Friday, January 30, 2015

"Teaching" Kids What They Like ... or What They Need?

"Why can't we read books we like?"

This all-too-common question in the English classroom has been asked of me numerous times by high school students, most recently a freshmen who eyed with suspicion the text Lord of the Flies. Though she wasn't my student - her class followed mine - we often talked with several of her friends before class, and I could tell she was bright and motivated but still viewed the world as a child.  In talking about what she "liked," we veered into discussion of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars - an amazing young adult novel that has moved onto some very credible lists as one of best books of the year.  The student "loved the novel" and thought it would be great to discuss in class.  I asked her a few questions regarding her reading.  "Was the book tough to read?"  Of course not.  "Did you struggle with the sentences or the vocabulary?"  Are you crazy.  "Did it challenge you in any way?"  Well, it was really sad ... but I loved it.  And that is the issue.

So, what makes it worthy of study?  Far too often these days students and parents and, surprisingly, English teachers are confusing the pleasure reading with the study of literature.  They are not the same thing.  They do not belong in the same venue.  The pleasure of reading is not in any standard of education.  It is not the public's mandate.  It is not our job.  Appreciation, on the other hand, is.

In the past couple years, that issue has risen in our English department as some teachers questioned the school's policy of summer reading.  For many years, honors English students have been asked to read books like John Knowles' A Separate Peace and Alan Patton's Cry, the Beloved Country during the summer.  And teachers have struggled with students reading a book "they hate."  Thus, they have argued for offering a book that students can just enjoy, and books like John Green's The Fault in Our Stars have been offered as alternatives in the past.  For the record, John Green is a fantastic author, I have read all his books, and I love his work.  However, in spite of his brilliance and his use of the word metaphor and allusion, Green's work is not a work of classic literature.  It is a great book, and I would recommend it to all my students - in fact, I do.  However, to argue that English teachers should stop reading John Knowles or Alan Paton because "it's hard" or students "don't like it," and instead shift to the "study" of a book that for all its brilliance is written at about a sixth-grade level is ... discouraging.

In response, I look to Carol Jago and her book With Rigor For All: Teaching Classics to Contemporary Students.  Jago actually visited my high school years ago after our principle purchased copies of her book for the English department.  Carol Jago worries that "in our determination to provide students with literature that they can relate to we sometimes end up teaching works that students actually don't need much help with at the expense of teaching classics they most certainly need assistance negotiating."  I share her concerns, yet I struggle to convince teachers who simply want children to love literature.  While a noble goal, I'd argue that is the very job of the teacher - helping students appreciate William Golding the same way they love John Green.  At the very least, it's worth noting Carol Jago's point that "If a student can read a book on their own [and fully "get it"], it probably isn't the best choice for classroom study.  Classroom texts should pose an intellectual challenge to young readers."  Ultimately, I see a divergence in the goal of English teachers and the English classroom.  And I was, interestingly, steered toward Carol Jago's work by a teacher who was trying to convince me I was wrong for opposing the inclusion on John Green in the curriculum.

To that end, I can only cite Jago who asserts, "While I believe young adult fiction has a place in the recreational life of teenagers, I don't think these titles are the best choice when your goal is the study of literature."

No comments: