Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Dear Sarah Ockler

Dear Sarah Ockler,

About a week ago I read your treatise entitled I CliffsNoted My Way Through H.S. Lit & All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt.

I was disappointed.
I was appalled.
I wailed and gnashed my teeth.

Then I realized something. As an English Major who now teaches High School English, I was the anomaly, you were just being a normal teenager. Teenagers today are no different. I think they aren't as good at hiding it as you may have been, but they would prefer to do anything else besides read a book that doesn't interest them (ie. a book that they are being forced to read). As teachers get more and more frustrated, the kids pretend less and less. There are whole entire groups of people making money on this fact.

Still there is no answer.

Here's a list of books we read in my Sophomore English classes (those that are bold are taught in Honors only, the others are taught at all levels)

Of Mice and Men (moving to Seniors next year to be replaced with Antigone)
The Crucible
The Scarlet Letter
Ethan Frome
Our Town
The Sun Also Rises
The Great Gatsby
A Separate Peace
Julius Caesar

I think that most teens do not find these books interesting in any way. In most cases I feel this is the fault of the teacher who, for whatever reason, didn't attach the proper hangers for the students to grasp the book or gave too many hangers and the students became over-loaded with the work's meaning and didn't even see how good the book could have been. I know that I have been guilty of both. I know that I forget that I am an anomaly. You see I love to read and I will read anything, just look at my Goodreads list from last year to see I'm all over the map. I think there's something to be said for reading those classics of lit that may or may not be easy to read, but have in them themes and characters that are truly universal. It's important to read pieces of literature that have stood the test of time.

All of those books above have within them a hook (a character or plot point or theme) that really grabs the interest of a student. It's up to me to figure out what that is and to make it work. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not some sort of Book Whisperer who entrances her students to read and understand and love every book we read (I know several students who feel compelled to tell me that they didn't read a book all year like it's some sort of honor), but I do try to get them to do so.

Example One: There was a student I had who I knew wouldn't like or want to read The Crucible. I also knew that he had just gotten out of a relationship with a girl who definitely wanted him back. While we're reading the play aloud it was easy for me to assign him the character of John Proctor. He immediately identified with the character and in the end was really mad with the outcome. I had him hooked for the rest of the year.

Example Two: It's easy to get students interested in Julius Caesar, all you have to do is tell them the best part of the story...the fact that a man literally gets stabbed to death because of his best friend. "Et Tu Brute?" And, if that doesn't hook them, tell them that man's other best friend may or may not be the best guy in the world, and ask them to tell you why.

Example Three: Once students read Of Mice and Men, they get certain SNL parodies, certain Bugs Bunny cartoons and even an episode of "Friends". They get pretty excited about that. Then you can teach them all about allusions.

That being said, below you will find a list of books from your list that you MUST read.

The Scarlet Letter...if you are going to reference in your book, you really must read it and then watch "Easy A" and cry for joy about all the nuances you are now getting. There is this chapter where Dimmesdale and Hester meet again in the forest and it is so beautiful and romantic that I can't help but love it.

The Canterbury Tales...find a list that details each tale and read the bawdier ones first. Seriously, there's one where a guy with a hairy butt gets a hot poker in the bum, that's good stuff.

Shakespeare...the stereotypical high school ones are Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Macbeth and Hamlet. There's crazy teen romance, a mother that gets a little too close to her son and then yells at the Gods to rip out her womb, friendships that go a-rye, premarital sex, suicide (I mean a girl swallows hot coals, hot coals, I say! and another drowns herself in the reeds), sword fights and battles on the fields of war. Good stuff. Girl, get thee to Shakespeare I say!

The Great Gatsby...first Modern American novel. Ask yourself "What does it mean to be an American today?" This book will tell you. It also has a character (Daisy) that I love to hate. Gosh, she gets under my skin. Understand that you're seeing Gatsby through Nick's eyes and wonder if you have ever had a friend that was that good to you. Then, if you find that you like this book go ahead and read Ethan Frome, another book that has a character or three that I love to hate. Choose a side. Read it again. Choose another. It's so much fun!

Our Town...I flipping love this play. Read all about that here.

I can only hope that at some point in time my students also come to the realization that they would love to read the classics they skimmed over, and that they do so "all in the name of keeping an open mind, finding human connections, and cashing in on all of the wonderful lovey-dovey of books." I am afraid, however, that they will think the movie or SNL parody will suffice.

If you read the above and feel I haven't steered you too wrong, I've got a whole delicious list of about 100 books just waiting for you!

Stephanie M. Hasty
Communication Arts Teacher

PS. I don't like To Kill A Mockingbird (but, I have read it all the way through so I can say that). I also don't like The Help...maybe one day I will be brave enough to talk to the blog-world in a serious tone about why...

1 comment:

  1. What a fabulous post! I am a teacher too, but I teach younger students (10 year olds this year). Most children that age love to read but some are already turned off and it can be a constant battle, with small victories and small defeats.



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