Tuesday, July 13, 2004

High School English

What do these books, all mainstays of high school English, have in common: Death of a Salesman – The Scarlet Letter – Animal Farm – Brave New World – The Lord of the Flies – 1984 – Cuckoo’s Nest, etc. etc?

Answer: they make you want to kill yourself.

What do these other books, also perennial high school English favorites, have in common: Pride and Prejudice - Ethan Frome - Wuthering Heights – anything by D.H. Lawrence or Henry James or Zora Neal Hurston, etc. etc?

Answer: they make you so bored you want to die.

It’s time to totally rethink how we teach high school English. And I don’t mean minor tweaks and adjustments; I mean a complete overhaul from the ground up. It’s time to set new goals in the high school English classroom.

Old goal: To teach students how to read critically. To take them on a tour of the great classics of western literature, offering insightful and penetrating analysis along the way.

New goal: To teach students the joy of reading.

That’s the idea in a nutshell. The primary problem with the old goal is that it presumes the pre-existence of an interest in reading among the students. It presumes that a 15 year old is ready for Ethan Frome. The secondary problem is one of priorities. To teach students to read critically gives them an important skill, with all kinds of benefits that extend beyond English lit. But to teach students to love reading is twice as important a skill, with more benefits down the line.

I appreciate that a high school has enough faith in their freshmen’s abilities that they think they can jump right into Othello. I don’t fault them for lofty ambitions, but the sad fact is that many of today’s incoming high school students simply have never truly become fluent in reading any literature of any kind.

There are so many distractions today for kids. For every 12 year old girl you see on the bus reading a teenage mystery novel, there are 5 other kids that have never read a book for pleasure in their lives. With TV and video games and the computer, and a full load of extra-curricular activities to boot, when does a kid find the time to read a book these days?

I got extremely lucky. My parents read to me constantly as a child, and always had me well supplied with age appropriate books. Even though as a kid I was a video game junkie, my parents made sure that books were a part of my childhood. Many other kids didn’t have this advantage.

The school could provide a lifesaving function by providing an introduction to pleasure reading that these kids never got. However, for all appearances, most high schools seem to be doing their damndest to convince their students that reading is a complete fucking ordeal.

Animal Farm is one of the most accessible reads that a high school student will likely be offered. However, the page turning qualities of this book are entirely offset by the fact that chapter after chapter, it completely ruins your day. It’s a great book to analyze on a blackboard, but it doesn’t exactly make you want to run to the library and check out 5 more books, does it?

And Animal Farm is about as reader-friendly as your high school reading list gets. The rest are more demanding, equally depressing and/or as boring as all hell.

It’s not that I’m demanding books with happy Hollywood endings, and I’m not requesting a dumbed down reading list. My point is that teaching the joy of reading is more important than teaching someone who doesn’t love reading how to offer critique of Macbeth.

And that’s another thing. Shakespeare is just way out of the league of high school students. It should be saved for college. Now I know that some of you out there fell in love with Shakespeare in 10th grade, and you’ll tell me I’m full of shit. Well, it’s not you I’m worried about. I’m worried about the other 90% of the students who aren’t getting anything out of it. Do you know what Shakespeare does to a student who never learned to like reading in the first place? It further alienates him from the process of reading. It’s yet another reminder that “this reading thing isn’t really for me. I’m more into music.” I’m sitting here today, 10 years out of high school, and I’m telling you for a fact that all that Shakespeare I was taught in high school was practically worthless. It should have been saved for college. There was no way I could grasp Shakespeare in a meaningful way as a teenager.

I’m sure if a high school English teacher was reading this, he’d step forward at this point and say RD you’re completely wrong. When I was in high school I swooned over Pride and Prejudice! I ate Hamlet with a spoon and asked for seconds! I read Faulkner! I read Hemmingway! Each book was better than the last. I would never have fallen in love with literature if my high school hadn’t made me read the classics.

And this would be my response. YOU’RE A FREAKING ENGLISH TEACHER. Of course you enjoyed Faulkner in high school! You represent a tiny, bizarre fragment of the general population. You somehow managed to enjoy Pride and Prejudice despite the fact that it is the most boring book ever written with absolutely no redeeming qualities! What about the rest of us who DIDN’T become English teachers? Don’t we deserve to get something out of high school English?

Currently we are producing class after graduating class of kids who don’t know how to enjoy a book. Here’s the solution. You ready? Science Fiction. Fantasy. Mystery. Adventure. Hell, even Romance if it’ll work. I realize those words make your English teacher cringe, but the reality is that Piers Anthony, that fantasy author and horse fetishist, has done more to help kids learn English than All Quiet on the Western Front ever, ever will.

Piers Anthony, to name just one author who was popular when I was in high school, is the secret. He teaches a kid how to enjoy reading. Personally, I was into Douglas Adams, Richard Adams, and Isaac Asimov in a big way. (all easy to find in their respective bookstore sections)

My first semester of college, my English teacher asked us to go around the room and name our favorite author. She brought things to a halt when I said Asimov.


“Uh, yeah.”

“Asimov is shit!”

“Well… he’s… sorta one of the big, top respected sci-fi authors. He once won an award for the best sci-fi/fantasy novel of all time. He beat out Tolkein!”

“Tolkein is shit!”

I never did take any more college English classes. I think that teachers need to realize that while Tolkein may not stand up to Shakespeare, he could be indispensable in teaching high school English. Ditto the fantastic tales of Jules Verne or the swashbuckling adventures of Alexander Dumas.

When you discover the joy of reading for pleasure, many things happen. Your vocabulary widens without you even realizing it. You are opened to new ways of thinking that never would have occurred to you. You are introduced to new subjects that might captivate you. Your imagination is stimulated. The list goes on and on.

Man, this is getting long and is starting to sound like a public service announcement. I think you get the picture. If an incoming high school student has never read a book for pleasure, then it’s pointless to stick Othello in his face and expect him to be inspired. Devise a reading list with books that will snare a teenager and get him/her hooked on reading. This doesn’t have to mean abandoning high literary standards. Place the classroom emphasis on the rewards of reading. Give students some latitude. Send them to the bookstore to browse. Let them come up with their own paper topics based on what inspired them.

This may all sound remedial – students *should* be taught Hamlet – but high schools ignore this aspect of English instruction at their own peril.

No comments: