The first major piece of literature I ever taught at the high school level was Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic American novel, “The Scarlet Letter.”
Just a few comments, but before making my thoughts on this article.
What the heck is going on in this article with the little number 1 that pops up to the left of the story as one hovers one's mouse pointer over each paragraph? So distracting that I attempted to hide the phenomenon by sliding the window as far off the screen as possible without losing the left edge of the story.
The good news is that when I stopped "tracking my progress through the story with my pointer, I discovered that if I moved it to the RIGHT of the story the phenomenon ceased.
If you know what's happening a quick note to jerome@GoogleLitTrips.com would be appreciated.
Now about the article...
I was attracted to the story by its headline. I've been concerned for quite some time that an unintended consequence of the intense interest in "testing, testing, testing" as an "harmless and/or accurate" method of assessing progress in literary reading might be the misdirection caused in student perception of literary reading's actual value.
In fact, in schools where such testing is at the center of all curricular development creating an "if-it-ain't-on-the-test-it-ain't-acceptable-in-your-lesson-plan" attitude, even the efforts of literature-loving English teachers can become seriously derailed causing a potential perfect storm of literary reading disengagement.
Yet, my personal dilemma is that I'm absolutely in favor of holding both students and educators accountable for having learned the lessons in all curricular area.
I don't know what forces are behind the disappointment of the article's author. It might have been the excessive Pavlovian attention to testing that caused the traditional Pavlovian automaton reaction focused not on the story's relevance but on the test where actual literary value is insufficiently emphasized in favor of the rewards of passing or failing a test.
But, it might also have been a misfocusing of the way in which the novel was presented focusing more upon a scholarly dissection than upon relating the 21st century relevance of reading the story.
It appears to be quite clear that the article's author is a caring educator who also knows the "real value" of literary reading, but perhaps the assumption of reading a story of true value "now" and hoping that students will see the real-world relevance "later" is not the most effective strategy.
We know that teaching vocabulary and grammar without a direct connection to the value of knowing vocabulary and grammar is significantly less effective than teaching those "more easily measurable skills" WITHIN a meaningful context.
Why might we assume that teaching literature in a disconnected context where the immediate context is more focused upon the pending test or essay would be any more engaging, and for that matter long-lasting?
Raise your hand if you've frequently had the experience of kids doing exceptionally well on fill-in the blank tests on topics such as the difference between "your, you're, and yore," "then and than, "it's and its" and yet in subsequent writing assignments, all those right answers on the fill-in the blank tests showed no sign of having actually become part of their working understanding of the language.
Let me count the hands...
Wait, keep them up so I can get an accurate count...
Oh damn! there are too many hands, ...
Let's try this. Just hold up your hand if you've never seen this.
Ah! that's better.
No one has never seen this phenomenon! (double negative intended!)
Perhaps intentionally building contempory connections to the novel's THEMES into the lessons throughout the study would shorten the distance between the students' known world, and the students' unknown world would place the study of the work more at the center of the students' zones of proximal development. (Oh Vygotsky! You were so wise!)
Here's a completely disconnected connection.
When I went to school it was still quite popular to do actual animal dissections in sophomore biology classes. We dissected dead "pickled and dried" Rattus Ratti;" the common black rat. Though I have very specific recollections about the scientific name and that our pickled and dried specimen was definitely quite yellow.
I had never seen a live rat, though I'd seen several live mice. And, I had no preceding love for rodents, so except for the "gross" factor of dissection, I had no particular repulsion caused by the experience. In fact, I must admit that there was, at least in my mind, a bit of curiousity satisfaction attained.
Now, (the disconnected connection), I wonder if instead of a pickled and dried rat, we had to watch a live fluffy bunny peacefully nibbling on carrots in its cage for a few months before we were told on a Friday that we'd be dissecting Fluffy on Monday.
(A quick aside)
Even in those pre-PETA days, when we were actually later in the same course, expected to dissect a LIVE FROG. The outrage was such that at the last minute the order for the laboratory frogs raised specifcally for this purpose had to be canceled.
When Mr. T. explained to us that we would be expected to pith the frogs by sticking a needle in the back of their skulls and scrambling their brains so that "they'd be dead but their nervous systems would still be active so we could see their legs kick when we stimulated a nerve," I found myself unable to resist the opportunity to blurt out, "Well, I'd be pithed too if you stuck a needle in my skull!" Although I considered the play on "pissed "and "pithed" to be sublime and my classmates considered it hilarious, Mr. T was of another opinion and I found myself explaining my lack of good judgment to the assistant principal in short order.
Anyway, back to Fluffy and Hester Prynne, my point being that caring about pets or great stories is a precious joy, but dissecting them is a different thing altogether.
There is no doubt that dissecting a great story or a loveable bunny can actually increase our appreciation for life and literature. But, in both cases, for those students who perhaps are not destined to take an existing caring about bunnies and books to the scholarly level of becoming veteranarians or members of the academic literati, there is a danger of disengaging more students than we are engaging if the focus of academic dissection is not tempered by an understanding that continual emphasis upon why we should CARE is a prerequisite to a discovery of life-long relevance and engagement.
In addition to creating future English majors, we ought to remember that we ought to be creating life-long literary readers, many of whom will develop a life-long interest in literary reading as a direct result of the academic dissections they experienced in our classrooms, but many will abandon any interest they may have had in literary reading as a direct result of the very same academic dissections. It is a delicate line to walk as we contemplate our lesson designs.
So here's one trick that I found quite helpful in consistently connecting literary reading to the world my students actually cared quite a bit about.
As I began the study of a literary reading title, I'd set up a Google Alert (http://www.google.com/alerts) for that title.
You can set up alerts to automatically notify you about current internet postings on any topic you want. I used to demonstrate this with "To Kill A Mockingbird" with fair confidence that sometime during that unit, there would be news about Harper Lee, or theatre productions, or book bannings, or...all sorts of connected "news., and, I was never disappointed.
There would always be multiple contemporary postings that pre-set a tone that we WEREN'T just reading some old book that was so old and distant from anything students might care about that even the movie was in black and white! We WERE reading a book that even to this day is widely read and considered relevant for all sorts of contemporary reasons.
By the way, I'd trash all those automated alerts at the end of the unit rather than harvest them for possible use the next year. Why? Because last year's news is just that last years news. The following year I'd reestablish a new alert for the same title so that we'd only see absolutely contemporary references to the stories we would be reading.
For what it's worth...