I was a pretty obnoxious kid growing up.
Okay, fine. I’m still pretty obnoxious. But as a kid, and more specifically, as a student, I was obnoxious. I wouldn’t have wanted to have me in a classroom (Hey, what do they say? Teachers make the worst students? Even as a secondary student I knew I wanted to be a teacher.). I talked all the time; I was a total smart-ass (not to the teachers…usually…or directly…). I am telling you the absolute truth when I say that my freshman year of high school, my World History teacher (who, by the way, was also the Dean of Students) took hold of my desk – with me in it – and flung it about 20 feet across the room because he was so exasperated with me one day. In his defense, I purposely provoked him, asking all sorts of inane, yet, just believable enough to be answered questions, with the sole goal of postponing the day’s test.
Yeah. That was me.
But I’ll tell you one thing I wasn’t. I wasn’t a cheater. It wasn’t that I had a strict sense of morality. Other stuff I did growing up would disabuse you of that notion pretty quickly. No, I was an intellectual snob. Well, I suppose a better way to say it was that I didn’t trust anyone’s brain but my own. If I didn’t know it, or didn’t remember it, there was no possible way anyone sitting around me would, either. Of course, given who my circles of friends were at certain points in my secondary education career, I may have been spot on about that. But those less-than-stellar-albeit-necessary-for-making-me-who-I-am-today choices are neither here nor there. The point is, when my senior government teacher accused me of cheating on one of my last high school tests ever, I was justifiably affronted. I would NEVER cheat off of someone.
And so, with that sense of justice (and because I was really worried about what would happen to me if I got caught doing it), I approached my Physics teacher before final exams that year and asked her if it would be considered cheating to program (okay, I’m using that term loosely…I really just wanted to save it in a file/page) the formulas into my TI-whatever-number-was-out-in-1998 graphing calculator and use it on the exam. She paused, seeming impressed – whether at my honesty or comfort level with the technology, I’m not sure – and said that if I could figure out how to do that, she’d be fine with me using the calculator. So I did, and I don’t think I really used it more than once or twice because I was well-prepared.
I tell you this background and anecdote to give you context for my decision as an English teacher to openly guide my students toward – and even encourage them to use – the resources on SparkNotes.
If you’re not familiar with SparkNotes, you should be. And I’d wager that you are familiar with Cliff’s Notes. It’s even a colloquialism these days – “Give me the Cliff’s Notes version!” Meant to only include the information of utmost necessity. Enough to pass the test. Because who really has time to read every assigned novel in British Lit? Or American Lit? Or all of high school?
Cliff’s Notes has a pretty negative reputation as being a cheater’s way through the material. Good teachers would know right away if you’d only read the Cliff’s Notes version, because your answers would only skim the surface. And likely be phrased far too sophisticatedly for an average high school student.
SparkNotes is the modern-day version of Cliff’s Notes. On Steroids.
So, why would I encourage my students to go there, when no self-respecting English teacher would hand out Cliff’s Notes copies of a novel to students and say, “You know what? Go ahead. Skip the real thing. Hell. Watch the movie. It’s close enough.” Now, you might think you know the answer to this, because if you follow my blog, you know I often write posts that seem, perhaps to some, like I just lower the standards for my low-performing students. Like, I know they’re not going to read the novel. Why fight the battle? Why not give them something they actually might, if all the stars and planets align, find it in them to do? Would it really be that terrible?
But that is not what my rationale is. No, I don’t direct my students to SparkNotes because I just like to lower the bar. (And I prefer to think of my philosophies more as “realistic expectations,” thank-you-very-much.) No, it’s because of what SparkNotes offers.
Go to a Sparknotes unit for a novel and you will find a veritable cornucopia of resources for that work. You’ll get the context of the work, the plot overview, character list and analyses, and even discussion about themes, motifs, and symbols. And then, if that weren’t enough, you’ll get chapter summaries. They even have quizzes and review questions. They explain important quotations. And it’s all free. Free for students, free for teachers.
Now, I am an avid reader. I love to read. And I hate, hate, hate previewing the story. It’s like nails on a chalkboard having to find out what happens at the end before I even start. That was my least favorite part of being an English teacher. We had these story previews in our curriculum workbooks that gave a synopsis of the entire story before the students even began. It drove me crazy! Where was the suspense? The situational irony? Everything was ruined!
Until I had to teach Julius Caesar. I’m not a humongous Shakespeare fan to begin with, but Julius Caesar isn’t my favorite play of his on the best of days. What made it worse was that I remembered studying it in high school but didn’t actually remember anything other than that I did actually study it. I retained nothing. I’m not sure if that was because I just didn’t understand it or I didn’t read it and spent the discussion time being obnoxious. Probably the latter. But I was not excited to have to teach it. I didn’t even want to read it. I felt like a whiny student.
So I found SparkNotes. I read all the Act summaries. I read the synopses of character analysis, themes, important facts, etc. I even – praise the literary powers that be – used their “No Fear Shakespeare” modern text version to get me through the PITA that is early Modern English in iambic pentameter. And then I picked up my copy and read it through. And it made sense. And I flew through it. And it wasn’t hard. And it wasn’t boring. And it didn’t make me want to carve my eyes out with a spoon. I was amazed. I wished I’d had SparkNotes in high school. It would likely have helped me get through other classic literature without falling asleep (*cough cough* Great Gatsby, I’m looking at you).
Yes, I already knew the ending, so I’m not sure how I’d feel about some other story being “spoiled” by reading SparkNotes first, but I’ve found – to my surprise – that my students didn’t seem to mind that aspect.
So, when we would get ready to read a novel, I would encourage my students to go to SparkNotes. I would tell them to spend time reading everything SparkNotes had on that work of literature so they would understand and notice the subtleties of motifs, symbolism, and sub-plots. Sparknotes does such a great job explaining all this that we were able to spend our time in class talking about other meaningful aspects of the novel. SparkNotes is the modern-day Cliff’s Notes version. But it does it better. It includes so much more that makes it easier (dare I say, enticing?) to read the entire work. But it leaves a little mystery. As a teacher, I just made sure to look at the review, quiz, and essay questions that were on the site and steer clear of them. There were plenty of other things to discuss and put on my assessments.
SparkNotes is the modern-day Cliff’s Notes version. But it does it better. It includes so much more that makes it easier (dare I say, enticing?) to read the entire work. But it leaves a little mystery. As a teacher, I just made sure to look at the review, quiz, and essay questions that were on the site and steer clear of them. There were plenty of other things to discuss and put on my assessments. SparkNotes didn’t rob me of a unit. It didn’t give me a way to fail kids easily because they’d obviously only “read the Cliff’s Notes.” No, by using SparkNotes as a scaffolding tool, I made novel study more engaging and meaningful during class. And heck, it made me a better teacher, too. I like to think of myself as a version of my old Physics teacher who, rather than forbid what could potentially be an extremely valuable tool simply because it seemed like it would lead to slacking – or cheating, embraced it and all it had to offer, and that resulted in student success.