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.


Lightly Seasoned said...

What a bizarre post. Do you actually have a job teaching English? You sound like you need to retire.

Anonymous said...

Finally. Someone who actually gets it.

It is utterly ridiculous to try to teach Shakespeare and Homer to lazy freshmen and sophomores. As you wrote, yes, Shakespeare and Homer are a necessary part of one's education, and those authors are quite enjoyable to read, but I can only say this now that I am in college. Dickens, Homer, Shakespeare - leave those authors to the older students who can actually appreciate the literature and have a basic comprehension of it.

If teachers want to cultivate a lifelong love of reading, Great Expectations is the wrong place to start. Why hit the students with these dense books so early in their education? Bradbury, Orwell, Brave New World, Steinbeck, and Catcher in the Rye would be awesome for younger high school students. Students love the dystopian stuff, and Catcher in the Rye is the quintessential book for 14/15 year olds. Man, Dickens at 14? Just kill me.

Oh, and what a lame comment "lightly seasoned" left. Good job explaining yourself, buddy.

You're a realist, Scotty. Other teachers need to get this *bizarre* idea out of their heads of quiet little freshmen obediently reading Hamlet. Hmm, yes, how lovely! Oh, and then the students could perform their own rendition of the play in yet another one of those time-wasting group activities that have plagued me from middle school to college. I love English!

Clix said...

Rats! Here I was hoping for a list of fun-to-read titles, you know, 'from Goosebumps to Gatsby.'

A few days ago I was at the used bookstore up by the mall and I noticed for the first time that the Fear Street series is targeted at girls. I was ticked! I was looking for some good scary books that my students could enjoy and here they all have cute little cheerleaders with wide eyes on the cover. Darnit!

I'm surprised you didn't mention Ivanhoe. What other books would you put on a "fun classics" list?

Anonymous said...

I believe that part of the problem is that the classical curriculum or close versions with more selections from writers of color (yet, still not really addressing the needs of their generation), keeps the status quo going-- but with the illusion of change. To really change the curriculum, to adjust it to the students actually studying it, would mean that the whole system would also need to adapt. If we differentiated 'standardized testing', that is, created tests more in line with what a particular group of students is capable of(there are plenty of good young authors with vast vocabularies, bit they use the words within a body of text that is also interesting and current), how much better the results and the process would be.
I teach in a ghetto school. When my children attended a private institution, they used an alternative testing method in addition to the standardized one. This gave them a wider lens in which to view their markedly different learners. They also used musch up-to-date literature and technology, but also taught grammar and college writing based techniques (MLA, typed papers, etc.)
I am not saying we need to delete the classics, but if they were the supplementary materials rather than the main dish, students may ingest the lesons much better. And, in reality, very few teachers teach Shakespeare or the Canterbury Tales in the language they were respectively written in. Differentiating to every learrning style known to man is waste if the materials themselves are wretchedly out of touch with our students.

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