I always agreed with Jim, but now that I am retired and tutoring, I feel even more strongly that we are not doing our students any favors by choosing politically correct contemporary novels and discarding the classics. Many of the students I have tutored have trouble coming up with examples for the SAT essay. They haven’t read works like 1984, To Kill a Mockingbird, Huck Finn or Of Mice and Men, novels that can be applied to almost any ethical question. Dense writing needs to be deciphered and our job is to teach students how to read it. Any work that a student can read on his/her own, without a teacher, doesn’t belong in an English class. That’s why works like Lord of the Flies and Shakespeare plays are ubiquitous over time and space.
When I taught AP Language, I started the class with two short descriptions of the SF earthquake (I taught in the Bay Area), one by Twain and one by London. On the first day of school, students started disecting diction and sentence structure, recognizing the role of style in the creation of tone. The same level of writing and nuances of diction are evident in Gatsby and other American literature that fits perfectly into AP Language.
Beyond a handful of contemporary works (shameless plug here for Hillary Jordan, whose prose is dense and beautiful) and authors, the basics are more effectively taught through classic literature. When students are out of school, they can read anything they want.
Could I add something to the “old dead white male” reference as it applies to teaching less fiction? Don’t forget that less fiction also means less Toni Morrison, Pablo Neruda, Alice
Walker, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Fecerico Garcia Lorca, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, August Wilson, Zora Neale Hurston, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka,and countless others? And I
might also submit that it also means fewer pieces of world literature written by the likes of
Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, Aristophanes, Flaubert, , etc. …..
Disclaimer–I am retired and taught nothing but AP lit and AP language for the l ast 15 years I taught, so I doubt that I would have been so affected as some of you who teach 9th, 10th, or any regular classes.
However, I did bring in editorials and essays I found interesting to my AP lit kids, as I thought they needed practice on rhetorical anaysis. Analysis of non-fiction is helpful to lit kids simply because it is additional analysis and also because they need to become better evaluators of what they read, including non-fiction. Analysis has not been stressed nearly to the degree that it needs to be stressed in al high school classes. There are too many worksheets, too many simple recall tests, and too much busywork. There is not nearly enough writing about fiction or non-fiction in middle school or 9th and 10th grade, as there is too much emphasis on the personal narrative in those grades. By 9th grade the bulkf student writing. should be analysis, unless students write fiction because they enjoy it.
So, this old bag, a lover of fiction, hates to hear that school districts are telling teachers they cannot teach entire novels OR entire biographies. I’m not a believer in snippets, even a snippet
from Letter From A Birmingham Jail, as it is only a piece of a much longer work that explains in great rhetorical detail King’s position about waiting and his disappontment in his fellow Christian .
ministers. Yes, I know; that’s what we get on standarized tests, but kids should be allowed to read all of a work such as The Divine Comedy rather than just the Inferno—and all of the Odyssey rather than snippets from four of the 22 books. That’s why I always abhorred anthologies—-they just present snippets for the most part, and kids don’t even realize they’ve only read a tiny piece of Paradise Lost; they think they’ve read it.
Hopefully more non-fiction will be included in lower grades, middle school and 9th and 10th grades, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water (just because the bath water is dirty).
You leaders in your classrooms and your schools will preserve the literary canon even as curricula changes somewhat. Teach your students to read closely and write analytically, making sure that they learn to appreciate fine writing wherever they find it.
Just my five cents——-_Anita
Well said Jay!
On a related note, we use an article by Francine Prose, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Can’t Read” with our seniors (not AP) to teach evaluating an author’s argument. She addresses this issue as well–in our efforts to supply diversity, we aren’t getting kids to read complex texts. Always an interesting conversation with kids!
Both my colleague and I are AP teachers and we’ve posted many resources to help students work on critical thinking skills. All of the areas below represent a full week of posting on the topic. Scroll through and see if there’s anything of use. I’ve copied some of our lessons with a focus on food and U.S. culture too. Hopefully some of this will be of help!
-Aubrey & Emily
Online Resources and Exercises to Aid Critical Thinking
Brain Pickings Lesson Plans
An online blog that devotes much of its time to authors and writing. Our week’s worth of posts detail how to use the blog to deepen student knowledge and argumentation skill.
Good Magazine Lesson Plans
An online magazine that highlights “good” global and discusses human nature. Our week’s worth of posts detail how to use the magazine to deepen student knowledge and argumentation skill.
Argument Analysis Lesson Plans
Lessons on how to have students parse argument, consider pros/cons and marshall evidence.
Writing Analysis Lesson Plans
Lessons on how to help struggling students work on different aspects of writing (organization, commentary, transitions).
English Assignments/Exercises with a Focus on Food