My students were my books. In them I found rising conflict and points of view and themes. As I read I learned about the characters in their lives and understood their settings. And the tones they took stirred my moods. Sometimes I could turn the pages quickly. But I often got stuck on a passage, not understanding what I read.
Having used this metaphor of teaching, I was intrigued when my son introduced me to a new term this week—charitable reading. It’s what he teaches his college history students to do when they pick up a book.
“Don’t read with an eye to see how quickly you can refute or dismiss,” he tells them. “Try to understand, to put the best gloss on the writings of others.”
Instead of rushing through their readings, he wants his students to read with thoughtfulness and care.
Too often, I failed do this with students, making snap judgements instead.
I’d see a student staring out the window and assume apathy. A missing assignment would turn my mind toward sloth. I’d take clowning around and throwing things and sleeping in class as personal affronts.
I wasn’t reading deeply. Take style, for example. Style is how authors display themselves to readers, how readers get to know authors. Likewise, when I ignored students’ styles, I couldn’t become familiar with their thinking. And when I disregarded context, isolating what students did and said from the milieu of their lives, I lost meaning.
But when I did manage to read charitably, when I put the best gloss on the lives of my students, something magical happened—my students usually turned it around. They took the effort to read me, to treat me with thoughtfulness and care. And so I could teach, and they could learn.