Friday, June 1, 2012

English Teacher To Do List Item 1: Develop A Plan To Overcome Reader Ennui

Writing at GeekDad, Jonathan Liu, a self described "stay-at-home dad, Etch-a-Sketch artist, community agitator, board game geek, and a voracious reader" tells all English teachers that their worst fears are true. Students don't want to read most of the literature we assign, and they don't believe our assertions about beauty, depth, and literary merit.
When I was in high school and our English teacher was always talking about “literary merit,” my friends and I decided that the two main indicators of literary merit (based on the books we were assigned) were length and death. The longer the book, and the more people died, the more literary merit. Old Man and the Sea? Kind of short, relatively speaking, and not much death (unless you count the marlin and some sharks): questionable literary merit. The Great Gatsby? Not so long, but a good amount of death: yep, that’s got literary merit. Tess of the d’Urbervilles? Really long, important people die: loads of literary merit. Oh, right — and of course it ranks higher if it’s dreadfully boring, too.
I wish I had an answer for this problem.  I've tried things like substituting The Big Sleep for The Great Gatsby.  Gatsby was published in 1925; The Big Sleep in 1939. Both deal with the corruption of the American Dream; both have the dreaded literary devices that English teachers love to point out.  Chandler included a knight motif in The Big Sleep; Fitzgerald developed the symbolic unread books.  The experiment didn't go badly, but the same number of students who complained about Gatsby complained about The Big Sleep.

I suspect that Liu wold suggest I do something like substitute Maus for Night.  It's probably a serviceable idea, but I'm certain that local political realities make adopting a comic book into the curriculum an unwise battle.  Success, an unlikely eventuality, would be a Pyrrhic victory.

I believe Liu accurately described students' responses to most assigned literature. Students need to own their reading, and one of the best ways to accomplish that task is to give them the autonomy to choose what they read. I know students need to learn that there are better choices than Twilight, Harry PotterThe Hunger Games, and whatever the next hot YA read is.  Given that I read comics and find them fulfilling for the 25 minutes it takes me to get through one, I'd be a hypocrite if I didn't admit that those YA novels are probably fulfilling.

Suggestions welcome in the comments.  To do item 1A is to take a nap.  I'm not going to solve this problem this afternoon.

1 comment:

slh said...

I have been considering rearranging my high school fiction collection by number of pages as the most common request I get is for something "short."