For years Lorrie McNeill loved teaching “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the Harper Lee classic that many Americans regard as a literary rite of passage.
But last fall, for the first time in 15 years, Ms. McNeill, 42, did not assign “Mockingbird” — or any novel. Instead she turned over all the decisions about which books to read to the students in her seventh- and eighth-grade English classes at Jonesboro Middle School in this south Atlanta suburb.
Among their choices: James Patterson‘s adrenaline-fueled “Maximum Ride” books, plenty of young-adult chick-lit novels and even the “Captain Underpants” series of comic-book-style novels.
But then there were students like Jennae Arnold, a soft-spoken eighth grader who picked challenging titles like “A Lesson Before Dying” by Ernest J. Gaines and “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, of which she wrote, partly in text-message speak: “I would have N3V3R thought of or about something like that on my own.”
The approach Ms. McNeill uses, in which students choose their own books, discuss them individually with their teacher and one another, and keep detailed journals about their reading, is part of a movement to revolutionize the way literature is taught in America’s schools.
1. Carolina Anglican wrote:
There is a recent book called “The Book Whisperer” by Donalyn Miller, a teacher, that is all about instilling in children a love for reading by helping them choose books that suit them instead of assigning the entire class the same old classic book that most of them will hate. It is a good book for teachers and parents to read.
August 31, 7:54 am | [comment link]
2. InChristAlone wrote:
I have to say, I never developed a real love for reading in school because all we read were books that the teachers thought we should read. Not once was the Lord of the Rings on a book list, even though each book is in its own right a great novel. That said, I appreciate the need to teach the classics, but for students to actually develope a desire to read, they need to be given the option to read what they want.
August 31, 8:28 am | [comment link]
3. Franz wrote:
One of the purposes of education is to introduce students to the common core of our culture. The failure to assign certain novels is an abdication of that responsibility. There has been a lot of argument about what should be included in a curriculum, and that is healthy. But to throw up one’s hands, and decline to say “here are some works of literature that everyone should read . . . ” seems feeble.
August 31, 9:43 am | [comment link]
4. BlueOntario wrote:
I think I agree with Franz. This should not be an “either, or” syllabus; the teachers need to expose the students to classical literature.
It also ties in with the article Kendall posted earlier about the literary and social importance of the bible in understanding, well, literature and society. In my current line of work I find a loss of understanding and knowledge of why practices have been adopted. It leads to many occasions where people feel the need to do a particular task when circumstances do not dictate it or to ignore it as “old” when it is called for.
August 31, 10:24 am | [comment link]
I think such disconnects are becoming more common as people rely on false truths (really their own make believe feelings) in lieu of actual understanding of principals. The issue in my workplace is, I think, reflected in society. No one is taught “foundational” values or concepts. “Make your own way” has become the norm.
5. Sherri2 wrote:
My senior year in high school, our English teacher required us to do a book review each month. On anything. Even a comic book. My 10th grade English teach had us study Simon and Garfunkel for poetry (hey, I like them, but ....??) I bitterly resented the waste of time my high school English classes represented. Kids will always find the stuff they *like* to read. How about giving them a chance to discover stuff they didn’t know they would like, books that will make them grow beyond their still forming selves? I find this as trivial as my old senior teacher’s English classes - he gave us time to read comic books so he could sit at his desk and read the daily paper.
August 31, 10:26 am | [comment link]
6. Jon wrote:
#3… good point, Franz. But if the effect on many students is to make them hate the things they are being introduced to, then surely it’s worth questioning whether it is worth doing. Parents have to face this issue all the time. A father may have a deep love for baseball, and want to introduce his son to that love, but if he forces his son to play Little League then he’ll be introducing him to a hatred of the game, not a love of it (as well as resentment of Dad as well).
I had an elementary school teacher who’s approach seemed perfect to me (and instilled in me a huge love of books). She created a small library of books, books that she felt were really good, and told us we could read anything we liked from it. The approach combined ensuring both that the kids were reading something they chose, and that the thing they chose was good.
Additionally I think it is fine to offer classes in high school that are classes in the Canon. College-bound kids might take these if they chose.
August 31, 10:37 am | [comment link]
7. Ken Peck wrote:
C. S. Lewis wrote an introduction to a new translation of Athanasius’ On the Incarnation which has been published elsewhere as an essay, “On Reading Old Books”, or something like that.
He makes the point that “old books” have withstood the test of time, whereas “new books” have yet to be tested. In it he makes a recommendation of a ratio (I think it was 1:3)—that for every “new book” one should also read a certain number of “old books”. For if one never reads “old books” one will never be able to discern whether or not the “new book” one is reading is “good” or “bad”, much less why the “new book” is one or the other.
I really don’t have any particular objection to a teacher letting students pick some books to read. But not all. Perhaps in the course of a school year, the teacher could require the middle school student to read and report on 6 books—two entirely of the student’s own choosing and four from a selected list of “youth classics”. Part of the “report” process should require the student to make a “good-mediocre-bad” judgment, supported by the reasons for that judgment; and let this apply to both the “classics” and the new books read.
And, of course, there is no law that says kids can read only the books assigned in a literature class.
I have much the same thoughts about music, being something of an amateur “classical” musician. If one never hears the great compositions of the Western musical tradition, one has no way of knowing whether the transitory “hits” of the moment are good, bad or indifferent. (They are mostly bad, and will quickly fade from the charts, whereas the classics will survive. For every “golden oldie” of the pop charts there were literally thousands that have been mercifully forgotten.)
August 31, 10:46 am | [comment link]
8. Ken Peck wrote:
P.S.: The translation of On the Incarnation is available from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press for less than $10 the last I noticed. In addition to Lewis’ introduction and the main work, there is also a bonus chapter—Athanasius’ “On reading the Psalms” which is well worth reading.
O.K. I went out and checked, it is $14. Inflation, you know. But still worth it.
SVS Press and Bookstore: On the Incarnation
August 31, 10:55 am | [comment link]
9. Pb wrote:
This is the inclusive approach and no author is excluded. All ideas are equally valid and all writing is whatever the reader says it is. Are we surprised?
August 31, 11:15 am | [comment link]
10. drjoan wrote:
The catch is to START them on the good books—including the Good Book—early on. Even a first grader can read great books (I certainly did!) But by eighth or ninth grade, HAVING BEEN INTRODUCED TO GREAT LITERATURE, students will begin to select on their own. But they may select a variety and that needs to be accommodated. The reader will want both the old classics, (Ivanhoe, Idylls of the King) and the new ones (Spiderman, Marley and Me, Harry Potter, People of the Book )
August 31, 11:55 am | [comment link]
I thank God for book clubs. They force me out of my comfort zone. Without them I would read only Michael Connelly, Stephen White, and Nevada Barr mystery novels.!
11. Franz wrote:
#6 wrote (in part):
“Additionally I think it is fine to offer classes in high school that are classes in the Canon. College-bound kids might take these if they chose.”
Even non-college bound kids deserve some exposure to “the canon,” whatever “the canon” might be, for a couple of reasons (and I could probably think of more):
First, the transmission of our culture, and the maintenance of an educated citizenry, require some minimum common culture. For the first century and a half of the republic, if a presidential candidate used language rooted in the Bible, those who heard him would understand the reference. For the second half of the 19th century, and the first half of the 20th, a reference to Shakespeare would have had nearly the same resonance. Culture knits a society. Without some degree of common culture, we are balkanized.
Second, exposure to great works could light a spark in someone who might not otherwise be college bound. In fact, the development of the American public high school in the late 19th and early 20th century was based in part upon just such a proposition. Remember, 100 years ago, a tiny fraction of Americans went to college (many ended formal education with the eighth grade, or earlier). Those who finished high school were a minority. But consider this: In the first decade of the 20th century, the public high school in Brattleboro, Vermont (my hometown) could note that several colleges waived entrance examinations for its graduates, including Dartmouth, Amherst, and Smith. A graduate of that school (in an ordinary town) would have had some knowledge of literature, mathematics, Latin (and maybe Greek). The curriculum would have included some solid substantive knowledge. This education was free.
Unfortunately, today’s educators seem more comfortable with teaching “process,” and downplaying the need for content. Education requires both.
August 31, 12:08 pm | [comment link]
12. Franz wrote:
At the risk of sounding tendentious, I continue (this thread strikes close to one my passions) . . .
I understand the difficulty the teacher above faces. I have a daughter who is an avid reader, but she has distinct tastes in genre, and it is very hard to get her to even attempt something else. But, “To Kill a Mockingbird” was assigned over the summer, and, although she resisted it at first, she got through it, and, even got something from it. She still took plenty of time to read (and re-read) the stuff she would get to anyway, so I don’t think the assignment scarred her . . .
August 31, 12:13 pm | [comment link]
13. Dan Crawford wrote:
If the teacher confronts the students with issues not raised by the kids’ books, and shows how books from the “canon” deal intelligently and sensitively with those issues; if she leads them from the comic book, bumper-sticker approach to life so prevalent in a world of photo-ops and sound bites, pop culture and trendy movies, and shows them a richer, deeper, and more wondrous world than mega and gigabytes, iPhones, iPods, and Windows 7, I’m not terribly concerned how she does it. Helping students to distinguish trash from treasures is an awesome responsibility.
August 31, 5:38 pm | [comment link]