class with options for grading formats and types of homework given. The student is involved in their academics where their skillset and learning style is utilized and taken under consideration. A democratic-styled classroom gives everyone the responsibility to help in transformative pedagogy.

Vygotsky coined the psychological notion that students who are engaged in reading, or anything when an intrinsic topic allows their emotions to be expressed. Students are often shocked at the mention of a yearlong project due to the negative past of conventional teaching. By the end of the year, students turn in at least forty-eight pages. One student submitted two-hundred and forty pages in which the student apologized for not finishing their plot. Imagine if every student felt this zeal in humanities. This is not to say that regular schoolwork and learning are neglected, but students finally have the authority to dictate. Changes in a pedagogical practice not only challenge a students’ sense of self-actualization but also enhances their view of life and the possibility of opportunities.

There are several alternatives to traditional teaching and grading methods. Having culturally diverse novels and genre options in class exposes truths while stretching the binaries of traditional styles. It is often standard for students to read Shakespeare and Poe, but what about works from diverse and cultural authors? English and literature are concerned with transforming culture and mindsets. Instead of making students answer questions to verify their understanding of the reading content, the teacher can ask the students what questions or insightful moments they enjoyed.

Instead of having a review sheet on notable information, a teacher can give frequent pop quizzes concerning earlier material and go over the answers. Incorporating self-graded lessons or pass/fail assignments make the content more important than the grade. Rather than handing out a vocabulary list for students to learn, grouped students can make a memorization technique or use a creative technique to teach the word to the class. Some teachers use programs and apps as well as rewards students who do not use their phone for a specific amount of time consecutively or ongoing through a classroom system.

A flipped-classroom method allows more interaction, insight, and accountability on the student. More group discussions can be shared in class rather than lectures. Having a project where the students teach the class a concept shows the teacher the knowledge learned, and focus taken. Allowing students to choose their own books is another way to divide power in the classroom. Acknowledging open-ended questions where students can write their opinions on themes or discuss with a group and placing a diverse reading selection allows students to understand the concept of divergent thinking. To expand on divergent thinking, using an out-of-the-box teaching method such as an escape room for reading brings the book to life without fear of role-playing or reading aloud. Instead of grading through an exam, riddle solving through understanding the content is presented in the students’ hands to solve. These methods of self-regulation allow students to see the impact of their learning in a unique way.

The critical race and Marxist approach in a classroom can affect how students learn in English class and determine their reading enjoyment. Holt’s reflection should be kept in mind for seasoned and first-time teachers, especially in the English and language arts departments. Reading and writing are more than it seems, but using these theories highlight alternatives for assignments and homework. Instead of incorporating a negative connotation, there are positive techniques teachers can use to facilitate and grow self-actualization in tandem with knowledge.

Using critical race theory of ETS proliferation and intersectionality by varying economic areas and the flipped classroom as a settlement between Marxism, the power struggle will lessen as the scaffolding progresses and equips students for the future. At the end of the year, students finish having learned more resources because they had a say in their education with newfound love and understanding of the importance of reading.

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