28 November 2010

Why We Read or Yes, You Have to Read This

I am something of a classicist when it comes to literature, and this recently has been a subject of debate among not only my department, but English departments across the country. Is there truly a benefit to students in reading the so-called "canon" of literature? Do Hemingway and Steinbeck truly teach our students more than the teen books they might otherwise prefer? One colleague in my department--who I respect enormously--questioned at a recent meeting whether or not we should truly be teaching Shakespeare at all in this day and age.

Once I recovered from my shock (it took me five days to do so) I had this to say...

Yes, we should.

And while I think that response should suffice, I'll explain. First, do not misunderstand me. I am a fan of all literature, and I read voraciously both classic and contemporary works. I am a huge fan of Jonathan Lethem (read Motherless Brooklyn, my all-time favorite), Connie Willis, and Jasper Fforde. I see the value in contemporary literature, and I do not question that many current authors are asking questions and making points in thought-provoking, entertaining, worthwhile ways. I just question whether they are doing it best.

Take Lord of the Flies for example. In it, Golding forces us to wonder what each person is capable of at his/her core--what could we do with no fear of reprisals? Would we do it? Is human nature ultimately an evil constrained by society, or goodness ruined by circumstances? Do other contemporary books ask such questions? One colleague pointed me to Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games as a suitable alternative. In the series, a teen is forced to kill others in order to survive a twisted reality-TV type situation. Yes, certainly the themes are similar. But in The Hunger Games, our narrator is forced to kill or be killed; she is left with little choice. Each murder is an act of self-defense, acts she struggles with and deplores. In Golding's work, Simon is ripped to shreds by a group of young boys for no other reason than they can, Piggy pushed to his death because his reason runs counter to their savage nature. There is little remorse and certainly no provocation to the murders. Surely, while the basic questions are the same, the point of Golding's work is more provocative and the implications far more serious. So, in my room at least, I'll stick with him.

I teach the classics not simply because they are works a culturally literate person should know--certainly that's a part of it--but because their authors did it best. If you want to examine racism and the lengths to which people will go to preserve an unjust status quo, why not look to To Kill a Mockingbird? If you want to examine the extremes of the 1920s--the greed, selfishness, shallowness, and carelessness--and their effects on the American Dream, where else to look but The Great Gatsby? His green light--his dream in the distance--is the pinnacle exploration of these themes. All else is imitation.

I teach classics because--in the end--I do not just teach English. I teach grammar and paper writing; we study imagery, allusions, and symbolism. That is part of my job. I want to create life-long readers, so I encourage my students to read The Hunger Games and teen books I know they will enjoy. (And there are some truly amazing teen reads out there). Yes, I teach English. But I don't just teach English. I teach students how to think about the world around them--how to understand it in a new way. And I teach them that great literature--the canon--is a way to understand that world. So we slog through slow starts and intense imagery--as my sophomores did with The Great Gatsby--to uncover something new in an old book. We read because sometimes it's about entertainment, and sometimes it's about more: it's about learning, and understanding, and discovery.

So my students will read Romeo and Juliet. We'll laugh at Mercutio's dirty jokes and yes, my girls will tear up as the lovers take their final breaths and Romeo utters the most romantic dying words in literature: "Thus, with a kiss, I die." I smile as my students, who complain bitterly through the first third of Gatsby, give themselves over to the story and gasp in shock as they realize Daisy killed Myrtle and left Gatsby to pay for it. My sophomores will debate bitterly the merits of George ending Lennie's life and expand that discussion to one concerning the death penalty in general. And I truly believe my students, at the end of the year, are not simply better read (though they are) but are better educated, better thinkers, and, hopefully, more compassionate, considerate people.

The classics have lasted because they tell us something vital about humanity in a way others cannot. They are lenses through which we see our world in a new way, we understand humanity at a depth not previously attained. They are classics because decades, even centuries, later, we share Scout's indignation, Ralph's horror, and Gatsby's disillusionment.

And we understand the world better because of it.

14 November 2010

While my Soapbox is Still Out...

In the district where I am employed, we recently passed a renewal levy worth three million dollars...by 59 votes. As if that slim margin wasn't disheartening enough, one (crabby) lady living in the district has petitioned to have the levy recounted at the expense of the school district. Apparently that $25 a year she'll save if the levy doesn't pass is her bingo money. And we all know how important that is.

Bitterness aside (temporarily), I am baffled by people's reluctance in this country to support public education or those who make public education their career. I am disgusted by the lack of respect teachers receive from many Americans, including those whose children are currently in public schools. I understand I am biased; education is my livelihood, of course I'd like to see people willing to pay for it (and me) in spades. But I accept that this isn't the case. I just don't quite understand why.

Recently the NEA published an article about an essay written by a Florida teacher, Jamee Miller. You can see the text of her essay here. And while I agree with Ms. Miller about the many sacrifices we teachers make, I'm not sure complaining about said sacrifices is the best way to gain the respect and support we so desperately need...and deserve.

Yes, I work long hours. Yes, I am paid less than most other professionals with equivalent education and experience. And yes, I dislike spending my own money on my classroom simply to make the room habitable for the nine months of the year I am there. But it is churlish to deny that I do enjoy my summer vacation (though summer school significantly cuts into that time) and my strong benefits package. Time and effort are important in any job, but they aren't the defining factors for success. And, as I often tell my freshmen and sophomores (particularly around test day): whining and complaining gets you nowhere.

Every September, I approach the first day of school nervous about my classes--will they be manageable? Will they get it? Will I be able to refrain from throwing things and stamping my feet when they don't do their assignments? And at the end of the first day, without fail, I'm in love with 200 news students who will constitute the next nine months of my life.

Do I complain about my job? Of course. But I love it, and what's more, I think I'm pretty good at it. So no matter how tired I am, or how icy the roads on my commute, or how disheartening their tests results were, I go each day because I know I only get nine months with these amazing teenagers. And that's just never enough time.

Teachers deserve respect not because we work hard--many people do that--but because we take care of your children. For eight hours a day, this country's children are in the hands a small group of educators. Yes, it is our job to help them learn. Yes, it is our job to keep them safe and enforce rules. But it is more than that. It is our job to let them know they are supported; to let them know they are cared for, and listened to, and important. I hand out band aids (Dora or Transformer themed, naturally), listen sympathetically to stories of heartbreak, and am often privy to information and pain even parents don't know about.

Teachers deserve respect because we care enough to teach your children. We care enough to give them a voice, to prepare them for the world, to listen to their fears, their dreams, and their complaints. Teachers deserve respect because it is truly a labor of love. No matter how much you know about a subject matter--math, English, science--the only way to be an effective teacher is to be passionate about students, to care what they think and feel; to marvel at how they grow and change. To be as proud of their accomplishments as we are of our own.

There are teachers out there who aren't as passionate about their students--I work with a few. But by and large they are the exception rather than the rule. For the most part, those teachers who joined the profession for vacation time and good benefits leave, discovering that the work involved requires too much care and emotional commitment. The vast majority of teachers are there because, despite the long hours, shrinking budgets, and disrespect, they love it. And they love their students...even the ones that don't do anything. And teachers deserve respect because we are there for your children. Everyday.

We are there because kids make us laugh, because we understand sometimes kids just need someone to listen and tell them life gets better, and because we want to be the one that makes that difference. We are there because we believe in preparing children for the future.Teachers are there because we believe in the power of knowledge and education.

We are there because we are idealists who believe we can--and will--change the world.

One student at a time.