Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Reading, and the Problem with English Class

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Or something.  I find this all very interesting on a number of levels.  Let me try to sort it out so that it’s not too confusing.

First, nobody taught me to read.  I can’t remember learning.  One day I must have just known, but what sticks in my mind is the day other people figured out I could read.  It caused quite a fuss–that duck billed platypus again–but I was not impressed, which means I must have been doing it for a while.

My father might have been willing to teach me to read, and he was a great reader most of his lfe, but when I  was a child he had one of those make-partner-or-bust jobs that took up seventy to ninety hours a week.   He was never home until after I was in bed and only sometimes home on the week-ends. 

My mother didn’t teach me to read because she neither could have nor would have.  I was considerably older before I realized that she didn’t actually read very well, that she stumbled and struggled with material as simple as articles in the Reader’s Digest.

My guess is that she did read to me, sometimes, but my guess is also that she read to me the way she later read to my children:  seldom, with little affect, and while giving off waves of discomfort and resentment.

Because my mother didn’t just not read.  She hated reading.  She hated people who read, and she especially hated my reading.  I think the only reason I got away with it was that my father loved it, and was enormously proud  of me for it, and she never crossed my father in anything she perceived to be important to him.  But I listened to enough lectures in my chldhood about how I couln’t just “sit and read” all my life, and later I  heard even more about how reading was a luxury not a necessity and if I was short of money I should watch television.

I never saw my mother read a book, except twice, and in neither case did she read the whole thing.  The first was Everything You Ever Wanted  To Know About Sex, which she seemed to skim through for the more shocking bits.   The second was one of mine, called Sanctity, which she also skimmed through but, with that infallible radar mothers have, found exactly the one scene she shouldn’t have.  After which she accused me of being a lesbian, because after all, if I hadn’t done all that stuff, how could I write about it?

I’ve seen the same studies Lee B has seen, and I think they’re accurate enough to an extent, because I do think you have to introduce a child to the possibilities of reading before he will develop a love for it.

My guess is that in my case, I was introduced to books, I loved what I was introduced to, and faced with a mother who wasn’t interested in giving me as much of that as I wanted, I went looking for a way to get it for myself. 

In my own house, both my husband and I were/are obsessional readers, we read to the children nonstop, and my older son read to my younger son.  But my older son is an obsessional reader, and my youner son–who, like me, read before he was three in some process none of us taught him–reads regularly but not with the same passion. 

Anyway, it’s hard for me to address Robert’s experience in elementary and secondary school classes, because they were so very different from my own.

In the very lowest grades, we were indeed given Dick and Jane, and my teachers tended just to let me pick anything out of the school library and read on my own, since I was already several grade levels ahead.

In the older grades, what my schools seemed most intersted in teaching was the American experience–we got James Fennimore Cooper, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Mark Twain, and even Mark Twain on James Fennimore Cooper. We got Winesberg, Ohio (which I’ve probably just spelled wrong) and a collection of short stories by Edith Wharton that was packaged under the title Old  New York.  We got Melville (both Bartleby and Moby Dick), and a lot of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. We got some Poe (mostly the poems) and Henry  Wadsworth Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier and Trees,   which should have put me off poerty forever, but didn’t. We were not given to understand that these were classics we could not criticize–in fact, far from it.   And, by high school, learning how to analyze the text was the big important deal.

I have never read Silas Marner and don’t know what it’s about.  I’ve never read Ethan Frome or The Yearling.  I do know what The Yearling is about, but only because I caught a few scenes of a movie somebody made of it on television once.  I have no idea why these books in particular were chosen, but I think I can make a safe bet–they were NOT chosen by “English majors.”

Most of the teachers in public schools are not–and especially were not, when Robert and I were growing up–English majors.  They were Education majors, and the curriculum they taught was set by the school board or the school administration, not by the teachers themselves.  The school board isn’t likely to have been  English majors either, and the school administration almost certainly was made up of even more Education majors.  

No English major would survive to a bachelor’s degree treating books as Classics that couldn’t be touched.  She’d have nothing to write papers about, since academic papers in  English on the university level are all analyzing and disecting the work, 

It sounds like Robert had a really terrible set of teachers in a really terrible department that didn’t know what it was doing, and I’m not sure the situation is much better now.  Nobody seems to read Silas Marner any more, but they do somethin I think is worse–they read “problem novels” written especially for adolescents, which are supposed to be “relevant” and therefore interesting to students. 

I’ve seen some of these things.  They’re long on  preachy and fake and short on anything I could stand to read for more than two seconds. What’s worse, for the elemntary and middle school grades, textbook publishers demand political correctness of a kind that would make your head spin–somewhere out there, apparently not on th web, there’s a wonderful essay called “A Perfect Day for Broccoli,” about one woman’s experience having her children’s short story chosen for inclusion in a textbook.  To give you a hint of what that experience was like, her original title for that short story was “A Perfect Day for Ice Cream.”

We’re back to Plato again–if children never seen anybody doing anything “wrong,” then won’t even be able to conceive of doing it.  And if they do see somebody doing something wron, they’re going to run right out and do it, too.

If my earliest exposure to what was out there to read was “A Perfect Day for Broccoli”–not the essay, but the eventual textbook story–I don’t think I would have concluded that books were boring.  I think  I would have concluded that they were stupid.

That said,  I don’t think high school English classes, or middle school ones, are meant to instill the love or erading.  In middle school, the concentration is one building comprehnsion skills.  In high school, the focus should be on learning the rudiments of analysis so that the student can go on to college and actually participate in a college level literature class.

But  I’ve got nothing against the idea of trying to instell a love of reading i nto children at the same time.  I’m just not too sure that the way to approach it is to concentrate on what we think the students will find “interesting.” 

We do that now, and the result seems to be students who think that the only legitimate judgment of a work of literature is whteher or not they find it “interesting,” with “interesting” being defined as “something I already know I’m going to like.”

Written by janeh

January 25th, 2009 at 10:24 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Reading, and the Problem with English Class'

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  1. Grades 7-13 I only had one English teacher I liked, but I had him for two years, so I may have reached the national average. My history teachers varied from competent to excellent. But is my love of history the result of those teachers, or does my assessment of my teachers reflect my interest?

    The majors of my teachers I couldn’t vouch for at this range. Certainly someone higher up the food chain picks the readings. (“In education, prestige is measured by the distance from the students”–Robert Parker) But where I’ve been able to find out anything about it, the selection process is driven by recommendations by a committee of teachers in the field. It may not represent the individual choice of my teachers, but it probably represented the collective preferences of the department. Also, of course, the only friends I have who drool over the books inflicted on me were or are English teachers.

    I honestly don’t know what they were trying to teach. My friend who went through Massachusetts schools about the same time I was going through Indiana ones read a similar assortment and thought they were trying to introduce us to a wide range–their perspective, not mine–of literature. Of course, she liked it, which made a difference. I agree that teaching critical skills would have been a good idea, but if they were it passed me by completely, and Freshman English was no better.

    And oddly enough, it IS better now. By a series of chances my son attended high school in the same system 31 years behind me. His English readings were tied to his History classes–GATSBY when studying the 20’s, GRAPES OF WRATH for the Depression and so forth. That is not the best system: I would say the best system would both teach analytical and compositional skills and expose the student to a VERY wide range of fiction, so he could note for further reading anything that caught his interest. But it is A system, which marks it as an improvement. And he tells me the current goal in hiring is a Master’s in the appropriate subject.

    It’s the teachers’ unions which love the education and administration degrees.

    As for interesting–well, certainly that is not the objective of the non-fiction Canon. About the Literary Canon, I have my doubts. We’d have to agree on a purpose to decide how to proceed. But consider this: if you convince someone that diet and exercise, though hateful, are good for him, you are effectively swimming upstream forever. The rewards of broccoli and push-ups are distant and uncertain, and the relief of stopping sure and immediate. But if you find a healthy food and a strenuous physical activity you enjoy, the long and short-term rewards line up. You’re much more likely to continue.

    Reading fiction shouldn’t be like eating steamed carrots.


    25 Jan 09 at 1:09 pm

  2. Jane’s mother wasn’t the only person who hated reading and hated seeing other people doing it. I didn’t run into that attitude in my own family, but plenty of other adults thought that while reading well enough to get good marks in school was OK and maybe desireable, reading certainly shouldn’t interfere with your work around the house or your social life (i.e. dating with a view to marriage; I’m talking very traditional view of women’s roles!). Someone who was reading when there was something that needed doing (like dishes) or something more entertaining to do (like playing outdoors or going out with friends) obviously wasn’t quite normal! Reading in school, and maybe for a short time in bed before going to sleep was more than enough for anyone.

    My mother might have agreed that I should read less and help with the housework more. I remember her saying in exasperation that when she sent me to clean the bathroom, she didn’t mean I should read the labels on the toothpaste! But generally she encouraged me.

    I knew something about how curriculum is developed locally, although not how it was done when I was a student. I think the committees do a good enough job, and they leave some choice to the local teacher. Most of my teachers were fine – some were excellent. The ones I’d still remember as the worst didn’t teach English. (Well, there was the brief period during which our math teacher was assigned to teach English. He was MUCH better at teaching math than English!). We also had separate classes – English Language and English Literature, although as it was a small school, they were generally both taught by the same teacher.

    I didn’t like school much, but that was because I thought a lot of it was boring. This doesn’t bother me much because I think a certain percentage of everything in life is boring, and I got enough out of my schooling to enjoy some bits and pieces and to give me a start in life.

    I can’t understand why Robert dislikes ‘Silas Marner’ so much – and I’ve given my reasons elsewhere. I loved it and read it several times. I don’t think that was a set novel; I think it was one I came across myself. I don’t remember many novels in school, although there must have been some when we got past the ‘reader’ level. The readers were anthologies that I rather liked because of their variety. We had ‘library tables’ with novels in our classroom, but I don’t think we were taught them formally until high school (in the system I went to, Grade 10), but I could be wrong.

    It’s startling really how few novels I remember. Nothing like ‘The Yearling’, which I think is one of those cowboy books. I remember old copies of ‘The Black Arrow’ which I hoped we’d do, but which our teacher disdained for something more serious.

    Naturally, we didn’t do the American Experience Jane reports having done, although at Grade 9? 10? I can’t remember – we switched from the faded old readers to an American one. That stuck in my mind because to me the sudden switch in topic and style was very noticeable.


    25 Jan 09 at 1:36 pm

  3. Jane thought that, as a jr. high English teacher, I might want to weigh in on this discussion. I most certainly do, but I hardly know where to begin.

    I can’t remember a time when I didn’t read. I’ve loved libraries since I was a child. When I began having my own children, I read to them constantly . . . the two year old curled up next to me, the infant in arms. All three read voraciously and began school as readers. Their children read. I firmly believe that the ability to read and the love of reading needs to be planted at the earliest possible age. I didn’t teach my sons to read; they simply learned it. I remember one book about a monkey who wanted to fly. He tried all kinds of things, but he always “flopped.” My kids called it the “flop” book and fought over who would “read” the word “flop” when it appeared.

    Today, our early childhood teachers teach concepts such as: the letters “g-o-o-d” always say the same thing; one reads left to right; the spaces indicate words; a book will always say the same thing no matter how many times it’s read. It’s called emergent literacy. Nobody had to teach me these things (nor can I remember that being taught when I was a child), because I saw this in action as I was being read to.

    Parents, for the most part, don’t read to kids anymore. It’s easier to turn on the TV or plop the kid in front of a video game. “I don’t like to read” has become an excuse for not reading. Parents don’t know how to read to their kids. They don’t understand that voice can create a story, while reciting words is mundane. Besides, a trip to the library isn’t nearly as much fun as a movie.

    Teachers face a nearly impossible task. They can teach the technical aspects, but for a large number of kids, this is meaningless since they “don’t like to read” and, therefore, why should they learn? We now live in an age where parents want their kids to be everlastingly happy, so they don’t encourage them to do things they don’t “like.” They enroll their five-year-olds in football or basketball programs, but they won’t put the same energy into reading.

    I am currently working with jr. high kids in the Title One program. I am appalled at how little they can do with the written language . . . and how little they care about it. By the time they get to me, it’s firmly ingrained in them that, since they don’t like to, they don’t have to. Their parents have taught them well. I still remember one mother who said to me on registration day (her 7th grade son was new to our school), “Charlie doesn’t like to read, so I’m sure you’ll not push him hard in this area.” Sheesh!

    Oddly enough, the one novel I found that actually motivated students to want to read more was “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Through the years of teaching that novel, I had several students who told me when we had finished that they never knew a book could be so interesting, and could I recommend something else for them to read. Some of them actually did read something else. There is not a total hopelessness there, but the odds are small.

    I do have to lay some of the blame on some teachers who are more concerned with the technical aspects and not the joy of the experience. With the extreme emphasis being placed on testing, the pressure is on to produce quantitative results. Get through the books; hammer in the lessons. Real literature doesn’t show up until jr. high. Nobody talks about plot, character, conflict, etc. until then.

    Waiting until 7th grade to teach love of reading is like waiting until your daughter is 13 to talk to her about sex. Too little, too late.


    25 Jan 09 at 2:16 pm

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