". . . little shall I grace my cause

In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,

I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver . . ."

(William Shakespeare's Othello, I.iii.88-90)

Monday, May 31, 2010


Please don't hate me, but I'm one of THOSE. Yes, one of those. My favorite class in school was English. I loved it all: the grammar, the writing, the reading . . . . Ah, but not just the reading. The analyzing. The picking apart and breaking down and obsessing over and interpreting and discussing and scrutinizing and evaluating and all the rest. Raft symbolism in Huckleberry Finn? Bring it on. Rocking chair imagery in Sister Carrie? No problem. Irony in "Richard Cory"? How obvious can you get?

I loved English class so much in high school that when I got to college and needed something fun to balance the stress of being a piano performance major, I signed up for a literature course. Then another. And another. I did it enough times that after I completed my music degree I realized I might as well press on another semester or two and get the English degree as well. Before I knew it I had a teaching certificate and 150 bright, waiting, upturned faces eager to be enlightened by my collected literary insights and to join me in further textual excavations.

Ummm, no. Would you believe that not all of them shared my passion? That there were other things they would rather do than catalogue all the foreshadowing clues in "A Rose for Emily"? That it was enough for them to merely read "The Fall of the House of Usher" as a scary story, giving no thought to the allegorical implications? What was wrong with these kids?

To answer the question, they weren't interested. A lot of them weren't interested in reading, period, at least not reading the stuff I assigned. But I had my list of required state objectives and I did my dutiful best to shove them down the throats of my captives. And over my years of classroom teaching there were a few like-minded sorts--okay, weirdos--who joined hands with me and willingly, even enthusiastically, went along for whatever literary journey we were on at the time. But I must admit the majority of my students were just watching the clock until it was time for lunch or cheerleading squad or football practice.

It's been quite a while since I did any classroom teaching. I only lasted three years at the secondary level. Then it was back to school for my master's degree in, what else, literature. Two more years of quibbling over minutiae no one else in his right mind cares about. But I enjoyed it, and it enabled me to get adjunct teaching work at the college level. Phew. Much better hours and no discipline issues.

The only teaching I am doing these days is of my own children. When my son entered his freshman year, we started following the typical four year high school literature sequence:

1) Ninth grade - Introduction to Literature (emphasis on genres and literary techniques)
2) Tenth grade - World Literature
3) Eleventh grade - American Literature
4) Twelfth grade - British Literature

My daughter, although she is three years younger, is herself quite the wordsmith so has gone right along with us and, truth be told, enjoyed it a lot more than her brother.

But here's the thing. All that stuff I learned how to do in college and grad school--all that bookish fussiness--I just can't seem to get motivated to do it with my own kids. Somehow with my own kids it seems enough to just tell them to read something and then to sit down for a little while and talk about it. Our conversations go something like this:

"So, what did you think of (fill in the blank)?"

"Oh, you didn't like that? Why not?"

"It sort of reminded me of (fill in the blank)."

"Boy, what a stupid world view. Do we have to read any more of his stuff?"

And so on.

I'm not saying we never talk about things like imagery, symbolism, irony, metaphor, and the like. They come up when the discussion leads to them. But when I think back to all that close reading I made my classroom students do, I have to wonder why? What was the point, if they weren't going to be writers or literature majors?

More and more, I think the way we teach literature in school is an impediment to true appreciation. We make kids hate it because we suck all the life out of it. The problem is, the way it should be taught--"Go and read this, and when you come back, we'll discuss it"--doesn't fit the paradigm. Number one, most of them won't read it. Number two, there's no way to quantify the teaching and measure the results in a way that would please the educational establishment. "We read thus-and-so and talked about it" does not lead to darkening in any of the little holes on the state list of required learning outcomes.

I don't think I will ever go back into the classroom. I suppose I should not say never. But after the experience of having students who actually read what has been assigned without the constant threat of a pop quiz, I don't know if I could stomach the classroom experience. In truth, my children have spoiled me irreparably. I used to spend hours reading and rereading and coming up with discussion questions and activities and assignments. If I didn't, there would be nothing to fill the class time. But more and more I think the class time IS the reading, and everything else is gravy.

On the other hand, maybe I'm lazy no-good excuse of a homeschooling mom and I need to get off my duff and go write some vocabulary lists. What do you think?


Phillip said...

Nope, you don't need to get off your duff.....you are SPOT ON.

The reason choir still "works" in a school is because the eggheads haven't figured out a way to impose SLO's (student learning outcomes) on it. So they haven't killed the art.

The three biggest obstacles to learning in a traditional school are:

1 - disinterested, unmotivated students

2 - administrators who need to quantify everything.

3 - parents who insist on "fairness" - i.e. spelling out everything dot and tiddle expected of their little students, providing objective measurements for such expectations, and then insisting that multiple opportunties to jump through the artificial hoops be provided for their children.

Such a system can accomodate math & the hard sciences. You either get the right answer or you don't. I don't think it's the best way even there, but it still works.

Such a system sucks all the life out of the humanities, though.

I'm so glad our kids don't have to deal with these obstacles.

You're a great teacher! :)

Susan said...

I think schools do what they have to do, make the rules they have to make, find ways to quantify the unquantifiable, because they should be doing what we're doing ... and they cannot. The system doesn't accommodate it.

So many teachers go into teaching because they love teaching. And then they find that the system doesn't care as much about teaching/learning as about filling in requirements (both on the teachers' and students' parts).

Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake said...

Absolutely, Phillip.

#3 is perhaps the most pernicious. My college profs say that every year they deal with more and more incoming freshmen who are just floored -- in some cases outraged -- that they are to be graded subjectively, on the quality of their thought, rather than simply on meeting the assignment.

Then again, all those kids growing up in a world where success is defined by boxes checked and hoops jumped through will be well-prepared to do great things in the modern military. Or the public education bureaucracy for that matter, where they can have a long and lucrative career demanding that everything be quantified.

Phillip said...

Indeed, Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake,

The current system of schooling grew out of the idea of "normalization" that took hold in the 1920s. First in public ed, now even in private and parochial schools that don't even know the philosophies behind what they teach - but just assume it is "the way" since they learned it at "teachers' colleges" (some actually formally known as "Normal Schools").

Basically, the idea was that the goal of mass education was not to prepare individuals for being citizens in a republic, but rather to socialize and standardize workers so that they would be better soldiers, mid-level managers, government bureaucrats, and factory workers.

Dewey et al got much of their inspiration for these ideas, which they famously developed, from the Prussian system.

How ironic that a "free" country gives its children the education of wage slaves. :(

Susan K said...

Can anyone here recommend a good basic history of education in Western society? I figure I have a few years before I make any decisions about my child(ren)'s education, but I want to educate myself in the meantime!

Elephantschild said...

Susan K, John Taylor Gatto's "An Underground History of American Education" may be the best out there. It's not an easy read, partially because it's a large book, but mostly because in digging through the history of public education in the country, Gatto uncovers some very surprising and ugly stuff that strikes at the core of what we all assume public education to be about.

You can read a much shorter essay on the same topic here: http://www.spinninglobe.net/againstschool.htm

Be careful, though. That essay was the tipping point that set me on the road to homeschooling. :)

Cheryl said...

Susan K., we have Underground History if you want to borrow it. Better start now if you want to finish reading it by the time your first child is ready for school.

Susan K said...

Thanks, EC and Cheryl! I'm starting to read Gatto's book online and have warned DH. You people are passively turning me into a homeschooler!

Cheryl, I may want to borrow the book. I think reading the whole thing online will murder my shoulders, neck and eyes. :)

Gauntlets said...

I hear you. My eight year old just the other day told me that when I make her break apart a book along schoolish lines she feels like I'm "forcing [her] into the trunk of a car and taking her someplace horrible." She feels kidnapped when I make her analyze characterization? OK, then. Enough of that.

In related news: Check out this poem. It's good.

Elephantschild said...

Gauntlets, your kid's comment is cracking me up.

I can totally imagine my Dd saying something similar.