Thursday, November 5

If I ran the high school English department...

Last week, I returned to my own high school for the first time since I graduated. I didn't have a particular fondness for the place. In fact that is putting it lightly. I hated high school so much, I graduated a semester early just to get out of there. (Before I went, I recounted my own most memorable high school moments on my blog, so if you want, you can check those out here.) It was weird to be there again after almost 13 years. I remember the stairways and where the exits were located more than anything, more than the classrooms. I guess it just illustrates how I felt about high school, always planning my escape. Other stuff looked vaguely familiar, like it could have been the same or could have been different. I'm pretty sure the English Department was in a new place, but I could be wrong.

I went there to meet with two English classes. One was a combination American Lit/pre-journalism class, and another was the creative writing class. If you were to predict which students were more interested in talking to me, which would you guess? Well, I would have guessed the latter. I didn't take creative writing in high school (scheduling conflict during my senior semester), but if I had and I'd had the chance to meet a real writer, one that had survived... err graduated from my high school, I would have been so thrilled. But as it turned out, most of the kids in that class took it because they thought it would be "easy," a blow-off elective (OMG, writing is so not easy!!!). The kids in the pre-journalism class were honors students. They were excited and wanted to know all about me (they asked some questions that were a wee bit too personal and I really hope don't end up in the school newspaper article they are writing). The time in that class just flew by. The other dragged, awkwardly because the few kids that were interested couldn't keep things afloat.

In between the two classes, I got to eat lunch in the staff cafeteria with the teacher. That was pretty exciting because it was one place in my school I'd never been. I'd never even thought about there being a staff cafeteria because I'd never thought about teachers doing human things like eating. The teacher asked me what I remembered about my high school English experience, what books I read, what I liked, what I didn't, who I had as teachers.

My two most memorable English classes were the one I loved most and the one I hated most. The one I hated most was English lit, junior year. I always looked forward to my English classes and I knew this one would have Shakespeare so I was extra excited. But I hated it. The way the teacher analyzed things, told us what was right and wrong drove me crazy. And it was in the Hemingway room. Hemingway graduated from my high school and as I understand it, hated it and my hometown as much I did. That is the only thing I ever liked about Hemingway. I hated his writing style, thought his subject matter was boring and borderline misogynist and to sit in a room dedicated to him. *shudder*

The class I loved most was an elective, Humanities. We got more of a say in what we read. Different kinds of books were assigned like Fahrenheit 451 by Bradbury, which my teacher allowed me to write an essay comparing themes in it to those in Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh. This meant I got to write about a book I was passionate about and I got state my thoughts about it as opposed to being told how to interpret things.

The teacher whoI visited agreed with me that it was important to let teens interpret what they read and not tell them what is right or wrong, just ask them to back up their interpretation with textual evidence. She also agreed with me that the old canon (ie. the dead white guys) that they still teach in high school is... old. She says many teachers will argue that they are classics and have withstood the test of time, but she thinks the kids lackluster response proves differently.

Now I was kind of a freak who loved the classics. I adore Shakespeare (except when jerky teachers don't let me try my hand at interpreting it). As a girl whose love life was subject of the rumormill at the time I read The Scarlet Letter, I related to it. It's one of my favorite books. Loved the Great Gatsby as well. I hated Farewell To Arms and still do. I had to read Tom Sawyer and Catcher in the Rye again post-high school to really get them. I'm glad I didn't read Grapes of Wrath in high school because I'm sure it would have been ruined for me. And I think the people who hated some of the other classics might have gotten more from them in college. But still, the most excited I was about English class was when I got to read a book of my own choosing, a book I loved. And if the point of English class is to get teens reading and encourage them to enjoy reading, wouldn't it be better to bring in books they are interested in?

It was a huge compliment when the teacher I met with told me, "You know, I would love to teach your book in my American Lit class." But she had her doubts she could get that past the powers that be. Instead she is trying to propose an elective class featuring Chicago authors with the hopes that some of us can visit and meet the kids. Definitely a cool idea, but it will attract those honors kids who are already interested in reading.

If I could lord over the high school English classes in America, I'd turn the curriculum on it's head and say for every classic we read, we find at least one contemporary to read too, preferably something with a comparable theme to help the teens find their way into the classic. Two of the books I'd love to see on curriculum alongside those classics are Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson and Monster by Walter Dean Myers. Books that deal with real issues faced by teens and will raise awareness and create a real dialogue in the classroom.

What about you? Do you like the classics? What contemporary books would you add to the high school curriculum if you could?


So Many Books, So Little Time said...

I completely agree with you. The only classic I've ever read in school and actually liked was Frankenstein, all the others have just bored me. If I didn't love reading as much as I do, English Lit could have killed the will to read.

Melissa Walker said...

So true, Stephanie. What a cool idea for there to be a local authors class. I hope that gets off the ground!

As for contemporary books, I'd be into getting Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian on some lists... I bet it's there already somewhere.

Lauren Baratz-Logsted said...

Great post, Steph! I did love the classics but would love to see contemporary books taught side by side. One of my favorite YAs this year was FREEZE FRAME by Heidi Ayarbe.

Abbi said...

I love the classics and think that many kids would never read them if they didn't have to for school. HOWEVER, I would definitely add books such as Harry Potter and Twilight. Instead of boring "nonreaders" with Wuthering Heights have them try a little Hogwarts action on for size!

Amanda Ashby said...

We never did the classics at school which I kind of wish we had! I so agree with Melissa about The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian - I've been making everyone I know read that book lately!!!

And I can totally see The Hunger Games becoming a school classic. It's like a combination of George Orwell and Lord of the Flies!!!!!

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

All great suggestions guys!