Tuesday, August 07, 2007


Inspired by this post over at the Musings of Great Eric, I started thinking about the books we read in high school, the books I wish we'd read, and the whole high school English experience.

It's hard for me, teacher-to-the-bone, to admit that it was teachers who turned me off of reading at a certain point. Just as it was teachers who helped me love to read in the first place, it was the curriculum and lack of flexibility in my courses that made me think, at times: "I'm never picking up a book again."

And it wasn't the workload. I'm a quick reader - 100+ pages an hour, minimum (unless the language is really hard to get through, I'm looking at you Melville!) And I've always been able to read three or four books at one time - some fiction here, so non-fiction there, a cookbook & a craft book percolating in the corner. So it wasn't that the assignments were too much work... it was that they were too boring.

And that sucks.


And there should have been some way for us to learn about the things 'they' think we need to know without making it so ridiculously boring that some of us (ahem, this is where I raise my hand) don't spend an entire year learning just enough from class discussions and quick scans of the text to get a good grade instead of actually reading and enjoying the books.

You can ask anybody old or young - they'll all have some horrible story about the time their English teacher made them study Julius Cesar for over 6 months or write a tome on the importance of symbolism in Ethan Frome.

Another confession: Ethan Frome is the worst book I have ever read. And I have read some real dreck - romance novels with no plots, stereotypes galore & annoying, no-brained characters; 'literature' that was told in three different, 1st person's points-of-view, with no clear transition between them; science textbooks; the dictionary. Ethan Frome was, undeniably, the worst of the lot.
The passion with which I still hate this book is surprising: I remember the way I would picture him out there in the snow, dragging his leg behind him, gathering wood or something and want - with a frightening intensity - some wolf to come jumping out of the woods and devour him, just so that something interesting would be happening in this damn story! When we'd discuss the book in class I would draw wolves (or, more precisely, doodle wolf-shaped beings) and hope against hope that maybe it would come out of the paper and eat me instead.


The point is that if the way we teach English (which was always, by far, my best and favorite subject) was so disheartening, frustrating, and off-putting to me, I can understand why so many adults think of reading as something they'd do only as an absolutely last resort. (It also makes me wonder if math, science and other subjects I disliked would have been more accessible to me if taught differently.)

And that's just not right. Because when English is taught well, it can open you up to the entire world.

Here are two of my own examples:

It's Senior Year, we're reading A Pilgrim's Tale, and the teacher asks us to come up with our own poems in identical verse. It can be on any topic - the only requirements are that it follows the pattern, is a certain length and is passed in by the date he sets. I wind up writing about a kingdom where two brother's fight for their father's throne, and, b/c I am having a hard time rhyming 'throne,' decide that the kingdom's domain is over ice cream cones. Being able to infuse the poem with my own special brand of wit, it winds up being more than a simple assignment: I take it seriously, write it on parchment styled paper, in my own calligraphy (also learned that year), and it winds up being twice as long as the original requirements. (I also got an A, thank you very much.) And I learn that poetry is not all about syllables and beats - that it's about heart and humor and feelings and freedom.

It is 6th Grade and everyday after lunch recess, we file into the classroom, throw our coats near their hooks, slump into our chairs. I didn't know it then, but this is a danger zone for teachers: kids coming in, chatting, bellies full and amped either way up or way down from their running around ---> Getting them to refocus on whatever work you want them to do isn't easy. But every single day, our 6th grade teacher waits for us all to be sitting, and then picks up a chapter book and starts reading it aloud. The joys of being read to: pure pleasure! James and the Giant Peach, The Indian in the Cupboard, The Secret Garden - none of them on our curriculum guides, none of them books we are reading in class. These are books just for fun. Just for us: A special treat. I can still hear her describing the juicy peach, uncovering the secret of the mysterious night-crying, turning the key in the cupboard. Amazing. And I learn that books are not just things we struggle through,
word by word, but instead are whole worlds, just waiting to be discovered. That reading aloud is a pleasure to the reader and to her listeners. That spending the time counting paragraphs till my turn may not be the best use of my time (although, I did that until my very last day of college, the fear of being caught having to read a paragraph with a word I couldn't pronounce was too great.)

Other stories along the way attracted my attention: the tension of The Telltale Heart or The Lottery; the dialogue in some Shakespeare's plays (and in others, definitely NOT); the passionate poems of Christina Rossetti, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman; the time a teacher brought in a poem that connected to her heart, and sent us out looking for one that spoke to ours.

But the majority of my classes consisted of breaking down allegories or studying up on symbolism... on dissecting what each word uttered by Gatsby really, really meant or trying to explain what motivates Dickens' characters (aside from the fact that he got paid by the word, that is).

By turning reading into a task, a chore, a 'subject' rather than treating it like the exciting, exhilarating adventure it is meant to be, English class is killing generations of readers.

There are ways to make English - even in high school - a subject that enthralls students. There have to be. You can teach the basics, the necessities, and still keep kids/people interested in reading. It's not an impossible task. Because English is about language and literature. And literature is about life: How could life possibly be boring?

(I have some suggestions for this, but I'm going to hold back on those for another post... I'd love to hear some of your favorite/least favorite memories, and how you think we could improve high level English classes...Go!)


Crazed Nitwit said...

Uhhhhhhhhhhh, what's an allegory?

Arizaphale said...

As a current English teacher you cut me to the bone! :-D
I try to only teach books I love and I try desperately to communicate that love to my pupils. It doesn't always work though. Interestingly I remember finding the study of English incredibly dull in Matric although it never put me off books. For me, the worst was the poetry of John Donne (I'm sorry I'm just not that deep) and the bloody awful Tess of the Bloody D'Urbervilles!!! The moment she christened the dead baby 'Sorrow' I wrote her off as a pathetic, namby-pamby wimp. Of course, those were the days before I'd had a miscarriage! Still, I never finished the book, just determined not to answer that question in the exam!!! :-D On the plus side I really enjoyed taking 'The Great Gatsby' apart and also adored the surreal plays of Becket and Pinter.
I would love advice from anyone on how to engage kids with English. Particularly 14 year olds.

Never That Easy said...

Janice - I love ya babe!

Arizaphale -
I surely didn't mean to hurt your feelings! ;) Oh, my gosh, yes: Tess of the Bloddy D'Urbervilles ("It's like a soap opera," is how my English teacher sold this one to us.... Trust me, it's NOT), she made me soooo mad!

I'm hoping to have some of the ideas I talked about polished up enough for a post soon, but I think you are already covering the most important one: You only teach what you love, which means you're passionate about it. Even when I was rolling my eyes at some of the stuff my teachers were talking about, I could always tell if they really felt a connection to what we were supposed to be reading. There's just no faking it.

(And, yes, this is insanely easier with picture books & 5 year-olds, because who doesn't love a picture book?)