Sunday, December 21, 2014

If I Could Design High School English Classes

It has been a while since I have written anything where I just give my opinion about things, other than a book review.  I tried Goodreads at one point, but to me I have trouble understanding the point of limited social media sites like that.  I know that it connects to a broader account, like my Facebook, but not everyone on Facebook wants to hear my opinion there, while not enough people, including me, use Goodreads so I don't see a lot of point to using it.  Maybe I'm part of the problem of it getting to some threshold amount where it is broadly adopted by the public [this is a large part of why Facebook has succeeded where MySpace failed].  None-the-less, I'm not here to give a book review this time, but instead to describe what I would do if I could create four courses in a 9-12 high school English curriculum, with the focus being on literature and not the many other language arts skills that are needed and are taught in high school English.
Before I get started I'd like to say that I am a friend of the English teacher at the school I teach at and I have nothing but respect for her and her juggling of all the different things she has to teach in a day and this is in no way a criticism of her.  Rather, the focus is on how underserved I now realize that I was by my K-12 education.  This is not a critique of all of my English teachers because there are many things I learned, including how to read and to appreciate reading [which was greatly instilled in me by my parents who are both avid readers and users of the library], specifically Mrs. Wion (8th grade) and Mrs. Korgman (11th grade and 12th grade AP English) mostly got it right.  I've mentioned before my frustration with how many times I read about the Holocaust, this was not the only over-taught topic in my grade-school career.
To illustrate the problem fully, I'm going to attempt to list all of the novels that I read in high school, as well as the ones I was supposed to have read, but we didn't get around to reading.  Also, this is only the novels and on some occasions the poet, but does not include the extensive list of short stories that we read, nor does it [obviously] include anything I have forgotten.
7th Grade

  • Acorn People- Ron Jones
  • The Wish Giver- Bill Brittain
  • The Pigman- Paul Zindel
  • a World War II resistance novel whose title I cannot remember (we then watched the related movie Swing Kids) [see comment below for details]

8th Grade
  • The Sign of the Beaver- Elizabeth George Speare
  • The Outsiders- S.E. Hinton
  • The River- Gary Paulsen
  • The Canyon- Gary Paulsen
  • The Diary of Anne Frank- Anne Frank
  • "The Raven"- Edgar Allan Poe
  • A Separate Peace- John Knowles
  • Romeo & Juliet- William Shakespeare
  • Of Mice and Men- John Steinbeck
  • The Odyssey- Homer
  • A Christmas Carol- Charles Dickens [I think]
  • To Kill a Mockingbird- Harper Lee
  • The Diary of Anne Frank- Anne Frank
  • Night- Elie Weisel
  • The Pearl- John Steinbeck
  • Julius Caesar- William Shakespeare
  • Death of a Salesman- Arthur Miller
  • The Glass Menagerie- Tennessee Williams
  • Lord of the Flies- William Golding
  • Robert Frost poems
  • Ethan Frome- Edith Wharton
  • The Crucible- Arthur Miller
  • Edgar Allan Poe short stories and poems
  • selections from Walden- Thoreau
  • The Taming of the Shrew- William Shakespeare
  • Emily Dickinson poems
  • Walt Whitman poems
  • The Great Gatsby- F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Grapes of Wrath- John Steinbeck
Senior [AP English Literature & Composition]
  • Ordinary People- Judith Guest
  • The Prince of Tides- Pat Conroy
  • Macbeth- William Shakespeare
  • Hamlet- William Shakespeare
  • selections from Beowulf
  • selections from The Canterbury Tales- Geoffrey Chaucer
  • a book of our choosing: Crime & Punishment- Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • Great Expectations- Charles Dickens
  • The Doll House- Isben
  • [The Somonyng/Summoning of] Everyman
  • Oedipus Rex- Sophocles
  • Antigone- Sophocles
  • The Awakening- Kate Chopin
  • numerous poems
There are several problems I have with this list.  First, other than my junior year and to a lesser extent my senior year, there wasn't really a theme or a reason given for why we were reading the books we read.  Next, there is no nonfiction on the list, except for Night.  Lastly, there is a lot of repetition of authors on the list.  Personally, I needed more variety.  I wanted someone to tell me, "Here are some good fantasy books," or "If you liked the book we just read then you should read...."  Instead we read the same handful of authors.  Dickens books every other year, Shakespeare every year, Steinbeck every year, several topics and works repeated in different grades.  Top me the best things I read were times when I had a choice.  Mrs. Wion in 8th grade usually had 5 books at a time we could pick from and we had to pick and read one.  That gave me a somewhat artificial say in what I read and when I read it.  It made her job of tracking what we were doing more difficult, but it made for better reading and more personal motivation.  This did come at the sacrifice of variety as many of the books I read were similar.  I also enjoyed getting to pick which book I read for the AP English project.  The project actually lead to the idea for this format.  Also, I really liked the two Shakespeare plays I read my Senior year, but it was hard to enjoy it because I had such a negative attitude towards his works. n Also, I think that it should be the educators role to instill a love of learning and reading and so introducing students to new genres is important.  I don't know that this applies to books, but some author I heard an interview with said, "If you don't like reading poetry, read other poetry."  His point was there's plenty out there and if this one or this author doesn't fit your fancy don't give up, just try something else.  I could have used advice like that.  Another English teacher I knew had students list their favorite books and then she assigned them to swap and read each other's.  My favorite pairing was the guy and girl who listed The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and The World, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things, and had to read each others.  The project wasn't great because not a lot of students ended up loving the new genre, there were a few students who didn't get something way out of their comfort zone, and there was plenty of low-quality literature read.  I got stuck in ruts reading the same book over and over or reading crappy literature when there was a plethora of other books I would have enjoyed reading if I had only known.
So those are my complaints about how I was taught, now how I'd do it instead.  First, no repetition of authors.  That is for the students to explore.  You liked The Mask of the Red Death read the The Pit and The Pendulum or The Tell-Tale Heart and so on.  And you object "How can you pick only one Shakespeare?"  OK, I'll kind of concede there.  I don't love Shakespeare, and after all he wrote plays, they weren't really meant to be read.  So play a good production of the original work in class [there are plenty like Franco Zefirelli's Romeo and Juliet or Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet or Henry V].  Beyond that though if you insist upon reading it, give students a selection and don't have them read the same type of work over and over.  There are four years of high school and four categories that Shakespeare's plays fit into: 1) comedy, 2) tragedy, 3) history, and 4) sonnets- so do one each year.  Now certainly when students are faced with picking a reading selection they don't know what they want [they might know what they don't want, for example, I know that I dreaded reading Romeo & Juliet and would have avoided it if I could].  Also, given the choice most students will pick the shortest work, so I envision giving them synopses or reviews written by students in the past [makes for a great writing assignment] to inform their decision.  For students who are not average, I would suggest having recommendations from the teacher to the student, like: "You tend to struggle so I suggest Romeo and Juliet because I'm going to be working more closely with that group in class and because more of your peers reading it," or, "You enjoy a challenge so I recommend Hamlet or Othello".  Introductions, reviews, and writing assignments, and probably a vary many other things, become difficult when doing this, but there are options to assist with that.  First, a good annotated translation will help students help themselves in understanding it.  Next, a teacher can move between groups to discuss and serve up more written rather than spoken material for the students [or better yet do flipped styles of teaching where spoken bits are recorded videos for students to watch (in class or on their own time)].  Also, essay prompts could be created for each book individually or be more broad.  Broad essay prompts might be something like: Describe the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist, What is the theme of the book, What makes this play a tragedy, and What is the lesson the author wants to get across to his audience.  These are the kinds of essays that are asked on standardized tests, like the AP English Literature test [often with AP English they include a list of books that would be appropriate for answering that question, but they will take any; I'm sure grading this is even more nightmarish than grading Chemistry essays because the number of responses could be so wide and I assume that the grader has to be familiar with the work being referred to in the essay- I'd love to know more about how the grading is done if anyone knows].  Tests, at least non-essay tests, would probably have to be book specific, but again this is the kind of assignment that students can be given: write 10 multiple choice questions with four answers each, two from each Act of the play, where the answers are not obvious ["Who is the main character in Hamlet?" is too obvious].  When I read Crime & Punishment in AP English my senior year we were reading other works in class and supposed to be reading the book of our choice on our own and were to be done by November.  We had several writing assignments to go with it that were all pretty generic and then we had to teach a whole class period [45-50 minutes] about the book (I lost points because I went long, and I made the mistake of erasing rather than crossing out the names of people who were killed on the family tree I wrote on the board).  The assignment included:

  • Summarize the book in 350 words or less.
  • What was the overall theme of the book?
  • Draw or make a new cover for the book
  • Write an outline for your presentation
    • There were several other assignments, and I wrote at least 10 pages total for all of it.
Beyond that I think that during the school year there should be about a book per month [maybe more for advanced classes, and maybe less for junior high (book per quarter there?)].  The genre should change each month and there should be a list of high quality novels from that genre each month.  Students reading the same book can work together on some things and on having discussions about the book.  Research and cliff notes are encouraged because students are not going to pick up on all the minutia and we can encourage research and non-self-reliance in some areas.  Additionally, at least once each semester there should be a nonfiction selection and to help vary topics there maybe the hundred divisions of the Dewey Decimal System could be used [freshmen year read a 700 book about the arts and a 900 biography] or something like that.  This would also be the best time to reach out to staff members in other subject areas to do cross-curricular projects and which 100s you picks and which books are available for reading could be varied based upon that teacher's request.  Or maybe, this time instead of letting students pick just tell them, the 500 book you pick this month depends upon which science elective you are currently taking, "If you're taking Chemistry with Mr. Sully then you will be reading either Napoleon's Buttons or The Disappearing Spoon, however if you are currently taking Physics with him you will instead be reading E=mc2 or The Physics of Superheros."  Heck, there's even good sci-fi and historical fiction and probably other books or poems too that would open themselves up to cross-curricular activities.  We don't even have to stick with books, go read a Popular Science article or the publication of an original discovery, a founding document, and so on.
There will always be students who are unmotivated, but this kind of format will give them some say and motivate them to be active participants in the education process.  Furthermore, no student is being forced to read one thing or another most of the time.  Certainly there may be times where the book you want them to read follows this quote,
"Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book,"
and maybe everyone needs to read it.  Or maybe all freshmen should read the same Shakespeare the first time to introduce how to read Shakespeare, but beyond that I think English teachers should serve as taste-makers for the students.  They go out and find the best books to make available to students and then encourage them to read more on that topic if they enjoy it.  Maybe even end each year with a totally free-read where they have to pick another book for the genre they enjoyed most this year.  This should serve to avoid repetition within a year and between years and offer up a wider variety for students and possibly introduce them to trying to read a broader range of books than they do already.

1 comment:

  1. I would love to be able to identify this book. Here's what I rememeber, although full disclaimer there is a strong possibility of me confusing some of its plot points with those of Number the Stars.
    Cover had a young lady in a blue dress on it, possibly a building burning in the background [if so it is a 2 or 3 story structure and it is not engulfed, but instead has flames in/on the upper floor with flames coming out the windows or maybe consuming one corner of the building, and the buidling was proably brown and looked like weathered wood].
    The protagonist was a young girl and she had a(n) [older?] brother and together they are part of a resistance movement, possibly in France, during World War II.
    One of the early targets they hit is a factory or printing press and they put a bomb there. I don't recall her being involved, but instead the story of it being related to her by her brother who did it with several other people.
    For some reason, they decided to flee the country [obviously then before Allied liberation] and her brother ends up getting caught and is tempted to use the poison capsule he has hidden in a glass vial in an artificial/drilled cavity in his teeth [probably cyanide, although I have the impression it was a liquid poison]. I seem to recall this all occurred at the climax of the book and that it was close to the end.
    I think they got picked up by a Swiss or Norwegian ship, this is the part that I might be getting confused with Number the Stars. If I remember correctly in Number the Stars they rowed across a body of water to neutral country in a canoe. In this book I have the impression that they got picked up i the water by a large ship.