Thursday, April 16, 2020

Why Teach Literature Stuff: #6 Not For These Reasons

When I was teaching, and I had extra time on my hands, I would reflect on the work--the whys and hows and whats. So in solidarity with my former colleagues, I'm going to write a series about every English teacher's favorite thing-- teaching literature, and why we do it. There will be some number of posts (I don't have a plan here).

Also, it would be nice to write and read about something positive, and I don't know anything much more positive than what teachers do and why they do it.

There are so many reasons that people think teachers teach literature, including, I have been told, "to make students miserable and bored." That's not it and, seriously, it's a bad sign. If you are boring all of your students, you are doing it wrong. Maybe you're expecting the work itself to do the heavy lifting, or maybe you aren't into the work yourself. If it's the latter, well-- part of your job as a teacher of literature is to find your own way to an exciting and interesting core of the piece. If you absolutely can't, the work probably shouldn't be on your reading list.

But then, "because it's on the list" is one of those bad reasons for teaching something. Even the AP test gives a list of several dozen works and still offers the option of substituting another work of similar heft. And granted--sometimes the way to figure out the how/why of teaching a work is to attempt to teach it.

Because the list itself is often a collection of bad reasons, from "we've always taught this" to "the community expects students to have read this work." If you're not careful, the list becomes comfortable, and once you get too comfortable teaching a work, you are on the edge of lazily going through motions.

And certainly, please, God, no, because "this stuff will be on The Test." It's the worst reason to teach anything, in part because it is fundamentally backward. You should test what you taught, not teach what you expect to test.

Don't teach something for reasons other than the actual values in the work. "Because it has been a classic for three hundred years" is not a great reason, but neither is "because this is a hot new contemporary work." If you as a teacher cannot find a way to see an exciting valuable core in the work, it shouldn't be on your lesson.

The teacher excitement and engagement thing is a critical factor that can overwhelm many others. I don't know many people who have any business teaching Paradise Lost to high school students. I'm sure I couldn't have. But I worked with a woman who just loved that work, top to bottom and front to back, and so she made it live and breathe for her students (who at the end of the year put John Milton on trial in front of actual local lawyers--always quite the show as they called characters from the work as witnesses).

There is one caveat here-- if your excitement about the work is linked to one single interpretation, one single set of Correct Gets for students to glean, then maybe you shouldn't teach it. If you can't tolerate your students wandering about and discovering all sorts of Wrong Things, to the point that you feel you must grab them by the nose and drag them to the Stream of the Single Truth, then maybe you need to let this one go.

If you are teaching K-12, you students are not studying literature for the same reason college English majors do, and you should not be trying to reproduce the work of your favorite college lit professor. If you don't see the value in literature even for people who will not spend their lives neck deep in the language and imagery and technique and shock and awe of great literature, then you need to back up. If literature only matters to the people who make a career out of literature, well, then, I'm not sure I can make a case for teaching it to K-12 students.

Literature, like art and music and maybe even math and science, exists not just for the specialists, but as a means of enriching the lives of people whose existence is mostly about something else. That has to be your guiding principle in a K-12 classroom; if your attitude is that you are trying to reach the future English majors and everyone else is just kind of dust on your boots, you're doing it wrong. My high school band director was awesome, and I say that not because he produced a bunch of professional musicians (though he did) but because he produced a huge number of people who are not professional musicians, but for whom music provided enormous enrichment to their lives. That's how I felt about literature when I was still in the classroom.

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