Tuesday, May 26, 2009

To teach or not to teach: that is the question

Part of my problem with teaching high school literature, any kind of survey course, is that they tend to be a mile wide and an inch deep. There's a real lack of aesthetic and thematic focus throughout the year. Students may tend to see these courses as a hodgepodge, or worse, as a helping of everything you, personally, think is groovy or morally instructive. In order to survive in the HS classroom, one must be an eminent salesperson, and I think, even if I don't personally like the piece we're studying, I can sell its good qualities. Understand it. Forget loving it. High schoolers can, at best, be the least sentimental of critics, and, at worst, openly hostile. There are a lot of things in life that are considered uncool, and literature seems to be one of them.

I am cool with this.

The teacher of literature needs to make peace with the fact that students will probably think great literature (and YOU by virtue of having taught it), is lame. Teachers may respond in a variety of ways. 1) "Hey, do you think I LIKE teaching this crap?" Not a good idea. It may be Machiavellian to get students to sympathize with your plight, but I think there's something unethical about bashing the material. 2) The way some parents want to be their kid's friend, some teachers will try and find material that may be more "hip" than the canon. Usually these books can be found on the shelves at Target. This CAN work. Sometimes. In the long run, it's like parents trying to "hang out" with their kids. Chances are they're going to appreciate the effort, but find someone cooler all the same.

My proposal is to run at least a two tier classroom. The first tier is designed to recognize and encourage independent reading. Make time for it, at least one class period a week. I've seen classrooms that do it three times a week or so for 15 minutes, but I think one substantial session is best. During this time encourage students to hang out with their favorite books, or even just the flavor of the week. Do not sneer at their selections. Praise them for being "English Rockstars." They are, too, if they're reading. Sometimes a student will ask your humble advice. "What should I read?" Classroom libraries are important for this reason. Steer them toward something challenging but not totally overwhelming. Give an assignment at the end of class, something fun. Here are some of my favorite prompts:

Your assignment this week is to write a note to your book. Remember, I said forming a relationship with your book is like forming a relationship with the opposite sex, so your note can be a love letter praising your book for its great qualities, a warning letter outlining what is not working in the relationship, or a “Dear John” letter (a break-up letter). Regardless, your note should include some indication as to how the relationship is going, and specifically why.


React to one of the following quotes concerning books in today’s Reading Workshop. You should mention your book in your reaction.

"The public library is the most dangerous place in town.” John Ciardi
"Instead of going to Paris to attend lectures, go to the public library, and you won’t come out for twenty years, if you really wish to learn." Leo Tolstoy
"If there’s a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it." Toni Morrison
"I find television very educational. Every time someone turns it on, I go in the other room and read a book." Groucho Marx
"God forbid that any book should be banned. The practice is as indefensible as infanticide." The Strange Necessity - Rebecca West
"Classic—a book people praise and don’t read." Following the Equator - Mark Twain

In the spirit of John Donne and metaphysical conceit, we’re going to think figuratively about our books this week in reading workshop. Please answer any one of following:

If your book were a building, what kind of building would it be (What would it look like? What purpose would it serve?) and why do you think this?
If your book were food, what kind of food would it be and why do you think this?
If your book were a bug or an animal, what kind would it be and why?
If your book were a regime, what kind of regime or government would it be (communist, fascist, democratic) and why?
If your book were a type of music, what type would it be, and why?
Think of a metaphor of your own!


Imagine your book’s character is at a Chinese restaurant cracking their fortune cookie. What kind of message do you think they need to hear at this point in the book? Write it! Explain why you think they need to hear this.


Franz Kafka thought, “A book should be as an axe, to break the frozen sea within us.” What do you think he meant? Has your book moved you in any way emotionally thus far? Remember, in any way emotionally: anger, frustration, happiness, sadness? Pride, outrage, disappointment? Respond with specific examples.


Today we are going to appreciate the beauty of language. Don’t be afraid to let yourself be dazzled! Choose a sentence or passage from today’s reading that you admire and copy it below. Offer a brief explanation as to why you chose it.


Here's the generic reading workshop form I started with in 2002. Nothing wrong with it, it's just boring...

Reading Workshop
15 points
All sections must be complete

Name/Period: _________________
Book Title: __________________
Date: ________________________
Pages Read Today: ____________

Part One:

A summary is a brief (a few sentences) retelling of what you read


Part Two:
Chose One of the following options:

Write a question that you have about what is happening.

Pick and write a particularly well-written sentence.

Make a prediction about what is going to happen.


The goal should be to finish a book. When finished, the student must write a response by a certain date. I allow five different responses: New Critical, Reader Response, Biographical Inquiry, Historical Inquiry, and Creative Writing.

Here's an example of how I grade a Reader Response paper:

I have the other rubrics for the other types of writing. E-mail me if you want a copy oh audience of my imagination.

So, Reading Workshop is a great time. Read with your students, converse, circle up and share. It's the time you get to "hang out" with readers.

The question of what to teach students in a literature course (I say teach because Reading Workshop really isn't direct instruction) is a troubling one. Flannery O' Connor addressed this question in an essay called "The Teaching of Literature," and she proposed that a teacher not cater to a pupil's taste, but, by teaching demanding works from the canon, help to form their tastes. Doing both in the same class can be difficult. On one hand, you've just had a great discussion with a student about a Stephen King novel, or something by Jodie Picoult and now you expect them to read Dostoevsky or Sophocles. HEY, THIS ISN'T FAIR! I THOUGHT WE WERE PALS!'s a tenuous relationship, but I think it's important to make the distinction between reading for pleasure and reading for scholarship, and it's something I'm definitely going to address on day one next year with seniors.

So, what should the serious teacher of literature choose to teach? I think the answer begins with books that both challenge but reward in some way. For me a lot of these books can be found on my profile page, but some of them are Crime and Punishment, Dubliners, Heart of Darkness, Oedipus & Antigone, Siddhartha, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Moby Dick, Native Son, Blood Meridian... the problem seems to be that I can't think of many women writers. The two books that come to mind are My Antonia and Mrs. Dalloway. Maybe I just haven't read enough women writers. This is starting to feel like a hodgepodge! Where's the thematic continuity? I think a good idea would be to read formative/representative works of genre: novel, novella, short-story, short-short?, what about the fairy tale?, poetry, memoir. What's a representative or formative book of poetry? Are writers like Edson and Barthleme too zany and postmodern for the classroom?

Thursday, May 7, 2009


So if you just keep plugging away...

My students have been dazzling me with their insights into Heart of Darkness. Teaching great works of literature is like leading a group therapy session... I have a little more experience with the books, but I feel as if they're such eminent works of art that I'm stuck dealing with them just as much as the students feel stuck dealing with them. Sometimes I feel like, oh god, I'm all alone in the conversation of this book, so I have to keep up a running monologue until someone in the class takes a plunge. I know this isn't the most effective way of teaching, but it happens. I was dazzled on many levels today by what seniors were saying about this book! I finally felt, for the first time really, that I can rock back on my heels and enjoy the experience of teaching it... like I'm not scared they're not going to get it, if that makes sense. I end up saying and doing a lot of strange things because of the fear of them not getting it. For instance the other day (in ernest) I drew a heart on the chalkboard and labeled it "heart," then colored in a dark patch and wrote "darkness." It wasn't until the end of the day that I saw it up there and cracked up. Diagrams?! What would the diagram be for Meditation 17, or Oedipus? One student made me feel better when she said that she thought my illustration should replace the cover art.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Spring 2009 Northeast Ohio MFA Graduate Reading

What better day to post than National Teacher Day?
Thank you all for sharing your talents.