Teaching books, teaching stories,
is a positive thing
and we need to start doing a better job of it,
and doing it proudly.
There’s nothing wrong with teaching literature.
Don’t believe those memes
that would try to tell you otherwise.
NOTE: I APOLOGIZE
In a lapse of judgment, I included a meme on this site
that included an unfortunate curse word. I’ve never done that
before and, after hearing a complaint, I’ve moved to correct it.
The meme in question set up a Venn diagram with two slightly
overlapping circles. The first was labeled “What the author meant.”
The second, “What your English teacher thinks the author
meant.” Below that it used an example of a teacher who insists
on a complicated, symbolic, highly improbable reading of
blue curtains, compared to an author who claims there
was no deeper meaning or intent whatever. The curtains
were simply blue.
Here’s a popular meme, at least a variation on a popular theme, that goes around from time to time. It’s often posted by highly-literate people. And — disheartening to me — by leading educators. And the overwhelming reaction on social media is always one of agreement, even angry agreement. A lot of folks clicking “like.” I’ve even seen writers chime in about how they’d fail tests on their own books!
It’s the oft-quoted idea that teachers kill books, teachers kill the joy of reading, by teaching.
And I’m here to say that I deeply, passionately hate that notion, that somehow it’s “bad” to teach students how to read and comprehend literature.
I find memes like the above to be not only insulting to teachers, but also anti-literature, anti-intellectual, anti-ART.
Can a teacher ruin a good book? Of course! A misguided teacher can kill anything, even sex education. And that’s why so many people on social media react the way they do. In their experience, being taught books wasn’t fun — and, in fact, it was often nonsensical! I remember two of my children slogging through Great Expectations in high school for more than two months. Their teacher knew and admitted that most of her students hated it. But, you know, hey. It was bloodless and cold and somehow weirdly seen as “necessary.”
But that’s not what a good, effective teacher should do with a book. Young people need to learn how to read critically, how to understand the dynamics of story, to see and grasp what is happening. The layers: the expectations and fulfillments and disappointments. The reasons why an author made certain choices. And for readers to develop the critical tools to articulate those insights, perceptions, feelings.
Teaching literature isn’t limited to teaching symbolism — in fact, that’s just a minor aspect of (most) literature. Close reading is about thoughtful questioning, reflection, discovery. What is happening in this story? And those are cognitive lessons that students carry forward to every book they read in the future. In other words, a good teacher is teaching readers how to fish.
George Saunders, arguably the greatest living American writer, and a professor as well, describes how he teaches in his terrific new book, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain. He begins one exercise this way:
The basic drill I’m proposing here is: read the story, then turn your mind to the experience you’ve just had. Was there a place you found particularly moving? Something you resisted or that confused you? A moment when you found yourself tearing up, getting annoyed, thinking anew? Any answer is acceptable. If you (my good-hearted trooper of a reader) felt it, it’s valid. If it confounded you, that’s worth mentioning. If you were bored or pissed off: valuable information. No need to dress up your response in literary language or express it in terms of “theme” or “plot” or “character development” or any of that.
Saunders goes on to make a deeper point, with wider implications:
To study the way we read is to study the way the mind works: the way it evaluates a statement for truth, the way it behaves in relation to another mind (i.e., the writer’s) across space and time. What we’re going to be doing here, essentially, is watching ourselves read (trying to reconstruct how we felt as we were, just now, reading). Why would we want to do this? Well, the part of the mind that reads a story is also the part that reads the world; it can deceive us, but it can also be trained to accuracy; it can fall into disuse and make us more susceptible to lazy, violent, materialistic forces, but it can also be urged back to life, transforming us into more active, curious, alert readers of reality.
Teachers, please feel free to try to kill my new book with your students! Upstander is a prequel/sequel to Bystander, a middle-grade novel that stands alone. You don’t have to start with Bystander to enjoy it. Also, teachers, feel free to contact me to set up a virtual visit if you’d like (cheap). Teaching books, teaching stories, is a positive thing and we need to start doing a better job of it, and doing it proudly. There’s nothing wrong with teaching literature. Don’t believe those memes that would tell you otherwise. Upstander is a 2021 Junior Library Guild Selection. It comes out on May 11th. So far, there are no other reviews.
Wow! What a terrific, thoughtful, helpful, challenging blog post!
Thank you. Love the way you incorporated Saunders.
Thanks for reading, Robin. I really appreciate it.
Originally I had a whole bitter section about the state of “reviews” in children’s literature — and GoodReads and Amazon — but felt it was better without that element of private complaint (even if I was right!).