Archive for August, 2008

Mea Culpa

Last Sunday’s Washington Post ran an article I’m surprised more bloggers haven’t jumped on yet.   In her piece, “We’re Teaching Books That Don’t Stack Up”, English teacher Nancy Schnog laments the disconnect between her students and the classics of Western literature she is required to teach.  She cites a recent NEA survey that indicates that the percentage of 17-year-olds “who read nothing at all for pleasure has doubled” since 1988, and offers some anecdotal evidence about how that disregard for reading has translated into a complete disinterest in the “decidedly internal rewards of classical literature”.

Although she does ring the “digital natives” alarm as one contributing factor (meh), she also admits that:

…it’s time to acknowledge that the lure of visual media isn’t the only thing pushing our kids away from the page and toward the screen. We’ve shied away from discussing a most unfortunate culprit in the saga of diminishing teen reading: the high-school English classroom. As much as I hate to admit it, all too often it’s English teachers like me — as able and well-intentioned as we may be — who close down teen interest in reading.

The apathy runs both ways, though, and this bit struck pretty close to home for me:

When students have to produce an essay on a book they care nothing for, it becomes a nightmare for both the student (think “all-nighter”) and the teacher, who’ll spend precious weekend hours reading papers devoid of content. The upshot of this empty drill: teens increasingly resistant to great books.

So what’s happening in our secondary English classrooms?  Certainly, we want students reading material that they find engaging, but most schools, I imagine, also want to push the well-roundedness that a liberal arts education professes to provide, so it can’t be all “Miley Cyrus and Brittany [sic] Spears biographies”, as one particularly hyperbolic commenter wrote at another source.

After reading Dr. Schnog’s article, these are the essential questions I took away:

  1. What can we do to encourage, rather than discourage, student interest in reading?
  2. How can we “teach the classics” without “transform[ing] them into dessicated lab specimens fit for dissection”? (the words of a parent quoted in Schnog’s article)
  3. How important is the literary analysis essay to teaching secondary English? (OK, maybe not an essential question, but one I’ve been wrestling with for a few years now, and this is just as good a time as any to bring it up)

This one’s approaching TL;DR territory already; I’ll continue in a day or two.  Just wanted to clear my mental clipboard and float this out there… I have some thoughts of my own, but I’d appreciate yours as well, particularly on any other key takeaways from the article.

In the meantime, Dr. Schnog held a WaPo-sponsored Q&A session the day after the article was published; here’s the transcript.

By Any Means Human

Greetings from Asbury Park Atlantic City, NJ, where my family is on vacation for a week.  Coincidentally, I just noticed that today is my blog’s first anniversary, so here’s a link back to that first post from 2 August 2007.  I’m taking advantage of a rare quiet moment when everyone but me is napping to get a quick post off.

Tracy Rosen tagged me in a piece entitled “By Any Means Human”, which asks teachers to consider the human element they bring to the classroom.  As anyone who has been to university taught for any period of time knows, content knowledge alone does not a good teacher make.

For my part, my students have always told me that my sense of humor not only helps make sometimes dry material more accessible, but helps them connect a little more to me (and to each other) personally.  In fact, I got a very nice thank-you card at the end of this past school year from a senior I had in my first quarter Shakespeare’s Comedy class.  In it, she informed me that my sense of humor not only helped her to understand the works we studied*, but also helped the class of to bond considerably.  There’s something about laughter that brings people together; I guess it’s the participation in a shared experience that does it.  As I’ve said before, I’m all for engendering that sense of community in my classes, through whatever means I have at my disposal, technological or not.

This isn’t to say that the jokes I make are GOOD, per se – in fact, I pride myself on the ability to craft a cringe-worthy pun out of almost any situation (although the one I made about Titania and Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream had the entire class LOLing for a good while!).  Maybe it’s more that I can (and frequently do) laugh at myself, which the students may find rare in a teacher.  I take my job and my responsibilities very seriously, but myself much less so.

Instead of tagging individuals, I’ll leave the tag open to anyone who reads this – what special human element do YOU bring to your classroom?

* In a nine-week course, we study three of the greats (OK, two of the greats and Measure for Measure).