What to do when students say, “This book is boring.”

Students Sleeping

This moment really happened. At a break time they all zonked. Their all-nighter for another teacher’s exam wore them out–or the book was really terrible?

When I first started teaching, I hated hearing my students say that they thought a book was boring. It pained me. I was full of enthusiasm (still am) about teaching books and the amazing journey that a reader can take with a book. We can get to know so many interesting—and repulsive—characters from the author’s imagination. So what was happening with my students?

 My fear was if the students did not like the book, then they would not read the book, then they would fail the test. I wanted them to pass. I wanted them to love the book, but years of trying to generate enthusiasm through my own over heated cheering about the books got me nowhere. A Tale of Two Cities just didn’t do anything for any of my kids—sorry Dickens.

Then it hit me.

It’s okay to dislike a book, or even find it boring. It happens to me, too. I recently gave up on a book that claimed to be a thriller; it turned out to be more sleep inducing. The key to making the opinion educational is seeking why the book is boring.

So I started asking the students why they thought that a book was boring. Their answers came in two categories: 1) they didn’t understand the book, and 2) they genuinely didn’t find it interesting. It was the second one that I found most interesting. But first, the first. If they didn’t understand the book, I knew what I had to do. There are many reading strategies that I could use with them to bring up their reading comprehension. This is the stuff of Methods of Teaching Literature in college courses. It is possible that the book level was too high in their Zone of Proximal Reading Level, so I have to incorporate strategies to help them bridge the gap. Not easy to do, but easy to understand what needs to be done.

The second piqued my interest. If they were saying the book was boring, then they had in their minds a sense of what a book should be. They had criteria. Their evaluation was based on criteria they had not articulated yet. I needed them to start articulating what the criteria were. Then we would have a solid point for an educational and informative discussion on taste in books and ways in which we evaluate the quality of the story. At first, it wasn’t a formal part of the lesson, more a discussion point. A student would say, “This book is boring.” I’d reply curiously, “Why do you find it boring?” It is important that I don’t sound defensive, nor offended—I didn’t, after all, write the thing. I would get answers like “He does on and on and on about this house.” “It’s too descriptive.” “There is no action.” “Who cares what the main character thinks.” These were some pretty good standards to start using. They wouldn’t make a Master’s Thesis, but it starts getting at the heart of what appeals to kids and what doesn’t.

Once we get our reasons out in the open, we can ask deeper questions that point our understanding back to the book: why did the author write the book without any action scenes? Why is this character so unlikeable? The questions can get at interpretation by comparing what their reactions are to what the author may have intended. Now we are doing literary criticism, albeit, only in a limited way. But it adds legitimacy to the opinions that the students have on a book and challenges them to go deeper than just “It’s Boring.” If they are justifying their opinion on a book in comparison to the author’s intent with a book, they are doing so much more than dismissing a book because it does not appeal to them. Hopefully, they become more insightful into how authors use the tools of literature and language to tell us something about humanity and my students see that they can take part in this conversation too. How do you handle kids who say that the book is boring?

2 thoughts on “What to do when students say, “This book is boring.”

  1. I love this post — mostly because it’s a great reminder about one of the best strategies for teaching (and being human) — asking questions. But REAL questions that take seriously the ANSWERS and the answerERS.

    School is full of so many questions that aren’t about listening-to-be-surprised, that it’s nice to be reminded how valuable and productive and constructive it can be to just listen-to-find-out (in this case to find out where the gap is between what-students-think-is-boring and the curriculum). I also love the inference that out of this question comes more conversation and eventually? hopefully? Curiosity. On the part of the students and the teacher.

    I’m teaching a film appreciation course right now and I’m just on the verge of showing some of the films that I think will challenge the expectations, patience & maturing aesthetic sensibilities. So I invited them to do something like what you’re suggesting and invited them to brainstorm (on the board) all of the different ways that they have *appreciated* a film — with a focus on the ways that they *usually* appreciate a film. I was delighted at the heterogeneity of their answers and can’t wait to bring them back into the conversation later.

    In some ways, I wonder if students would be able to cross-apply some of the particular pleasures that they receive from various kinds of texts (books, videogames, magazines, youtube videos) and gradually develop a thick conversation that helped them start to recognize both alternate modes of enjoyment that they themselves experience — and the range of pleasures even within any one classroom.

    (This is a very meandering comment, and if it were a blue book, I’d probably give myself a “C” in terms of how I responded to the prompt….hopefully the emotional tone shines through: you inspired me toward better teaching! Thank you!)


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