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.