Musings on children's and YA literature, the academy, and the relationship between them, from an English professor and mother.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Again with the literacy debates!

I'm linking to Tricia again, but this time it's just because she got to this article on high school English before me. When I read the article last week (titled: "We're teaching books that don't stack up") I found myself nodding in agreement with the article, but really frustrated by the title. As happens so often, the debate is framed as one about the canon: defenders of the canon are cast as woefully out of touch, forcing irrelevant works on their defenseless (and bored) students. And hip young teachers--or not-so-young ones--are cast as the proponents of relevance, teaching works to which their students can "relate" so as not to lose them to reading altogether.

I think it's a false dichotomy. The so-called canon is full of works that are thoroughly "relevant" to today's teens. Walden confronts them with a slacker environmentalist, Romeo and Juliet with love-struck teens, Catcher in the Rye with a teenager yearning for authenticity, and so on. The problem is not with the books but with how they are taught: as the article goes on to say (and here's where it's much smarter than its title), teens are turned off by "The reading quizzes that turn, say, "Hamlet" into a Q&A on facts, symbols and themes." Exactly.

I didn't know how true this was until I had a daughter in public high school. Her overworked teacher was covering material unfamiliar to her; she wasn't pedagogically innovative; her students had already "learned" that English was boring. So she resorted to quizzes and paper topics that merely skimmed the surface, in part because she had probably not gone much beyond that herself. When Mariah got excited about a text--Beowulf, say, or "The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"--she found herself alone, without support from either teacher or peers. And yet these are texts that have inspired teenagers for generations--Wikipedia cites at least nine rock/pop songs that reference Prufrock, and without Beowulf we wouldn't have The Lord of the Rings or "Dungeons and Dragons." It's criminal--but, sadly, all too common--that these texts can be made boring by high school English. But it's not the texts' fault.

When I teach children's literature I use a fabulous textbook titled The Pleasures of Children's Literature, by Perry Nodelman and Mavis Reimer. Nodelman and Reimer have taught me how to focus on pleasure in the context of analysis--how to help students understand that "picking texts apart" can actually increase our pleasure when we do it thoughtfully and carefully, and--especially--when we are given the right tools. I don't have a secret decoder ring for poetry, but I do have some techniques that can help make it make more sense--and that, in turn, will make it more enjoyable. I try to remember these lessons, as well, when I'm teaching so-called "adult" or canonical literature--pleasure is, after all, why I do what I do, and if I can't convey that to my students I'm not doing my job. I'm only sorry that it often takes this long before they hear that message.


  1. I'm so with you, Libby, on this one. It is the teaching, not the books! I think Perry's book (this edition written with Reimer) is fantastic! I was already teaching that way and it was wonderful validation. (I was thrilled when Perry asked me to review the teaching chapters for that edition.) This is not to say that Schnog isn't good. Just that she, like so many, blame everything on the canon. Some books aren't great for teens in schools, but some, such as those you mention, could be.

  2. I'm going to find the book you mention, The Pleasures of Children's Literature, and see if I can use any ideas from it in my college classes. Because I don't believe it's ever too late to learn to love literature....

  3. Libby, have you read Carol Jago's "With Rigor for All," which is about teaching the classics to high-school kids? I'm finding the book really interesting. Jago gives some really specific ways to start up class discussions. (I tutor some first graders, but am just reading "With Rigor..." for fun.)

    I am going to find Perry Nodelman's book. Thanks for the recommendation.

  4. No, Susan, I don't know that book, but I'll check it out!