Ideas on education, the English language, and the teaching profession.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

From Goosebumps to The Great Gatsby

As the leaves fall, the cold fronts push in, and the students become accustomed to the routine of the school day, the English teachers will finally teach their major texts for the year. Typically, their students have attention spans as fragile as eggshells, and their reading skills are hardly more sophisticated than the toddler sounding out nursery rhymes. The mere sight of books for most of these students will induce the most offensive yawns. The task is grim but quite clear for the English teacher: The kids need to be shaken out of their intellectual stupor and the fire of their passive imaginations needs rekindling. All they need is good story that an adolescent can wrap his brain around.

Unfortunately, the teacher has his hands tied on this one. The district has mandated that certain texts be taught without question. Thus, to the struggling reader(which applies to nearly 90% of American students) that has just entered high school, the English teacher will pass out copies of Homer's The Odyssey. As soon as the students try to wade through the prayer to the muses filled with Homeric similes and lofty allusions to countless myths, their little flames of imagination will now be successfully snuffed out in an instant. The book is difficult and easily overwhelms them. The English teacher must now anticipate their wrath and cope with it the rest of the year.

That is only the beginning. As these little ones sit through class after class, they will still have to endure the verbiage of Shakespeare, Greek Tragedies, and a host of stories better suited for octogenarians than kids with absolutely no concept of history or any matter of maturity. To name a few, they are: The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Scarlet Letter, Lord of the Flies, The Crucible, and Great Expectations. All of these are lovely books for a seasoned reader and thinker, but for the kid pitifully sounding out three syllables, these books will successfully kill any desire to read. They will eventually kill an English teacher's desire to teach as well.

Despite having the same gloomy results, English departments across the country continue to unsuccessfully use these books as instructional tools for decades. To be fair, teachers did have a few novels to really move the students and make them think twice about opening a book. Any novel of Steinbeck could always convey a digestible moral lesson that suited the pallets of young readers. Catcher in the Rye had a mysterious magic over students of any background. Even George Orwell or Ray Bradbury had a peculiar appeal to students sitting in windowless classrooms pondering such odd concepts as freedom or individuality.

However, these books have either been shelved, pushed up grade levels, or banned altogether. In a triumph of insanity, the same schools that teach the perverted plight of Oedipus and the unnecessarily sanguine quests of Odysseus will somehow find the few naughty words of Holden Caulfield and the subtle innuendos of Steinbeck objectionable beyond all measure. Thus, any book that the kids could call their own have been taken away, and they are left with the driest old tomes that even most teachers would pass over if they could.

Naturally, some teachers, mostly those in the urban districts, have tried fixing this problem altogether by compromising the mandated literature with more contemporary selections that nearly always have some multicultural agenda. What usually occurs is that their books ironically have the same difficulties since they mistakenly pick books with the same adult themes. Even if a story of Sandra Cisnerors is short, gritty, and Latino, it's hardly appreciated by the majority of young people. The same applies to the confessional texts of Gary Soto, Amy Tan, and Maya Angelou.

Due to this recurring result, educators might do well to consider giving books that are not specifically for adults for a change. Set the kids on an adventure, exploring new worlds in the future, in the past, or in the jungles. Quite a few luminaries (Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling, Daniel Defoe, or Robert Louis Stevenson, to name a few) have written classics in these areas that will enhance the vocabulary and language of students yet still entertain. Besides, before even catching a whiff of Shakespeare or Homer, any reader should have an extensive body of texts and histories in them first. Students could get through many enjoyable books before taking on the giants of the language.

Nevertheless, educators are under the impression that there would not be enough time, so they try to take the "short cut." They think they can merely create some little "strategy" in teaching that will solve the problem of reading incredibly hard texts. Somehow the students will catch all the lovely metaphors, similes, and puns of Shakespeare without having to work too hard at it; the teachers just need to present it the right way. Devise some happy little group assignments accompanied by Power points for the Scarlet Letter, and the kids will surely catch the multitude of symbols and themes. This has never worked, but districts never seem to stop trying to make it work. Couple this flawed approach with a resistance to spend even the tiniest amount for purchasing new set of books and teachers are stuck with the same classics that have unfairly become infamous among the non-reading public.

Fortunately, most schools will leave a few sets of fun-yet-nutritious books lingering in the corners of a dusty cluttered storage room, and the good English teachers will capitalize on these finds. When given the chance, their students will demonstrate skills that were thought to be hopelessly nonexistent all because they had a book they could finally understand and enjoy. If this could be maintained, decent levels of literacy in America could be revived, but that teacher will soon have to stab his dear little students in the back by following district requirements, giving them Julius Caesar.

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