Monday, February 1, 2010

What Books do you Teach?

Why is literature important? This question was posed in my class recently. This was my answer...

There are basically two kinds of classes in school.
  1. Math/Science
  2. Social Studies/Language Arts

Both types of classes foster the same basic principles. They teach insight and knowledge into certain aspects of life, solve certain types of problems, and teach certain skillsets. 

So, while Math/science classes teach logic, reason, hard evidence, solutions to concrete problems with concrete answers, the Humanities department teaches social, emotional, and personal solutions to ethical, moral, philosophical problems. 

This department is called Humanities for a reason. It offers lessons and answers on what it means to be human. Franz Kafka said "we have need of books which act upon us with a misfortune from which we would suffer terribly... a book must be the axe that smashes the frozen sea within us". 
The goal for humanities then, is to find that axe. 

Jeffrey Wilhelm has decided that the goal of teaching literature should be about fostering maturity.  He states, "Maturity entails, first, the recognition that you have a unique perspective and a view of the world that has value, and second, the recognition that there are different perspectives in the world and that these have value and are worth knowing about". He goes on further to state that reading can be a social experiment that allows us to share meaning.

In Math and Science, we constantly have to find the value of X. But in Humanities, we try and find the value of self, followed by the value of everyone else. 

Therefore, a good literature classroom should foster social interaction. Literature should foster discussion, dissent, collaboration, teamwork, debate. Empowering the student to take charge of the learning process and build good learning habits and a willingness to seek out knowledge and meaning should be the goal for every literature classroom.

There is a huge discussion in contemporary education about what sorts of materials should be used to teach the above skills. There are a number of books considered classics in the school curriculum which are easily recognized and are taught often. Much has been said of this "canon" of literature, and questions arise as to the validity of these books over other "alternative" or contemporary texts.

I think there are a number of other reasons why teachers now are moving away from the literary "canon"
  1. the books we read in school as students are not always looked fondly on. I still cringe when I hear "Johnny Tremain". 
  2. it is way more exciting and interesting for teachers to teach new and interesting texts, authors, and genres. 
  3. it is very easy to gain students attention with the latest things then with anything that can be perceived as old.
However, the needs of the student should be placed above the desires of the teacher. Sometimes Johnny Tremain needs to be taught, no matter how much it pains the teacher.

So I have a few recommendations for the middle school reading curriculum. These are some books that will help open perspectives as well as deal with some very basic questions on ethics, and social norms, as well as looking at things from different perspectives:
Lord of the Flies
Bell Jar
The Giver
Animal Farm
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian
April Morning
To Kill a Mockingbird
In the Time of Butterflies
Romeo and Juliet
As I Lay Dying
Diary of a Young Girl (Anne Frank)
Little Prince
Heart of Darkness
There are some that would complain that these books have been taught before and don't give a fresh contemporary perspective on adolescence. and I strongly disagree. The themes that can be pulled from these novels are many and varied and are still very much relevant without being crass, inappropriate or too mature. 

Another complaint to teaching older traditional texts is that they are too difficult.

Boo hoo.

Some of these books are complex and can be challenging. I suppose if students would benefit from a molly-coddling teacher and never be challenged in the classroom in any way, then go ahead, teach something easier. I'm sure those students will receive an education just as rewarding. 

I think if anything, the central themes deal with differing perspectives and lives. and all have central figures making big choices dealing with social expectations, obligations, and social norms. Growth. change. adversity... Humanities.  

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