Often I wonder, especially on the heels of looking back on my own education, how is it decided what students will learn? What are the criteria for materials? I especially get curious when it comes to such subjective areas like English literature — why one book over another?
What makes a classic worth teaching? What makes a classic at all? And how do we balance classics with relevance to our students today? How do we keep them from snoring through their lessons?
Who’s to say we can’t make the classroom a productive place for everyone?
♥ Give us goals. The impression I got from years of attempting to learn was that the focus of the unit was the work we were studying, and the selections felt arbitrary. What were we meant to get out of that unit, other than a thorough knowledge of that particular book? What was that book supposed to teach us? I question so many of the selections now because I don’t know how to put any of it together. So what’s the real aim behind assigning us Lord of the Flies or 1984?
♥ Help us connect. There are books we theoretically learned that I skimmed for the high points. I can’t blame it all on the haze of mental illness. I failed utterly to connect with some of the material. I had no idea why I was reading it or what I was learning from it. That failure is not only mine; that failure is the system’s to bear as well. Students who are missing the point can be helped to see it from another perspective. I didn’t know how vital that was until last semester, when one of my professors trusted me to substitute a work I did understand for a work that made no sense to me. Same lesson, different medium. Positive outcome.
What if, instead of reading Emerson’s transcendentalist work, I had been allowed to learn about his philosophies through a biographer’s eyes? Later that year, I learned Whitman by combining his poetry with commentaries on his life. Maybe Emerson needed context that I just didn’t have.
♥ Give us context. Don’t just pitch novels and plays at us and say “This is important.” Help us understand why. Show us how the works we are learning became important. Teach us not merely the classics, but what makes a classic. Leave us equipped to seek out and judge literature ourselves, knowing what literature is.
♥ Make us think. I hear this thing called “critical thinking” becomes possible between the ages of fourteen and eighteen. Certainly we form opinions, ideals, values, morality, all of that — our own kind, on our own terms. Help us with that. Help us form our own perspectives on our lessons.
Someday, my generation will have to decide what, of the books written in its lifetime, is important enough to teach to the next and the next after that. If I had never learned to look for the goal, connect my life to the material, place it in context, and think critically about the dynamics between self, history, and book, I would feel myself incapable of judging any written work. Because I was raised to love books and to try to understand the world around me instead of shuffling on through it, I have acquired these skills. It’s why I can look back at all and suggest substitutions for what failed for me.
Maybe our English teachers need to know how to do that for their students. Bring it home to us. Make us think about what we’ve read — make us talk about it. I don’t mean “just the facts, ma’am”. I mean how those facts stack up to what we know and how our view of the world changes with this new knowledge. The facts become irrelevant as we go forward. The facts fall away. The home truths remain.
Maybe it’s time we looked at this generation of readers and asked them why they read what they do — or don’t read at all. Then let’s develop a way of teaching English that honors their experiences in this time and place.