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All I Really Need to Know About Literature I Learned Years and Years after High-School Graduation
I've just found Will Okun's New York Times blog. He's a schoolteacher in Chicago who was chosen in a contest to travel around Africa with Times columnist Nick Kristof, and now he's back to work and still blogging. Today he writes about how his students fall asleep every time he tries to work on traditional literary classics with them, no matter what he does or how he approaches it. He has better luck with books they can understand and relate to, like I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Push, The Outsiders, and The Color Purple:
There is nothing as satisfying as when a class discussion becomes so intellectually and emotionally charged that a security guard enters to make sure everything is okay.
He makes a pretty good argument for giving up on teaching the first kind of book in favor of the second kind. Otherwise, he says, students will decide that they hate reading and never get the chance to go back and enjoy the classics when they're better able to appreciate them, the way he did himself with The Stranger, after learning to love novels from the Norman Mailer, Tom Robbins, and Tom Wolfe his parents had around the house.

No doubt that's a controversial position, but I see what he's saying here, and I grew up in a house where every free bit of wall was lined with bookshelves. The only assigned reading I enjoyed in high school was All the King's Men, Heart of Darkness (mostly because we watched Apocalypse Now alongside), some things by Carson McCullers, and the odd sonnet. I dragged myself through plenty of Homer, Dickens, and Shakespeare, but I didn't learn to enjoy any of them until just a few years ago. Other than that I got more out of my Rolling Stone subscription than from anything I read in school. I know the classics are a priceless heritage, but I have to wonder: what's the point of paying for students to sleep through class when they could be learning something?


3 comments or Leave a comment
zz_neena From: zz_neena Date: January 10th, 2008 11:38 pm (UTC) (Link)
I know I'm the odd one out here, as I've had this conversation with other people in the past.

Reading the classics in school never put me off them. In fact reading them made me see that I could understand "hard" books on my own if I put in some effort.

As a teacher, though, I am very careful to select books I know I can get ethusiastic about sharing with kids. I find that it is my enthusiasm that often gets some of the most reluctant readers interested.
melydia From: melydia Date: January 11th, 2008 12:02 am (UTC) (Link)
Assigned books at school put me off reading for a long time. The only stuff I read for pleasure was the occasional fantasy book in the summer for the library's summer reading program. In fact, I didn't read for pleasure regularly until college, at which point I was desperate to read anything that wasn't a textbook.

That's not to say I hated every book we read. I enjoyed The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, The Once and Future King by T.H. White, and much of the Shakespeare. But the vast majority were more effort than (I felt) they were worth.
retc From: retc Date: January 11th, 2008 03:10 am (UTC) (Link)
I totally agree.
Literature should speak to you.
It should be something that makes you think
and you therefore need to be able to relate to it
(at least when you are just learning.)
Give them something challenging that they'll love
and they will learn to love the challenge.
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