Roundtable: Teaching Literature

Paul Di Filippo

Pertinent to this thread is Garrett Keizer’s article in a recent Harper’s, “Getting Schooled,” which recounts his classroom experiences after a long gap from teaching.  He has a lot to say about how his kids dislike reading.  Probably the most horrific anecdote, from my old-fart POV, is this one:

I come to suspect that it is not reading they hate so much as reading in isolation. The same radical privacy that I seek in books, my mind’s way of eating its lunch alone, is what turns their stomachs. I learn of two girls in my class who got through Ethan Frome by reading aloud to each other over Skype, not unlike George Gibbs and Emily Webb chatting between their upstairs bedroom windows, just with different kinds of windows. They are acutely social creatures, these kids, and it is a slow learner indeed who fails to grasp that fact even as he prattles on about building a  more social democracy.

If you visit this blogger and click on the link he provides, Keizer’s article downloads as a PDF.

Cecelia Holland

Since the conversation has gotten far afield from Heinlein I’d like to say that when I was in my early teens the most fun I ever had was reading Harold Lamb, and I wish he would come back into fashion again; there are re-releases of his stories now, and they remind me over again what I loved about him, and how important he was to me.

Stefan Dziemianowicz

I, too, am grateful for the classics curriculum at my school. Without being guided to classics, I might have spent all of my adolescence reading nothing but horror, fantasy, and science fiction, rather than fitting those readings between the interstices of my school assignments. I’d have had a wonderful time, but I doubt I’d be as avid or as serous a reader as I am today.This is pretty sad. I enrolled in and TA’d any number of undergraduate science fiction courses, with curricula that ran the gamut from Burroughs and Doc Smith to C.S. Lewis, Le Guin, Pohl, Heinlein, and Stapledon. Though science fiction classes had the reputation of being “gut” classes, I don’t think I met a single student who was being introduced to science fiction through the class. Almost every student I knew brought an interest and even a passion to the class, which in large part made them some of the liveliest classes I was involved with. College kids who take a science fiction class should not be complaining; they should know exactly what they’re getting into.

Guy Gavriel Kay


TOTALLY onside with thoughtful reassessments of alleged classics. Which may well include Heinlein juvies, of course (to drag us back). I doubt anyone here would be against that process. Books rise and fall (and rise and fall again).

But the issue was (or seemed to be) ‘is this work premature for high school readers?’ and that’s what I was addressing. If you want to say ‘this work is just bad’ we can let you and Karen Fowler go at it, given her post. That’s just taste, really. And ‘going at it’ is pretty much a waste of good time in the bar, on reflection.

I think the debate was as to diminished receptivity for works from an earlier time (200 years? 50 years?) and we’re seeing some comments I find really sharp (um, yeah, okay, ‘really sharp’=’I agree with them’!) as to an earlier generation of readers being willing to be confused, not get it all at once, grow with the book and then other books. There’s a ‘spell it out’ aspect to the zeitgeist today that cuts hard against that, and this may be how I’d phrase Karen’s query about maybe ‘more support’ in our day in the culture and not being so fussed about getting every single thing right away. I think (still working this idea through) it is linked tospeed. It may also have to do with narcissism (not using the word professionally, but broadly, pop use): we never expected to get everything when young, we knew we had a ways to go.

Gardner Dozois

I knew a writer in the early ’80s who was hired to write a “dumbed down” version of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan, because the original was too hard for kids today to read.

Russell’s point about the inability of kids–at least some kids; there are still avid readers out there, mostly self-taught–to read at a higher level is an excellent one.  Kids don’t like to read because at some basic level they CAN’T read–and they can’t read because they were never taught HOW to read.  It’s hard to be polite about this, as I consider it to be a major failing of the American educational system.  I was horrified to learn that not even an attempt is made anymore to teach kids the rules of grammar, and probably not one kid in a hundred even knows what a noun is, or how it differs from a pronoun, or what a verb does.  Stopping the teaching of reading by the phonetic system and switching over to the “progressive” “see/say” system was also a disaster.

Marie Brennan

I think the debate was as to diminished receptivity for works from an earlier time (200 years? 50 years?) and we’re seeing some comments I find really sharp (um, yeah, okay, ‘really sharp’=’I agree with them’!) as to an earlier generation of readers being willing to be confused, not get it all at once, grow with the book and then other books. There’s a ‘spell it out’ aspect to the zeitgeist today that cuts hard against that, and this may be how I’d phrase Karen’s query about maybe ‘more support’ in our day in the culture and not being so fussed about getting every single thing right away.

This, I would say, is fair, and I might have seen that point more clearly had I not been seeing red over how much I hated that play. 🙂

To address it directly, then: I’d say the reading problem, this sense that kids are less willing now to go along with stuff they don’t know and figure it out along the way, is just one facet of the broader problem a lot of people are citing — teachers, employers, etc — with the trend toward thinking kids should succeed at everything, should never face failure, etc.  If every kid who takes part in a competition gets a trophy, if parents storm into the classroom to harangue the teacher for flunking little Johnny when he didn’t turn in his homework, then when does little Johnny learn actual perseverance?

(Obviously the examples I cite are extreme; not every parent acts that way.  But there’s been a distinct trend toward the “everybody’s a winner!” mentality, that I think is relevant to our own issue.)

Even as a strong reader, I’ve experienced the difficulty myself. I bounced off The Three Musketeers the first time I tried to read it, because it was full of Gascons and pistoles and other things I didn’t understand at all.  On the other hand, I later grew up to read Dorothy Dunnett, so clearly I got over that problem.

Karen Burnham

Let me chime in with those who say that the way schools teach literature usually doesn’t do literature any favors. Among books I couldn’t stand because I was forced to read them: A Scarlet Letter, Catcher in the Rye, The Fountainhead (admittedly I was probably never going to love that one), and almost every last scrap of poetry when the teacher teaching that section decided to go straight from Keats to ee cumings–and then gleefully told us how ‘wrong’ our interpretations of cummings poems were.

Then there are all the classics that I loved when I found them on my own in my 20’s and 30’s: Canterbury Tales, Herodotus, Paradise Lost, etc. Or the ones that I loved when I found them on my own between the ages of 10-14: Jane Eyre, Les Miserables, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Maybe kids who love reading anyways are ill-served by being forced to read stuff they don’t like… and the kids who are never going to be lifelong readers aren’t affected one way or the other?

I will also defend ‘dated’ literature, since I remember loving 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea when I was young.

Cecelia Holland

This is true. If kids read what they like, they keep reading. If they don’t, they weren’t going to love literature anyway by having it pounded into them.

Karen: 20,000 Leagues. I agree: terrific.

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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