When books ‘smell like old people’

In a digital age, turning teenagers on to reading literature is harder than ever, writes David Denby in Lit Up. The book chronicles his year observing 10th-grade English classes at a New York City magnet school, Beacon.

Sean Leon, who gets to select his own reading list, teaches Brave New World and 1984 to students who know little about totalitarianism. He includes Siddhartha, Sartre’s No Exit and Viktor Frankl’s Holocaust memoir, but no Shakespeare.

These are some of the books that change teenagers' lives, writes David Denby.

These are some of the books that change teenagers’ lives, writes David Denby.

A colleague at Beacon teaches the venerable Scarlet Letter by having students act out scenes. They spend a month on the novel.

Denby also made regular visits to a high-achieving school in the affluent suburbs where test scores are high, but few students enjoy reading. Teachers try to sell students on entry-level books, supervise their independent reading and encourage them to move up to more challenging literature.

He also visited a low-performing, all-minority school in New Haven, Hillhouse, where a boy said, “Books smell like old people.”

A Long Way Gone, the memoir of an African boy soldier, was a hit with black students in New Haven.

The memoir of an African boy soldier, was a hit with black students in New Haven.

Many of the students “lacked necessary information — facts, for want of a better word,” Denby writes. “When wars took place, how American politics worked, who were the country’s great men and women, how a bank did its business, what, exactly, they had to do to get into the professions or get any kind of good job — general information about how the world worked.”

The English teacher, who gets students for 80 minutes a day, five days a week, struggles to get them to read To Kill a Mockingbird and Shakespearean sonnets but finds they’re turned on by a Hemingway story about a man who loses his nerve, his wife and his life while big-game hunting.

“Fifteen-year-olds will read seriously when inspired by charismatic teachers alert to what moves adolescents,” Denby concludes.

In a discussion with On Point on how to get teens to read, he talks about books that engage young readers and potentially “change lives.” He includes Waiting for Godot and No Exit.  I read both when I was a teenager — not for school — because I read everything. I don’t think these are the books to turn non-readers into literature lovers.

Escaping the ‘prison house of self’


Freddie Bartholomew as David Copperfield and W.C. Fields as Mr. Micawber in the 1935 movie.

College professors are killing students’ interest in literature, writes Gary Saul Morson, a Northwestern humanities professor, in Commentary.  That’s bad for democracy.

Some professors teach a “dense thicket of theory” focused on “the text.” Students look for symbols. Others encourage students to judge the “author, character, or the society depicted according to the moral and social standards prevalent today.” A third interest-killing variation sees literature as a documentary of its times.

These approaches “fail to give a reason for reading literature,” writes Morson.

Reading a novel, you experience the perceptions, values, and quandaries of a person from another epoch, society, religion, social class, culture, gender, or personality type.

Literature provides practice in empathy, he writes. “We follow the life of Dorothea Brooke or David Copperfield moment to moment, and we live with them for hundreds of hours, always living into their experience, growing along with them, approving or disapproving their choices, and perhaps changing our minds as they change theirs.”

Here’s the money quote:

We all live in a prison house of self. We naturally see the world from our own perspective and see our own point of view as obvious and, if we are not careful, as the only possible one. . . . The more our culture presumes its own perspective, the more our academic disciplines presume their own rectitude, and the more professors restrict students to their own way of looking at things, the less students will be able to escape from habitual, self-centered, self-reinforcing judgments.

. . . Democracy depends on having a strong sense of the value of diverse opinions. If one imagines (as the Soviets did) that one already has the final truth, and that everyone who disagrees is mad, immoral, or stupid, then why allow opposing opinions to be expressed or permit another party to exist at all? The Soviets insisted they had complete freedom of speech, they just did not allow people to lie.

“Great literature allows one to think and feel from within how other cultures think and feel,” concludes Morson.

Students don’t judge contemporary art, writes Michael J. Lewis, also in Commentary. They don’t care.  “While the fine arts can survive a hostile or ignorant public, or even a fanatically prudish one, they cannot long survive an indifferent one. And that is the nature of the present Western response to art, visual and otherwise: indifference.”

High Art has removed itself from a conversation with the culture, and now lectures from barren cul-de-sacs to acolytes in sack-cloths,” responds James Lileks.

Why teach Shakespeare — or any literature?


Is our common culture centered on The Walking Dead rather than Hamlet?

Do we need to teach Shakespeare in high school? asks Megan McArdle on Bloomberg View. For that matter, why require students to read literature?

Recently, an English teacher argued against teaching Shakespeare (dead, white male) in the Washington Post and another teacher made the pro-Shakespeare case. Both “seem to think that reading literature is primarily about ‘understanding the human condition’,” notes McArdle.

But anyone who knows teenagers, or can recall having been one, knows that this is bosh. I read King Lear in high school and thrilled to its language and imagery, but it did not teach me what it is like to be an old man desperate for the love of his children, because 17-year-olds can’t really imagine their own mortality, much less the near-certainty that they will one day be old while still feeling that they are not quite done being 17.

. . . I read The Learning Tree in seventh or eighth grade, and it was certainly much more accessible than Richard III but did not noticeably increase the grasp that I or my white and privileged classmates had on the tragic history of race and poverty in America. Children are natural solipsists, and it is time, not literature, that shocks them out of it.

In the New Republic, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig makes the “progressive case” for teaching Shakespeare. “The alien distance of Shakespeare’s world is precisely why he deserves a permanent place in the literary canon, especially if one is interested in inculcating a broad social and political imagination into young adults,” she writes.

Understanding the past through literature is possible only for those who can read well, responds McArdle. “Most schoolchildren are not going to read Dickens fluently and with enjoyment, the way quite ordinary people did in the 19th century.” And reading Dickens is a lot easier than reading Shakespeare.

Students can’t understand modern literature fully unless they have some familiarity with Shakespeare, the Bible and other classic texts, McArdle believes. But many people don’t want to read literature.  “Only about half of all Americans read a book for pleasure last year, and most of them were not reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

What remains is a sort of stubborn belief that people ought to study literature because it is somehow good for them: because it is worthwhile to force them to read things that are hard, so that they can learn to do things that are hard; because it will make them a more educated and refined sort of person (which is to say, because it has snob value); or because it gives everyone a common cultural language that they can speak together.

. . . I rather suspect that for many people, the chief effect is to inculcate a hatred of reading.

Snob value is worthless, she adds, and “what common culture we do share is more likely to be found in hip-hop songs and Walking Dead episodes than the monologues of Hamlet.”

McArdle was an English major.

Reading The Odyssey — and the GI Bill

In the Common Core era, English teachers are pairing literature with nonfiction, reports Kate Taylor in the New York Times. It can seem a bit . . . odd.

In Harrison, N.Y., 10th graders read articles about bipolar disorder and the adolescent brain to help them analyze Holden Caulfield. In Springdale, Ark., ninth graders studying excerpts from “The Odyssey” also read sections of the G.I. Bill of Rights, and a congressional resolution on its 60th anniversary, to connect the story of Odysseus to the challenges of modern-day veterans. After eighth graders in Naples, Fla., read how Tom Sawyer duped other boys into whitewashing a fence for him, they follow it with an op-ed article on teenage unemployment.

At least half of what students read in elementary and middle school classes (not just English) should be nonfiction, according to Common Core. By 12th grade, students should spend 70 percent of their time reading nonfiction.

There’s less time to teach literature said Kimberly Skillen, administrator for secondary curriculum and instruction in Deer Park, N.Y. “We look at teaching literature as teaching particular concepts and skills. So we maybe aren’t teaching an entire novel, but we’re ensuring that we’re teaching the concepts that that novel would have gotten across.”

The new standards call for everyone to read “seminal U.S. documents of historical and literary significance,” including the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Gettysburg Address and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From Birmingham Jail, as well as presidential addresses and Supreme Court opinions, notes the Times.

Literature classes may include “contemporary nonfiction by authors like Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Pollan and units on argumentative writing and debate.” Romeo and Juliet may be paired with a magazine story on teenage suicide.

I can’t get over the attempt to equate Odysseus with GIs seeking job training or a degree. Perhaps his readjustment would have been easier if he’d had plans to study agriculture — and no gaggle of suitors to slaughter.

Teaching literature isn’t just about “teaching particular concepts and skills,” responds Valerie Strauss, who’s not a big Core fan.

How about teaching literature so students can learn to examine (not conform to) societal values, expand world views, understand their own and different cultures, appreciate the beauty of strong, eloquent language, develop emotional intelligence?

She also wonders about teaching parts of novels rather than encouraging students to read the whole thing.

On teaching English

After teaching for 10 year at a large public high school in New Jersey, Nick Ripatrazone has 55 Thoughts for English Teachers.

Teach Sylvia Plath's poetry -- not just her death, advises Ripatrazone.

Teach Sylvia Plath’s poetry — not just her death, advises Ripatrazone.

To start with, “you need to love words,” he writes. “You don’t need to love a certain type of book or a particular writer, but you need to love letters and phrases and the possibilities of language. You will spend most of your days dealing with words, and students can sense if words do not bring you joy.”

“Create meticulous plans for each day,” he adds, “but be alive in the classroom.”

“Teaching is performance, but not the performance of theater; there needs to be genuine interaction,” writes Ripatrazone. Students “can tell if you are putting on a show.”

Number 55: “For some students, you are their only light.”

Literature, non-fiction, lady or tiger?

Under the Common Core, students are supposed spend half their reading time on non-fiction in elementary school, 70 percent in high school. English teachers aren’t happy about the shift from literature. Susan Pimentel, a lead writer of Common Core standards, defends the stress on non-fiction in a Hechinger Report interview.

The “literacy” part of the English Language and Literacy standards includes reading in social studies, science, and technical subjects, says Pimentel. Seventy percent of reading in all classes should be non-fiction.

It’s really important that in science and history classes, students have access to important primary texts and that they be able to figure out what the speaker is trying to say. In English, there should also be great literary non-fiction, so students can uncover the meaning and understand the author’s perspective.

In talking to college professors and employers, Common Core writers discovered a “four-year gap” between high school graduates’ skills and the demands of college and careers, says Pimentel.

A New York City teacher is using literature to teach computer science, writes Emmanuel Felton on the Hechinger Report. 

“Literary texts are informational texts,” says Lev Fruchter, who teaches at a school for gifted students.

He’s developed a computer science curriculum, STORYCODE.  Fruchter uses works like Moby Dick, where characters talk about science, and “what if” science fiction. However,  he says “implicit” STEM stories are the most powerful.

Frank R. Stockton’s 1882 short story The Lady, or the Tiger?  helps students understand binary choices.

In the original story, a king discovers that his daughter is having an affair. To punish the princess’s lover, the King puts him in an arena with two doors. Behind one door is a woman the king thinks is an appropriate mate for the lover, behind the other is a tiger. Meanwhile, the princess learns from the tiger keeper which door is which, but the question is whether the jealous princess will lead her lover to his death or into the arms of another woman.

In coding terms, this is a 1-bit story, with the solution either being 0 if she chooses to send him to his death or 1 if she sends him to the other woman.

But Fruchter likes to add more layers. Fruchter adds that the lover knows about the princess’s jealousy and has to decide whether or not to trust her. It is now a 2-bit story with four possible versions. Fruchter then adds in that the tiger keeper is in love with the princess, thus introducing the possibility that the tiger keeper lies to the princess, making it a 3-bit story with eight possible outcomes.

Each students writes a version of the story, then retells it in code. For example 110 “could translate to the tiger keeper telling the princess the truth, the princess telling her lover the truth, but her lover doesn’t believe her.”

‘Paradise Lost’ in Baltimore

“Why do we have to read about dead white men?” James, a 17-year-old from a desperately poor, violent neighborhood of Baltimore, asked his young teacher, “Why can’t we read about authors who look like us?”

“Reading authors of all races and genders increases one’s chances of actualizing his or her human potential,” writes Irvin Weathersby Jr. in The Atlantic.

His students read pulpy “street literature” about hustlers, hoodlums and thugs, “sex-laden glorifications of drug culture, full of typos and grammatical errors.”

“It’s real,” said James. “We relate to what’s happening in the streets.”

But, “there’s so much more to the world” that Weathersby wanted his students to see.

He started a lesson on John Milton’s Paradise Lost by asking: Who was responsible for the downfall of man? Eventually, a boy said “women.” He asked what women had done. “Eve ate the apple, didn’t she?” someone said.

So they read about Eve and the forbidden fruit in Genesis.  The Bible doesn’t specify an “apple,” he told them. That was Milton.

 I went on to discuss his impact on the world during his time and beyond, his stated goal of explaining the ways of God to man, and his passion for completing the text even as he lost his sight late in life.

Then I showed them scenes from The Devil’s Advocate, the film starring Keanu Reeves and Al Pacino. . . .  all were shocked to learn that Pacino’s character, the devil incarnate, was named John Milton. I had them then.

Because of the text’s complexity, I read most of it aloud as they followed along, stopping during important scenes to ensure comprehension and analyze the arguments offered by the principal characters. Milton, I explained, gave Adam, Eve, Satan, and God personalities that aren’t present in the Bible. By giving them voices, he depicted the events in the Garden of Eden in ways no other author had done before—so much so that people began reading the text as truth and not a product of Milton’s imagination.

Students debated which character was responsible for the fall of man and wrote an essay defending their point of view.

Because I was the school’s debate coach as well, I taught them how to compose, analyze, defend, and deconstruct arguments in the technical style of a policy debate. Then I separated them into teams and facilitated what would become an incredible display of competition and scholarship.

“They had read the work of a dead white man and enjoyed it, writes Weathersby. He went on to teach Shakespeare’s Othello, Emerson’s Self-Reliance and other classics.

They don’t read ‘Evangeline’ any more

In 1908, Minnesota’s recommended reading list for 7th and 8th graders included Longfellow’s Evangeline and the Courtship of Miles Standish, and works by Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Fenimore Cooper, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson and others, writes Annie Holmquist on Better-Ed. Most of the books were 50 to 100 years old.

She found the 2014 reading list for 7th and 8th graders in Edina, one of the state’s best school districts. Other than Tom Sawyer, The Diary of Anne Frank and Fahrenheit 451, the books were written in the last 20 years.

chart1

chart2

The 1908 list “is full of historical references and settings which stretch from ancient Greece (Tanglewood Tales) to the Middle Ages (Harold, Last of Saxon Kings) to the founding of America (Courtship of Miles Standish),” Holmquist writes. Children are introduced to classic writers.

The 2014 books touch on “current political and cultural themes such as the Taliban (The Breadwinner), cloning, illegal immigrants, the drug war (The House of the Scorpion), and deeply troubled youth (Touching Spirit Bear).”

In addition, the modern books use simple language and familiar vocabulary, she writes. It’s easy reading.

Nothing But the Truth starts:

 Coach Jamison saw me in the hall and said he wanted to make sure I’m trying out for the track team!!!! Said my middle school gym teacher told him I was really good!!!! Then he said that with me on the Harrison High team we have a real shot at being county champs. Fantastic!!!!!! He wouldn’t say that unless he meant it. Have to ask folks about helping me get new shoes. Newspaper route won’t do it all. But Dad was so excited when I told him what Coach said that I’m sure he’ll help.

Evangeline is a more challenging read:

 “This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.
Loud from its rocky caverns, the deep-voiced neighboring ocean
Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.”

Apparently, it wasn’t too challenging for kids in 1908.

Via The Federalist Papers.

Reading for wisdom — or info extraction?


Laurence Olivier as Hamlet

Literature can teach “wisdom,” writes Michael Godsey, an Advanced Placement English teacher,  in The Atlantic. But Common Core standards favor “objective analysis” and information extraction.

The Common Core promotes 10 so-called “College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards” for reading that emphasize technical skills like analyzing, integrating, and delineating a text

College readiness is not the same as life readiness, Godsey argues.

. . . I’m making plans to teach the students how to “evaluate the sufficiency of the evidence” instead of asking them, “Who here sympathizes with Hamlet, or Ophelia, or any character, and how so?”

A consultant told Godsey to “ditch literature” since “literary fiction is not critical to college success.”

Achieve the Core, for example, an organization founded by the lead writers of the standards, explicitly encourages schools to teach students to “extract” information so they can “note and assess patterns of writing” without relying on “any particular background information” or “students having other experiences or knowledge.”

“None of the state assessments has a single question about the content of any classic literature,” he writes. It’s all about reading skills. There goes the “secular wisdom” of American culture.

Learning from TV

Fordham’s Netflix Academy is a list of free streaming videos on science, history and literature.

Via Walking with Dinosaurs, “my five-year-old already has a rudimentary understanding of evolution (paving the way for many scientific and theological conversations in the years ahead) and has absorbed key vocabulary, to boot (carnivore, herbivore, omnivore, Cretaceous, Jurassic, etc.), writes Mike Petrilli.