Friday, September 18, 2015

A Further Iteration Idea for Classic Literature Studies

Three weeks in, and I already have to mix it up. My Classic Literature Studies program is already not working out the way I planned. This is why we embrace flexibility as teachers!

I'm not sure if it's just my school, or region, or country, or generation, or what, but my students are not "getting" classic lit.

My mind immediately goes back to the foundation of the project as a whole. The basis of Lit. Research and CLS both were to same question: Why do we teach classic lit in schools? The answer was that these are books every high schooler needs to read so that we, as a society, maintain a level of collective consciousness. That is to say, every person (at least in America) reads these books so that we have a common set of knowledge to draw upon. If we make a reference to Romeo and Juliet or To Kill a Mockingbird, we can be relatively sure that it will be understood.

I had a small class of seniors today, so we talked about it together. We really, actually talked this time. I had been letting a one-sided lecture suffice for this topic, but this time I opened up and welcomed feedback. The consensus they reached was, "Well, that doesn't matter because these books suck. Why are we forced to read these books when so many better books exist?"

And I get it. I completely get that. In fact, I have friends that question my commitment to teaching classics, as well. A common refrain from my husband whenever I mention literature is, "So, when are you going to teach The Name of the Wind?" Another friend always opens his mouth and then just shuts it because he knows he won't get a satisfactory answer from me; he's already tried.

To some extent, I'm still stuck in I-have-to-do-things-the-right-way mode. I'm afraid of being shunned both by my school community and by English teachers as a whole. I'm afraid of being outed as "not a REAL English teacher" if I don't dedicate myself to teaching the "proper" things.

But... isn't that what I do? Isn't that my whole schtick? Isn't the basis of professional career as a whole to question tradition (as Millennials are wont to do) and give my student what really matters? Have I really gotten so confrontation-shy?

At the same time, I still don't feel like I'm ready to drop CLS completely yet. There is still the matter of the collective consciousness that I felt so strongly about. And there is still the matter of my constituents (namely, my students' parents) wanting to keep the classics in the classroom. So it's not out the window yet. I'm just going to mix it up some more.

A story came across my local NPR channel on my drive to work this morning about how a recent study shows Kansans' desire for schools to teach a shocking 70% non-academic skills, "like teamwork, communication and persistence," over the traditional math and reading curriculum. Hearing that was just what my sore little heart needed to hear. I've been so stressed recently trying to force my curriculum to work. It was a relief to hear that others across my state are embracing a more liberal education again. I reached work in a brighter mood, ready to make some changes, ready again to challenge the status quo. I started brainstorming as my students wrote in their notebooks.

First, why do we need the change? What's been going on?

For a little over a year, I've been trying to teach classic literature as such:

-At first, I tried the most traditional route: Assigning one or two chapters of reading homework at a time and giving quizzes the next day. The students hated it, and so did I. They were forced to maintain the speed I set, which slowed many of them down and rushed the others quicker than they could handle. The quizzes seemed like an inauthentic mode of conversation, and most of them felt like I was just trying to "catch them" not reading. But when I tried NOT giving quizzes, most of them didn't read at all. The whole thing seemed inauthentic, in general, because that's not how we read when we read for pleasure, a chapter at a time, then stop and recap. Well, not most of the time, anyway.

-Thus, Lit. Research. I tried making reading optional. They didn't have to read the book, but they did have to know about it. The students had to look up the books on the computer and develop a summary paragraph listing an "elevator speech" of the most important things it encompassed. And they could still read if they wanted to, though I only had a couple of students read a couple of books the entire year. It seemed like such a good idea, but the students were lazy and I wasn't very good at enforcing my expectations. For the most part, they printed a page from Sparknotes and called it good. Thus, they didn't truly comprehend the books or the messages within, and I was again frustrated.

-This year, I've been trying to take the middle road by giving them only short excerpts to read. (Again, the whole book is available, but not mandatory.) It's three weeks in, and I can already tell that it's not going to work. My students still resist reading anything I put in their hands if at all possible. But now I've come across a new problem I didn't realize I had last year--they don't comprehend the text. Even the first excerpt, which I purposefully chose as an introduction to the book, no prior knowledge necessary (though we did, of course, go over some background information beforehand) led to complaints of, "I don't get it." They don't want to read, and when they do read, they don't understand what they're reading.

After realizing that the text wasn't coming alive for them, I started reading the excerpts to my students. I have mixed feels about this process already.

I was going to make a claim of "Everyone likes to be read to" and link it to an article confirming said claim, but then I realized that that's a bigger point that I can actually do a lot of research on. I could write an entire post about using read alouds with high school students.

So, until that point, suffice to say that part of my new plan for CLS includes read alouds. It seems to be the only way that I can get the "boring, old" text to come alive for my students, apart from movie adaptations (which I'm always weary of, personally). More on my mixed feels when I sort them. Until then, I'm reading Classic Lit to my students and discussing as we go along.

And for the rest of reading? I've been thinking about getting more classroom involvement in self-selected reading, most likely along the lines of a creative project once per quarter. Perhaps a video or a podcast or something? It seems a little daunting, honestly, but we'll start out small. They still have AR point goals and half an hour a week of class time to read. I just want to do more with that.