Roundtable: Teaching Literature

Russell Letson

I’ll second Siobhan’s comment about the avidity of the avid reader. That box of 1900-1930ish kids’ books I read around 1954 didn’t slow me down, even when the cycling chums called their bicycles “wheels” or the football games didn’t match what I saw the big kids doing on our local field. When I read the chapter of Treasure Island titled “I Strike the Jolly Roger,” I was puzzled that anybody would want to hit a flag, but I plowed right on. (I got better.) Books were full of stuff I half- or flat-out misunderstood, but stories and interesting settings kept me going. (Even the Bobbsey Twins‘ world–we never went to the seashore for a vacation.)

I suspect what Gardner is seeing in his son’s contemporaries and his grandchildren is what my wife sees every day in her university English classes: a multi-generation decline in basic reading skills, with an accompanying impoverishment of imagination. There were always college students who didn’t read for pleasure (our combined teaching experience reaches back to 1966), but now there is a significant portion who can’t read for pleasure–or, sometimes, for simple content.

If the educational system has failed, it’s been in a much more fundamental matter than requiring texts that young people will find palatable–it’s been in setting tasks that will require them to develop adult-level reading and analytical skills.The art of teaching literature and literacy is to find texts that engage and challenge–though no amount of pedagogical skill is going to have much success in a general culture that scorns even moderately complex art or thinks that a diploma is the same thing as a brain.

Karen Joy Fowler

I still haven’t read the Heinlein juveniles so no opinion on that.

But I read Kidnapped aloud to my kids and was astonished at how hard it was.  They loved it but they wouldn’t have understood a word if we hadn’t kept stopping and talking about the Stuarts and the line of succession and various arcane points of religious doctrine as well as dealing with frequent, as in every other sentence, difficulties in vocabulary.   And yet I did read it all by myself as a kid.  I’d previously read A Dog for Davy’s Hill, much much easier but with some tangential discussion of Bonnie Prince Charlie.  Plus the Disney TV show had just shown “The Fighting Prince of Donegal,” which is actually Ireland, but I confused the two in a helpful way that gave me confidence navigating the landscape.  And I’d seen Treasure Island, the movie.

So maybe there was just a kind of support in the popular culture that isn’t there anymore.

And then I was, as most sf readers I feel must be, less fussed than some about understanding every single thing in a book.  I could tolerate considerable confusion as long as I followed the plot.

In another lifetime, I wanted to write a series of short films, sort of Monty Pythonish sketches, that would go to schools in support of different books.  I pictured a family — always the same actors — but in many different places and times — something a class might watch about Roman times if they were about to read Julius Caesar, for example, or the Scotland of Kidnapped, or the England of Pride and Predjudice.  A short film that would fill in the background for you.  But funny!

And I did like Death of a Salesman when we read it, which seemed to me to be all about how your parents were not so great as you’d once thought, and therefore, was full of wisdom for the ages.  Also The Crucible, which was clearly about the high school mean girls and their inexplicable powers.

Marie Brennan

Oh, god.

Okay, this is slightly off-topic, but Death of a Salesman is my exemplar of what’s wrong with high-school required reading lists.  I was made to read it, and speaking as a voracious reader who has devoured many things with pleasure . . . am I allowed to swear here?  Let’s just say I HATED it.  With the burning heat of a thousand suns. I hated every character in it, and not in that productive, narrative way; I was rooting for them all to die so the story would be over already.

I was sixteen when they made me read it.  Why in god’s name should a sixteen-year-old read a play about a guy in the 1940s, working at a job I was pretty sure had gone extinct since then, having a mid-life crisis?  What part of that is meaningful to me in any way?  Okay, I was no more a telepathic dragonrider on an alien planet than I was a travelling salesman — but a telepathic dragonrider was a life I could enjoy dreaming of; every minute spent in Willy Loman’s imaginary company was a minute that sucked a bit more of the life out of me.  There was absolutely nothing in DOAS I could look at with pleasure.

But y’see, it’s a classic: the sort of thing people think you ought to read at some point before you die.  I was a junior in high school; they had only two years remaining in which they could require me to read it before I died.  So in it went, regardless of whether that was a good time for me to pick up the play.  (That’s my theory, anyway.)

Guy: If the reading lists are just going to be fun stuff, where does that take us? When do the fifteen year olds GET to Miller? By way of Jack Vance?

Because Miller is my usual punching bag, I’ll play the devil’s advocate and say: why should I get to Miller?  Is it really a terrible loss for society if I don’t?  We have to eventually accept that some classics cease to *be* classics for later generations; if we don’t, then the list of Things People Ought to Read just gets longer and longer, leaving less and less time for reading new material that reflects the conflicts and concerns of later ages.  We can find material in Jane Austen that speaks to modern concerns, even though she wasn’t writing about our own society; however, that’s us doing the work of making that connection, rather than it being there from the start.  Which is important work — but there’s a point at which I think it’s okay to say, you know, this book is valuable for what it says about its own time period, but not so much for what it says to readers today.

Or, to put it another way: if we’re talking about teaching empathy through reading, I think I’d rather have today’s teenagers learn about it by reading Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian or Justine Larbalestier’s Liar than reading Death of a Salesman.  Those kids know people like Alexie’s and Larbalestier’s characters; they don’t so much know Willy Loman.

(Austen, btw, is another one who was wasted on me in high school.  I came back to her later, through the A&E miniseries, and took much more pleasure then, because I had the context that made her society come to life in my mind.)

11 thoughts on “Roundtable: Teaching Literature

  • October 27, 2011 at 5:52 pm

    Point well taken. Reading something for school was a whole different kettle of fish than digging up something on one’s own. I enjoyed George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” when I found it in the school library…much, much later, I enjoyed collections of his essays, then “Homage to Catalonia”—but I never much cared for “1984,” which I had to read in school. “Anna Karenina” was ruined for me by having to read it in a great big hurry over Christmas vacation, most of it in one day, so I could say I had for literature class. And in the closest thing to a science fiction class I ever took, I spent my time thinking that I could’ve pulled five better books about different cultures from my own shelves than the five chosen…

  • October 28, 2011 at 1:33 am

    In my parochial school we were asked to read from the selections the sisters gave us and make the attempt to read with an accent when called which led to some hilarious moments. In fourth or fifth grade we were given plays to act and some of the speeches were long and we were expected to commit them to memory. When the sister thought we were ready the parents were invited to an evening performance by the players. The majority of the players were Irish-American and the parents expected their children to perform and act out long stretches of dialogue since this was an Irish tradition. There was no television and fewer distractions. When relatives would visit our homes the children would be brought out and we we expected to perform. Plays we learned at school, poems our parents taught us, songs that we learned from any source, the Gettysburg address, the Ride of Paul Revere, Greek orations we learned when studying Ancient History. We read and learned whatever was put before us. Some of us used our nickels and dimes to buy comic books that of course we hid from our parents. It was all a continuum and I’d say half the class were avid readers and continued all their lives as near as I can make out from our reunions.

  • October 29, 2011 at 2:32 am

    “American Education” comes under fire again. Besides being so vague a term as to be useless, it is awfully unfair. I’m curious (genuinely, not being critical) if any of authors posted here work in elementary or secondary education.

    I am a grade school aide (K-6) who also runs the school library, and while I can’t speak for all schools, I can honestly say that we are working our hardest to bring all students up to proficiency, using phonics and a dozen other techniques — we’ll use whatever works. (By the way, the see/say technique of teaching reading was discarded in the eighties.) In the morning, I pull kids for extra help, and trust me, if we found the miracle cure, we would use it before the standardized test hit the floor.

    In the library, I do my best to find anything that will appeal to avid readers, reluctant readers, and everyone in between. My science fiction and fantasy background is a great help here, but I don’t stint on sports books and outdoor adventures, not to mention graphic novels. If they’ll read it, I’ll get it.

    Students spend blocks of time each day reading to themselves, reading with others, writing, doing enrichment programs on the computer — again, anything that will help. Most of the time, students select their own books. And as long as they are actually reading (as opposed to just flipping through and looking at pictures) the teachers don’t complain about their choices. One of our second grade teachers, who doesn’t know or care anything about science fiction, praised my low-leveled Star Wars books because so many of her students were fired up about them. Trust me, between most teachers’ natural compassion and the political consequences of low test scores, we have a lot more to worry about than WHAT the students are reading. I know that hasn’t always been true, but it is now.

    The comments about high school curricula are all over the place, except that most of you seem to agree that American Education has a lot to answer for. Hey, I’m here, answering, I guess. But which is it? Let kids read whatever they want? Assign more contemporary things they might like better than the classics? (Of course, simply the act of making them read will make these books less enjoyable…) Assign only classics that teens can relate to directly? (Again, reducing the enjoyment simply by assigning them…) Assign more difficult works with which the teens can grapple and grow as readers? (Which we need to do, if we expect them to be able to read more advanced books as adults, but cannot do because it will kill their love for reading…) I don’t see how American Education could fail to follow all of these suggestions.

    I know, some teachers are just boring, and kill the books they teach. I’ve been there. I’ve also been luckier than most (I guess) to have had wonderful teachers who assigned books and plays that I loved and still do. Including Macbeth, which my senior English class somehow loved the hell out of with no movie version in sight.

    I’m sorry this came out as such a rant. But it is truly distressing to me to see some of my favorite writers espouse the knee-jerk reaction that American Education is to blame for all of the these things, when I see so many actual dedicated teachers doing their best, and when it is so obvious to me that these reading issues are not new and not caused by schools. They have been with us forever. I bet if we looked we could find Sumerian tablets with complaints that the kids haven’t been taught well enough to read the hymns to Marduk anymore.

    Most people are just not readers. No one laments this more than me.

  • October 29, 2011 at 10:01 pm

    Hestia: I don’t see a lot of knee-jerk education-bashing here, though I an certainly upset with our system’s apparent failure to counter our culture’s non-reading bias *and* to find ways of teaching basic literacy (as distinct from literary-analysis) skills.

    My wife’s teaching load (at a provincial state campus) includes English for first-year Honors students as well as the usual range of general-ed and major literature courses. Many–*many*–incoming university students have reading skills well below their grade levels. Some of this is might be the result of a general kid (and grownup) culture that neither values nor encourages reading for pleasure (or for analysis of complex matters), but that culture existed even when I started teaching in 1966. The difference might be that most of the products of that culture didn’t go to college back then, so maybe our problem is university admission policies.

    But even among students who fit the old model of the college-bound and -prepared, there is something wrong with their literacy skills–unless, perhaps, the real root of the problem is attitudinal and they’re simply disinclined to put out the effort required for adult-level reading and analysis. There is certainly evidence for that from the nearly-universal assumption that college SOP includes do-overs, rewrites, make-ups, extra credit, and optional class attendance. But even among students who are willing to follow the syllabus and do the assignments, my wife still sees depressingly primitive literacy levels. I do not doubt that there are plenty of teachers and librarians in the K-12 world busting their butts and breaking their hearts trying to counter whatever is causing my wife’s headaches, but I have to think that some of the problem is rooted in what happens in the classroom between kindergarten and fourth or fifth grade.

  • October 30, 2011 at 5:36 am

    I remember reading peers’ papers as a college student twenty years ago, and writing skills were an issue then, too. And these papers were almost always from English majors! But it is your statement:

    “…but I have to think that some of the problem is rooted in what happens in the classroom between kindergarten and fourth or fifth grade.”

    This is the part that discourages me. Because, again, if anyone finds a way of turning more kids into readers and writers, trust me, schools and most educators will jump on board faster than dotting an “i.” Have you considered that the problems lie almost entirely outside of the classroom?

    This is obviously a hot-button issue today, very political. But while I expect certain reactionary politicians to rail against the state of American education, especially those who not-so-secretly want to gut public schools, it is so much more discouraging to hear the same blame-the-schools attitude from (what I consider) a much more intelligent and enlightened crowd.

    The issues we deal with often walk into the classroom before we even have a chance with that student. I believe, though I can’t prove, that what happens inside the classroom often makes the difference between a student with some basic skills and a student with none. Have you considered that what happened in the classrooms may be the only reason those kids are in your wife’s class at all?

    This is the crux of the matter: you blame “what happens inside the classroom.” Most people do. I don’t teach, and I don’t get the blame when a child can’t read, so I’m not really defending myself here. But as a person who works with teachers all day, it does upset me how many people blame the classroom first. For some kids, often the lowest readers, the classroom is the safest, sanest and most enriching place they get to be. It is the outside factors that get them.

    (For instance, I have read research on how children who have little/no exposure to books in the home before age 5 are statistically behind children who do — before they even start school. And these students rarely catch up, even with intense intervention in the classroom.)

    As for the knee-jerk reactions or lack thereof, I’ll just note that while many of the round-table writers did not criticize “American education,” I didn’t see a single one defending it, either. Which is why I’m posting here. I don’t flatter myself that I’ll change anyone’s mind, but I have some hope that the writers here might at least think about it.

  • October 31, 2011 at 1:48 pm

    One recurring element to all of the discussion above is that everyone seems to disagree on what the fundamental “job” of a high school reading list ought to be.

    The goal that many suggest is making children avid readers. But, another thread is making children empathic for their fellow men. Another thread is making children better at grammar and communication. One more I see is that reading teaches children how to be alone with their thoughts (which, I think, is more important than ever in our day and age). There’s a few more endgoals hidden inside the discussion, none of them really clearly defined.

    If we are to redesign the American education system, a better place to begin is with clear goals for what an English/Literature class ought to be doing with the books it selects and the way those books are taught.

    My suspicion is that the sense of “mission” in the English/Literature class has been lost around standardized testing and the stress that comes with a down economy upon the classrooms less-practical material, and each program is teaching, instead, to the standardized tests that come ’round each year.

    Even Honors courses, in high school, tend to be teaching towards the A.P. exams.

    What is the mission, then? To get every honors child a high score on the exam, so they can skip English classes in college? The ultimate, highest goal of a High School English class is to get students to a point where they can take fewer English classes.

    Below that level, the ultimate goal of an English/Literature Class seems to be to get kids a high score on the reading comprehension and written portion of their standardized tests, as these tests are nominally the ultimate measure of what it is we want students to be learning and doing in the classroom. (So, yes, I am anti-standardized testing.)

    My opinion is that we are losing reading comprehension because we are losing a sense of an appropriate goal for what an education is supposed to “do” for the students. “A High School Graduate” used to mean something to society, much like a “A College Graduate” used to mean something to society, and those things were specific and understood. I don’t believe we have that, right now. I think we are producing furious levels of activity, but the ducks aren’t all lining up in a row, and moving towards a clear goal of what a student should achieve with their degree.

    Once we know what the end goal for a student is, in the English/Literature program, the curriculum and the many fine educators in this country can work to produce that goal.

    There are many good ideas, in the discussion, but these ideas do not move towards a unified coherent whole.

  • November 1, 2011 at 12:03 pm

    Hestia: I’ve been teaching for 30 years. I believe that the problem comes from the fact that young people aren’t allowed time to develop as “personal” readers before the educational system starts hammering them with its agenda. Usually the books that they are forced to read are ones that the teachers and the system have ready approaches to and that are used year in and year out, regardless if students are interested in the subject matter or not. Reading becomes a chore before it is perceived as an exciting path of discovery. Obviously, there are teachers who, because they are readers themselves, circumvent this staleness, but there aren’t enough of them. Most teachers in the primary, high school, and even community college (where I teach) grades don’t read much themselves, don’t have a sense of what’s available, and are too ready to follow the by-committee curriculum foisted upon them. Guy Kay, in a private e-mail convinced me that the works mentioned aren’t the problem but that the approach to teaching is. Say what you want about dedicated teachers, I agree, but when we examine the results, they point to failure of the system without question.

  • November 2, 2011 at 5:56 am

    There are many different mistakes to make about education but the most common assume there is a “best” method for teaching in a process divorced from its cultural context. Teaching is really nothing more than assisted learning and, if the student is not both motivated and persistent, no teacher will ever make progress. So you have to approach this by seeing “education” as being a part of the more general process of socialisation. We have to start with the home and look at the extent to which all authority figures are constructive role models. Then we need to examine what learning outcomes we expect. If society values learning and always rewards those who do the best, this can be motivating. Yet this creates problems within the peer group because jealousy of the more successful students can lead to pressure to underperform. So, please, if you are going to debate how the young can be encouraged to read, let’s start by asking whether the children grow up watching their parents read, whether the cohort adopts authors or argues about which electronic games are the best, and so on. Only then can teachers step in and suggest what to read and encourage the development of critical faculties.

  • November 2, 2011 at 9:27 pm

    I was in high school from 1986-1990 in a fairly affluent suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My personal experiences were somewhat different from the norm of my peers, because like many who end up lifelong readers, I was a reader from a young age regardless of what I was assigned to read as a student. I felt lucky to have some choice in my classes after my freshman year, but it wasn’t made easy for me to jump the track. My 9th grade English teacher refused to sign off on my choice of the one science fiction class on the schedule in place of the prescribed usual choice (“Youth in Literature” or something). I had to go to my guidance counselor and have her objection overruled. Still, making this choice meant I missed out on Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, and other classics I still haven’t read to this day. Instead I mostly read SF novels that had been made into movies and was compelled to watch a number of them in class — including Planet of the Apes, for instance. We did a lot of compare/contrast papers on book and film versions. The class was also mostly populated by juniors or seniors who were taking the SF class as an “easy” way to fulfill their English class requirements.

    As a senior myself, I was later able to choose courses on (translated) European literature (Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, shorter Tolstoy, and some others) and British literature (Graham Greene, Conrad, Dickens, etc.). The sad thing was my European lit teacher had been forced to cancel her Irish lit class the same semester due to low enrollment, and had the administration known the final number for my class, it would have suffered the same fate that year.

    In college, we had one science fiction course available, taught by one of the rookie professors. Thankfully, she is still on the job there and the department’s offerings have grown somewhat.

    Zipping ahead to the present day, my 6-year-old first-grader has to have special permission to go to the back of her school’s tiny library to find chapter books that will challenge her, as opposed to the “starred” shelves of picture books the first grade classes are normally allowed to choose from. At least she has library twice a week, even if they only borrow two books on Fridays. The best part of her reading experience in school is she can read to other kids or the whole class on occasion, since she is way ahead of her peers in her reading level. They also have a reading buddies program in her class, where older students come in to read with first-grade buddies. Since my daughter is on the Asperger’s end of the autism spectrum, any chance she has for extra in-class social opportunities is a plus.

    I suppose we’ll see how things differ with our 2-year-old as she gets older, but one thing I’ve noticed so far is TV and movie related books seem to be an easy introduction to reading. Phonics seems to be the preferred method of teaching these days, though they do teach some terminology in first grade here.

    Outside of my own children, I get the impression that most kids simply don’t get read to by their parents enough or at all. It’s hard to fault the education system when parents don’t put in the time. Granted, some of them may be borderline illiterate, but for most it’s simply not important enough to make the time. That’s really the saddest trend, because we in the U.S. seem to be training our kids not to be readers simply by example. After little enough time, the mathematics of that situation makes anything the teachers attempt a task akin to that of Sisyphus, made ever more trying as politicians cut funding to the arts year after year under the guise of belt-tightening.

    Yet technology is giving us ever more vehicles by which the masses can access “books.” When even poverty-level families can find a way to afford a smartphone, why don’t they access free classics from places like Amazon? Opportunities exist, but the marketing push isn’t there. After all, who makes money off of free books? Advertisers, maybe? Perhaps we simply need more blockbuster bestsellers like Harry Potter to regularly ignite young readers’ passion for something other than designer clothes and dumbed-down media by “artists” who are simply a delivery vehicle for mass consumption. More (well-done) movies adapting good books might help, but then who really expects Hollywood to care about quality over the bottom line? Naturally, the suits seem unaware that success and quality aren’t mutually exclusive. This is where “easy” kills “good.” SF and fantasy are the most frequently successful genres in film today. Shouldn’t we be enjoying some carryover success in print? Give us more smart adaptations and originals that inspire spinoff books!

    There are children and teens who want to read, and who DO read voraciously. There are some who simply don’t have the tools or upbringing to win the battle against the lowest common denominator. Then there are the masses in the middle, who would latch on to something that truly grabbed their attention, because it’s “cool” and “fun” and maybe even “relevant.” As writers, editors and readers, we must challenge ourselves to make sure we provide kids with the books that will make them lifelong readers. All we can do is give them the chance and hope for the best.

  • November 4, 2011 at 6:19 am

    Again with the “absence of cell phones” in Heinlein juveniles? There’s one in the very first scene of Space Cadet (1948), where the main character’s father calls him on a phone he’s carrying in his pouch; his fellow candidate for the Patrol then says “Your folks always worry, don’t they? I fooled mine – packed my phone in my bag.”

  • November 6, 2011 at 2:55 pm

    I’ve been reading through the thread of comments here, and no one’s mentioned what I suspect is the biggest culprit of all: our media products. The gameboys, vidoe games, the internet, etc. When I was growing up, we had a small black and white TV, and that was it till well into the ’70s. In my family, I was the only one of us who was a voracious reader, but for my siblings, reading was also an acitvity, if for no other reason that on rainy, cold, days, or when they were sick, or if we were on vacation without even a radio to amuse us, reading was the only acitvity available. However, today kids are plunked in front of a TV before their eyes are fully open (millions are spent to come up with programs that under 2-year olds can watch), and from a young age have a plethora of gadgets to amuse them – gadgets that are more ‘fun’ than reading, that reduce attention span (also required for reading), etc. So I suspect the real problem begins in the home, and with parents submitting to the endless appetitie of their children for these toys. I also know how hard it is for parents to resist doing this, between the relentless advertising and their children’s pleas that all their friends ‘have one’.


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