Currently, there seems to be an increasingly heated debate on how to teach reading. The new movement is against teaching class novels especially some of the more traditional literature novels such as To Kill A Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, or Lord of the Flies. Some educators argue that teaching these novels as well as elements such as figurative language and tone take away from the joy of the book and ruins the intrinsic pleasure of the read. Students should choose for themselves what they would like to read, and it should not be mandated by the teacher.
As I study and plan for next year, I’ve thought over both sides of the debate. I know that I don’t have all of the years of teaching experience under my belt as many of these educators, but I must decide how I will pursue my own teaching.
First, I would like to explore the true purpose of teaching literature. I agree with educators who believe students should have reading choice, and develop a love of reading from that choice. It is a large component of the job to help develop this love of reading in our students. However, I also believe that it is our job to expose our students to classic literature. I applaud teachers who assign “the classics” to read during the summer. Yes, many students may choose not to read them. However, at the very least they are being exposed to great works of literature. By letting students read whatever they might find pleasurable even if told to complete certain genres as a sole source of teaching reading and literature takes away the opportunity to dig deeply into great works that they would never choose otherwise. I believe that procuring a love of reading is only part of the job. The other element is developing in our students an appreciation of great literature. For example, if I go to the library, my natural instinct is to go to non-fiction section. I look for books on how to improve my teaching methods, cooking, finances, parenting or health. I spend less time reading classic works of literature during my spare time. However, as a college and graduate student I spent great amounts of time reading the classics as well as poetry from all cultures and centuries. At times, I will go back and reread those classics, but they are usually not my first choice for pleasure reading. On the other hand, I do appreciate them a great deal, and feel that I am a better person for having been exposed to them. If we, as English teachers, do not take the time to read these classics as a class and expose our students to great works we risk weakening the scope of their education. It is not all about the love of reading. It is also about the exposure to things greater and broader than ourselves.
Furthermore, English should teach elements of literature such as figurative language and tone, so that students will be ready for college. From my experience, teaching figurative language and discussing it with our students equates to a deeper appreciation and understanding of the text. Once students start connecting the dots they realize that these texts do relate to their own lives. That’s when greatness happens. That cannot be accomplished unless whole class novels are apart of the curriculum and instruction.
I’ve also heard and read the same arguments against teaching poets such as Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman. My reading professor was one of them. However, I disagree with it. There are so many ways to relate these poets to students lives today. These poets are not dry or boring. They are amazing. We, as teachers, must bring them to life! We must build students knowledge of history so they understand the times and viewpoints of the authors. It is difficult to understand the poem, “Oh Captain! My Captain!” by Whitman unless the reader knows about the Civil War and Whitman’s feelings about it, and that the poem was written in response to the killing of Abraham Lincoln. I love Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky, but we can go deeper and should go deeper than these types of poets, even in elementary and middle school.
My hope is that teachers take the time to bring classroom novels to life. Throw away those Scholastic worksheets and exams that come with the book. They are boring! Have fun with it. Get creative and teach from your perspective and your heart. Read the books you want to teach and discover literature elements that you want to explore with your students. Yes, this does take time and effort. Don’t settle for easy! This passionate debate for not teaching classroom novels may not be so debatable if we as teachers just took the time to make our teaching great.
Teach a love for reading. Let students have choice, but also expose and teach them great works of literature as well. Take the summer to create, and keep these wonderful books alive for future generations! I know that I will.
Also, remember the movie, Dead Poets Society–let’s reclaim our love for the greats and inspire!
The basis of this posting is from my readings of the following:
What Kids Are Reading, In School And Out