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?