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Thread: On Literature Pedagogy in American High Schools

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    Whosie Whatsie? Ser Nevarc's Avatar
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    On Literature Pedagogy in American High Schools

    The Catcher in the Rye; Huckleberry Finn; The Great Gatsby; To Kill a Mockingbird; The Scarlet Letter. When did we first read these books? Probably in high school. What are high schoolers reading? Probably these books. This has remained unchanged for some time. These hallmark texts are in fact so deeply associated with high school reading classes that they are listed in The Washington Post as “summer reading” (19 September 2004). Right now, teens throughout America are collectively reading (or browsing online summaries of) Brave New World, 1984, Frankenstein, and even Hamlet and Macbeth.

    It is a disappointment, then, to know that most students are not celebrating the opportunity to become familiar with these texts, but most in fact meet the encounter with rather resigned attitudes. Expectations are low, and full engagement is unlikely. But aren't these the books that our culture reveres as the most accessible, rewarding, and socio-historically important? I will not spend words blaming the popularity of television, video games, or any other modern technologies. We should furthermore not fall into the old “kids these days . . .” routine: most parents and grandparents read little more than the daily newspaper and whatever their career requires. It seems that for Americans of all ages (high schoolers, college students, adults and seniors), classic poetry, drama, fiction, and nonfiction are simply not the leisure material of choice. This applies even to those who pursued higher education: recent data collected by Jenkins Group Publishing Firm indicates that approximately 42% of college graduates will never read another book. And so, we naturally want to know why. From where does this multi-generational disconnect with literature originate?

    Of course this phenomenon cannot be attributed to any single source. The climate of our twenty-first century life, with its bustling capitalistic activity, instant news media, and instant entertainment, is obviously going to leave leisure reading in the dark, forgotten corners. We are used to this. I would like to discuss, however, one particular element of our lives that may be a major factor in literature's low popularity. Drawing from my own personal experiences, I would consider the common high school English curriculum in this country to be that factor to which I've just referred. This particular style of education is too often counterproductive, and leads not to the cultivation of a multitude of lifelong readers, but instead leads all too often only to a general smothering of literary interest. I do believe that the methods of literature education in wide use in most high schools is in many ways responsible for the diminishment of active literacy in our nation. It would not be an exaggeration to say that for many students—especially those who identify themselves as being interested in empirically-based subjects like science and math—high school English classes only strengthen their disdain for literature studies, reinforcing the attitude that classic literature it is outdated, obsolete, and above all, boring.

    The strongest base upon which I will make my argument is my own life history. Though my own experiences in high school are just that: my own, I do feel safe assuming that many of the materials and practices used in my alma mater are widely used elsewhere, for the reason that my high school is one of many others like it in this country. My high school is located in a rural area, has access to a very limited amount of funds, operates in a tight-knit community wherein parents and town leaders hold active roles, and enrolls at the time of this writing about 1,000 students (grades 7 through 12), virtually all of whom are white and middle-class.

    In ninth grade, I remember reading an abridged version of the Odyssey and our first Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet. In tenth grade, we continued on to read Julius Caesar, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and To Kill a Mockingbird. In eleventh grade, our workload increased; I remember reading Catch-22, The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, Huckleberry Finn, The Glass Menagerie, and The Scarlet Letter. In twelfth grade, I recollect my introduction to the British epic: we read excerpts from Paradise Lost and Beowulf, and then moved on to read Heart of Darkness, Crime and Punishment, and Death of a Salesman, finishing the year with both Macbeth and Hamlet. I think that the texts, in retrospect, provided an satisfactory taste of classic literature. I thoroughly enjoyed my high school reading experience, though I noted that many of my peers did not.

    I feel safe claiming that my high school English classes turned many, many teens off of reading. The teaching methods I encountered, especially up until my senior year, focused almost entirely on the element of plot, undermining a chief purpose of literary studies, and embedding the components of “correct” and “incorrect” in the processes of reading and comprehension. High school teachers all too often ask, “what happened in chapter 4?” and you as the student must answer either correctly or incorrectly. The fear of public correction can be harmful to a reader's confidence and enjoyment of a text. Note: it is not necessarily that teachers’ expectations are objective and too firm. The problem is that many teachers rely too heavily on concrete information, and do not stress to students the most important factor of reading: personal appreciation and understanding.

    In my time as a high school student with a focus in English, I realized that my teachers, by presenting classic literature as removed from all other modes of language—including those that intrigued many students—suggested therefore (probably inadvertently) that classic literature is its own self-standing, remote body of work. Contemporary texts are ignored completely. Connections to contemporary sensibilities and media are stifled. These classes, therefore, fail to make the texts relevant to a student’s life. And when the material is not applicable to the student's life, the student becomes bored. It is at this point that reading begins to feel like a chore. Under this manner of instruction, the student ultimately associates literature with forced intake of information and fear of failure. The potential reader then categorizes literature into the “irrelevant” file in their mind, along with all other things perceived as unprofitable and foreign. And here is the frightening truth: they will carry this prejudice against literature for the rest of their lives.

    We should remember Mark Twain's words: “A person who won't read has no advantage over one who can't read.” It is noble to work to inspire reading in students—to help them see the same beauty found in Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, in literature. But how can this be done on a significant scale? It is difficult to propose any universally practical or enforceable solution to the problem that I see in high school English education. There are sentiments, though, that I may hope to communicate as best I can, which could have some effect. My desire here is for the promotion of a future in which the propensity toward self-initiated reading is encouraged, not snubbed out by insensitive pedagogical practices. To this end, I would encourage high school instructors to shift gear in their English classes.

    I would ask them to ease into historically distant authors such as Shakespeare and Milton. The rhetoric used in these texts—which are artifacts, remember—are entirely foreign to a person growing up in post-millennium America. It may be wise to gradually expose teens to literature in a world like ours, in which it is so easy to turn to other forms of entertainment. Whether we like it or not, the average ninth-grade American student (aged 15 years) is unlikely to comprehend or enjoy Romeo and Juliet. I certainly did not understand the nuances of Shakespeare's style at that age (and still do not claim to). Forcing young readers with little literary experience to grapple with a Shakespearean drama is likely to instill memories of frustration and confusion in association with literature. Teachers, avoid this! Gently nurture the love of books, so it can grow to be as irreplaceable as any other type of love.

    Remember—reading literature is a profound and beautiful experience that can enjoyed for an entire lifetime; at the same time, it can be perceived as difficult or impenetrable by non-readers. As a teacher of literature, you must work to instill confidence in young readers. Empower them. Let them enjoy the text in their own way and on their own time. Let them justify their own conclusions in regard to literature's unique humanity—its consciousness, real-life manifestations, and moral truths. And above all, value students' interpretations as much as your own.

    Do not lose the intellectual heritage of humanity. Do not forget why we want literature to endure: because we love it and it brings joy and understanding to us. Help others find this joy and understanding.


    Thoughts?

  2. #2
    Great post Ser Nevarc! Your point on the teaching methods of English high school teachers (and probably high school teachers in general) is one that should consistently be tackled by the English departments of every high school. I also remember those English classes driven by lackadaisical discussion about "what happened in chapter 4?" Ironically, English teachers seem to have this ridiculous disconnect with how and what students want to be taught (which can be attributed to the curricula each high school employs). You can't drop John Milton in front of students and expect them to care. However, you could show them a YouTube clip of Amiri Baraka and expect a lively conversation to commence in and out of that respective high school classroom.

    While the plot of any classic is important in the English classroom, lively discussion almost never happens due to a student having to remember that Juliet was a Capulet or that the creature/monster isn't Victor Frankenstein. There are ways to create lively discussion, but those teachers have to be willing to deviate from whatever curriculum they're forced to work under. I'm not saying that there aren't teachers who do this; I'm just saying that there aren't nearly enough. I can't tell you how many plot quizzes I took during high school. I do remember most of the opinions I had about Othello, if only because my 12th grade teacher actually gave a **** about what we had to say. I never understood why people bashed Sparknotes or Cliffnotes when the teachers seem to be teaching from those rather than the actual text. It's why students come into college feeling like they can do the exact same thing only to realize that their opinions (which are prettied up summaries of whatever Sparknotes text they just read two days before) get B-'s and lower.

    Do college admission boards care about what you honestly think? I doubt it. Do colleges care that you can score an 85 and above for writing paragraphs with an uninspired thesis statement, supplemental quotations, and correct punctuation/grammar? You bet your *** they do.

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    The problem is we must present the important works that molded our culture, and there is no time for everything else that didn't. If we don't present that, we would be missing quite a bit of what's meaningful to USA. Then it would be the best who would be bored with the circular BS. That's the way it is. I don't think you can motivate students with staying away from the very well-defined elements of the American Dream and faith.

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    Whosie Whatsie? Ser Nevarc's Avatar
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    MeLikeyClaSsIcS: thanks! I'm glad I'm not the only one who feels this way about the whole thing. And as for transition of college-level work (and writing, especially), that's a whole new (and also worrying) topic. Soldier on!

    cafolini: I agree. We do have something of an obligation to present the fundamentals of the so-called high school canon. But it's not as simple as determining, "these are the important books with which an American citizen should be familiar." Like I tried to communicate above, the important books are often, unfortunately perhaps, some of the more inaccessible texts. Now of course there is no need for a "dumbing down" of American high school curriculi; I think it really comes down to classroom instances of teaching.

    From my point of view, the question to answer is more of a "how can we allow a comfortable, rewarding relationship to develop between students and these marvelous works of art?" Because it seems to me that the greatest goal to instill a love of literature (and art, really) into students.

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    the beloved: Gladys's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ser Nevarc View Post
    Let them justify their own conclusions in regard to literature's unique humanity—its consciousness, real-life manifestations, and moral truths. And above all, value students' interpretations as much as your own.
    Valuing a student's interpretation is all very well, but surely any interpretation of value must be consistent with textual evidence. Often interpretation, whether of student or teacher, is little more than a manifestation of narcissistic imagination in blatant conflict with the text. Attention to evidence is expected in the sciences. Why should great works of literature be treated differently? In particular, films based on classics - and watched by schools - usually butcher the text for cheap effect.

    Love of science, maths, philosophy or literature grows with meticulous attention to detail rather than though unbridled self indulgence. Such careful attention, fun or otherwise, allows literature's unique humanity to shine like the midday sun.


    "Love does not alter the beloved, it alters itself"

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    Registered User ralfyman's Avatar
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    Television, etc., have gotten in the way of reading, which is why citizens have to be forced to read these works in school. But as the threat of de-industrialization takes place given peak oil, global warming, and permanent economic crisis, then more will return to reading, at least until things get even worse.

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    Bibliophile Drkshadow03's Avatar
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    Don't worry! With the shift to common core in the U. S., high schools students will be expected to read something like 70% informational (nonfiction) texts. I imagine that will leave a lot less time to read any sort of literary fiction or play or poem.
    "You understand well enough what slavery is, but freedom you have never experienced, so you do not know if it tastes sweet or bitter. If you ever did come to experience it, you would advise us to fight for it not with spears only, but with axes too." - Herodotus

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  8. #8
    Intriguing. I recall my high school years (not too long ago) being almost void of any serious reading. We "discussed" Macbeth for nearly two months my senior year, something in which the class was unwilling (at best) to cooperate. Alongside the Shakespearean canonical must-reads, we read modern fiction; I should say modern teen fiction, in the vein of The Hunger Games. This grasped the attention of my peers, but I fear contributed less and less to critical thinking provoked by some of the classics. I distinctly remember having to read The Red Badge of Courage in eighth grade. The class refused to read it, so my teacher dropped it from the curriculum. How should a teacher execute such protestation on part of my peers? Should a work simply be eschewed because it is difficult?

    If my teachers had taken time to explain some of the literary devices the books could have instilled some lesson. Instead, we had the plot-summarizing tests...which until recently was the impetus for my hostility towards literary works. I just didn't care to read a whole book when I knew the plot was going to be summarized in class anyway, and that would allow me to pass the test. The aid of technological pedagogical tools (youtube, film, music, etc) presented a more accessible entry into the works, but I believe these often take away from the value of the text itself while simultaneously acting as a scapegoat for serious reading that should take place in high school.

    My educational experience could be described quite simplistically: unenthusiastic.

    College has been quite different. I took a chance in several literature classes, and the professors I have encountered have been passionate and eager to teach, something I can't say about high school courses I've taken part of. I'm not a teacher so I have no solution for this epidemic, but I do wish I was better prepared and not turned off to literature during my high school (preparatory) years.

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    Should Brave New World and 1984 be taught in schools? I read them as a teenager for fun, which left me with the impression that novels can be the best of fun. By spending months teaching these kinds of novels it perhaps gives the impression that literary novels *have to be* difficult things, like French grammar, even if they don't seem that difficult when encountered in their natural habitat.

    Maybe teachers should only analyse and teach truly difficult things, like Shakespeare, Joyce and Eliot; with Huxley and Orwell set as optional holiday reading, with the teacher saying something like, "These are totally different from Shakespeare, they are like Harry Potter for older teenagers, so just read them, enjoy them, talk to me about them, if you like, after the holidays; but there's no stress or pressure on you to read them. I'd just say give them a try if you get bored with the films on TV ..."

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    Well, Ser Nevarc, you talk like a teacher, there's no doubt in your warmth. I get these from your text "As a teacher of literature, you must work to instill confidence in young readers. Empower them. Let them enjoy the text in their own way and on their own time. Let them justify their own conclusions in regard to literature's unique humanity—its consciousness, real-life manifestations, and moral truths. And above all, value students' interpretations as much as your own.".
    Okey, I'm a high-school teacher too. i'm much younger than you I think (so you could have been my teacher, it's an impression). In a South Europe latin country (if the references can be useful somehow...). I've been teaching just a year in several High-Schools in my county as a substitute teacher. I just want to add a very little comment to your obvious long-experience on the issue: we should admit there will always be teenagers (the great amount, I'm afraid) who will dislike reading, although we'd spend hours in a single-class with each of them. My experience tells me the student who wants to work do it whoever the teacher is, whatever the subject is, etc.
    You make me remember when I was a teenager (20 years ago). I remember an Iron Lady teacher who obliged us to make summaries of El Quijote. Two chapters every week, no matter your alphabetical surname, no matter if you did right the last week. She was continually upon us. I failed a trimestre because of not having all the chapters summarised. I don't know, but I missed this kaind of things in present days. Teenager are soft, weak, they get tired too early...of almost everything which doesn't imply chitchatting in class, sending stupid things with thir cells and so on...Be comprehensive it's good but if you really have a good team of s-t-u-d-e-n-t-s who would like to get involved in the literaty issues, who empathise with the subject. In another way, you end up punishing nonsensely all the time and getting talking hopeless for the four class walls.
    Finally, nowadays I appreciate the classes with that Iron Lady who taught me the value of continuous work, discipline and seriousity, values to which pay attention too.

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    I disagree with the premises of Ser Nevarc. It is obvious to me that there are many more students interested in literature today than there were in the 20th century. Their number is growing steadily. Of course there will always be those who can't understand many of the great works of American Culture. Poor fellows. But we cannot make sacrifices for their sake at the expense of American literature. And Ser Nevarc quoting Twain in this context is not valid. A frsamework is first fabricated about the inability of students to take an interest in literature and then it is universalized, and finally Twain is quoted under that false premise. Sorry, but not useful.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Ser Nevarc View Post
    I would ask them to ease into historically distant authors such as Shakespeare and Milton. The rhetoric used in these texts—which are artifacts, remember—are entirely foreign to a person growing up in post-millennium America.
    The rhetoric used even in less distant texts is lost on high school students… and many teachers. Evidently, many students, parents, and teachers don’t even understand the nature of Huck Finn’s racism—perhaps because, as you and other posters have pointed out, we're generally too preoccupied with the plot. If they can’t grasp this then I question how fit they are to read Mark Twain, let alone Shakespeare and Milton.

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    11th grade? How old we're you then to be reading Catch 22 and its explicit sexual references in class? Strikes me that you had a Radical teacher or an anarchist!

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    Registered User kelby_lake's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Eiseabhal View Post
    11th grade? How old we're you then to be reading Catch 22 and its explicit sexual references in class? Strikes me that you had a Radical teacher or an anarchist!
    I did The Handmaid's Tale for A-Level and that's pretty steamy.

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    Remembering back at school, I wondered what English Literature classes were actually for. It seemed a bit like Latin or Religious Education, a subject that teachers insisted was useful, but actually was not. I could see the point in English Language, Mathematics and the sciences, which also had the virtue of having correct and incorrect answers which could be marked objectively. I also rather resented the implication that what school thought was worth reading was better than what we wanted to read, and suspected the state via the education system of trying to impose their taste in literature on us. What gave them the right? I did not force them to listen to The Jam, XTC or The Stranglers. I actually did read, but I read books like The Lord of the Rings. I hated Shakespeare, couldn't see the point even when it had been translated; hated poetry - strictly for girls, and I thought 19th century fiction was long-winded and turgid. The only set book that impressed me was Animal Farm, so much so that afterwards I attempted 1984 but gave up when I worked out that Winston Smith was not going to bring about the downfall of Big Brother. Looking back now, I suppose a lot of this attitude was due to immaturity. All the same, I am not sure about some of the books that we were set. For example, we were set Jane Eyre for our age-16 exams. Not only was Jane Eyre boring 19th century literature, it was boring, 19th century, romantic fiction. Another book that tends to be used as a set text over here is The Lord of the Flies. I started another thread about books on another forum (actually a cycling forum) and the number of people who posted how they hated that book! One even blamed it for her daughter having given up reading. However, I suspect whatever the book choice a lot of pupils will not like it. My school had been a selective girls' school, but became a mixed, non-selective school the year I started. I am sure one of the English teachers, noticing how my class of mostly delinquents had no interest in reading, selected a book that she thought might appeal to us more: The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. It made absolutely no difference. Most the kids just mucked around as normal. Anyway, I eventually came to the conclusion that it did not matter if the book was interesting or not, because the process of analysing it in class would kill the enjoyment of any book.

    So, my recommendations would be:

    Explain, really, what is the point of studying English literature. If the reason is to enrich your life with an appreciation of culture better than the rubbish you waste your time with now, expect the answer **** ***.

    Make some concessions to the age and maturity of the pupils in the choice of set texts. For example, many boys that age worry about their masculinity. They will not be happy to read romantic fiction or poetry about daffodils.

    Choose some texts which are actually enjoyable, not miserable books, especially not ones with some sort of sermonising message that seems pointed at them.

    I don't know what can be done about Shakespeare.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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