Wednesday, May 14, 2008

No offense, but why do we read this stuff?

You know what's coming next when someone begins, "No offense, but...." So when my student began talking to me using that phrase, I knew it would be about Othello. We've just started reading the play this week, and I had to have the purchase the play on their own to avoid having to teach Julius Caesar.
It is a legitimate question, and one that I have struggled with more this year as I teach many students who don't want to go to college. If the purpose of English class is to create competent readers and competent writers, does it really matter what texts we use? If my students would be more interested in reading non-fiction about the life of Snoop Dog, why not have them read that book?
Let me say that there are really two main skills that I focus on teaching my students when we read fiction: analyzing character and analyzing theme.
In our everyday interactions, we need the skill of analyzing character. We need to pay attention to what others say, do, and have said about them. It helps us to determine how we interact with those people. But that can be taught through memoirs about Snoop Dog.
Additionally, we need to recognize the magnitude of events in our life and analyze their impact on us. Analyzing theme allows us to learn this life skill. But again, we can read for thematic content in the memoir of Snoop Dog.
Okay, it isn't a classic, but who cares? Does every student need to read Othello or All Quiet on the Western Front? Probably not. Which leads to a more complex question. Does our current education system need a complete and dramatic overhaul? This overhaul does not imply that all teachers are worthless, like some critics would want you to believe. Instead, the overhaul would be directed at our approach. Why can't we get away from town by town school districts and instead move towards highly focused institutions much like the collegiate system.
For instance, a high school graduate looking to pursue a broadcasting degree searches out schools like Syracuse University. But the engineering types might choose Northwestern University. Create schools that are focused on interests, and students will respond. Because frankly, I don't blame some of my students for being bored by Shakespeare; they're never going to use its wisdom and grace beyond my classroom.

9 Comments:

At 5:04 PM , Blogger 40 said...

My take is that the new 3 Rs help to answer this question: Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships (which I incidentally think they ordered exactly backwards). If a student does not feel that something they are studying is important to them it is often just a hollow experience.

Keeping it "real" is what I call it with my kids. History is pretty easy to make relevant. So I am lucky that way.

Does your department tell you want the kids HAVE to read?

 
At 5:39 PM , Blogger Peter Thies said...

"they're never going to use its wisdom and grace beyond my classroom"

Well certainly not if you don't teach it.

Shakespeare is one of the core elements of western culture. If students can not appreciate it, their minds will be planted in very shallow soil. It is our job as teachers to demonstrate its value.

Furthermore, if we just let children's inherent interests guide their education, we'd have most of them taking courses exclusively on X-Box, Facebook, and "My Super Sweet 16."

 
At 6:45 PM , Blogger Mr. McNamar said...

Peter,
Hundreds of years from now, history will look back at today's bloggers, myspace addicts, and reality television as core elements of western culture. These mediums are reshaping our way of life. That's not to say that we ought to offer courses in them at the moment, but to suggest that a lack of appreciation for the works of Shakespeare relegates one to "shallow soil" is a bit elitist.
To suggest that every individual must value Shakespeare is ludicrous.

 
At 6:12 AM , Anonymous Joe said...

Considering the millions of texts that are available to us, it is right that English teachers struggle with the “whys” of teaching any individual work. Obviously, you have discovered that the text itself is just the tool for teaching other things, that is, we don’t “teach” Hamlet or “The Tell-Tale Heart,” instead, we use these texts to teach the content of an English class—the elements, structure, and language of story; an understanding of author’s craft; the key themes of American life, and of all life; the history of literature; the power and purpose of poetry; the skills of reading and writing; the subtleties of persuasion; the structure of language; and the value of reading, writing, listening and speaking carefully, thoughtfully, logically, and effectively.

Right now, it seems, you are focusing on character and theme. I hope (for your interest as well as your students’) as you grow as a teacher you will expand far beyond this limited scope. In doing so, you will be able to answer students like the one you speak of here, with much more confidence. At the very least, “Othello” can make us think about the self-destructive dangers of basing actions on emotional reaction. It can help us to understand how an author can manipulate the feelings of an audience. It provides archetypical characters. And it is a fine example of Shakespeare’s craft and the reasons people turn to Shakespeare for a better understanding of themselves and their lives. I might have mentioned some of this to the student.

Giving you the benefit of the doubt, I’ll assume that the student brought up Snoop Dog as an alternative, and that it is not a racist assumption about what might interest students of color (although, in New York, if I bring him up to my ninth graders, I get “Who?” as a response). I am not aware of any particular biography of him that approaches the craftsmanship of Othello, but I suppose that if you think teaching English is only about creating “competent readers and competent writers” then you are right—doesn’t matter what slop you feed them.

Finally, I hope that your last sentence, "Because frankly, I don't blame some of my students for being bored by Shakespeare; they're never going to use its wisdom and grace beyond my classroom," is only a result of end of year fatigue and frustration and not an indication of deeply held contempt for the students in front of you, because, if not, someone needs to protect them from you.

 
At 1:59 PM , Blogger Mr. McNamar said...

Joe,
I can always count on you to mix insight with ad hominem arguments.
You say, " I hope (for your interest as well as your students’) as you grow as a teacher you will expand far beyond this limited scope." Believe me, I would love to move beyond these two; in my previous experience teaching seniors who were going on to college, I focused much more on the nuances of language and author's purpose.
And by the way, when you inform me that I'll be able to demonstrate "the reasons people turn to Shakespeare for a better understanding of themselves and their lives," you are contradicting your previous statement. Themes are the messages we take from the text that help us to understand ourselves.
I take it that you believe every student that passes through our schools must come away with the wisdom and graces that Shakespeare provides. I don't believe that. You assume that this makes me a bad and evil teacher, from whom, my students need protection. Hmm...I think my students need protection against the mom that chooses her boyfriend over them, or the dad who steals from them to fund his habits.
I think my students need protection from those who want to force the same education on every student without thought to what the student actually needs at that particular moment.
If that makes me less of a teacher in your eyes, by all means, think less of me.

Anyway, you are absolutely right that we teach skills not books. And I'll give you the benefit of the doubt that you are not an elitist.

 
At 9:16 AM , Anonymous Joe said...

Actually, there is no contradiction in my statement. I never suggested ignoring theme or character; both are among the “elements” which I put first on my expanded list and therefore were rightfully included in the reasons for reading Othello. I meant to suggest that focusing exclusively on those two elements, as you specify, was too limited and under-teaches your students.

Next, there is a wide gulf between advocating for the inclusion of the work of a particular author in the scope of a student’s education, and promoting “one-size-fits-all” curriculum. Teachers make choices all the time, just as you have done in choosing Othello over Julius Caesar. Perhaps our real difference here is that I see using Shakespeare as an opportunity for you and the students, you see it as an imposition. In the end each student will decide what he/she will learn and/or enjoy, but a large part of our job is to use our limited time to welcome them into communities that might otherwise seem closed to them.

Back when George Balanchine was the director of the New York City Ballet, I had the opportunity to bring my South Bronx junior high school students to see a rehearsal at Lincoln Center. Some of the students were openly contemptuous of the idea (and deleted no expletives in telling me so). We went anyway. After the rehearsal, Balanchine came up to our balcony with a ballerina and taught some of the boys how to lift her. Those students went away feeling they had been brought into the ballet community and made it clear to their friends that ballet was damned hard work. Did they ever use the wisdom and grace beyond my classroom? That’s not ours know and is beside the point, the experience will be there for them if they do ever need it.

Next, I believe we both studiously avoided ad hominem arguments. Such approaches hang a label on a person to avoid addressing his argument. We both used loaded words—racist, elitist—but we used them to express things we hoped to avoid. I addressed your arguments and you addressed mine.

Finally, I believe you will come to see your last statement as regrettable. At least, I hope you will.

 
At 9:02 PM , Blogger Dr Pezz said...

With literature we may need to teach the students how to find the contemporary relevance and may even need to point out the personal relevance. I like using Shakespeare to teach argument, persuasive speaking, and motif. Having students look for modern-day allusions or similar (maybe parallel) plot lines can bring them into the story as well. Our job may be to liven it up for them, so they can appreciate and learn from Shakespeare's works.

 
At 9:04 PM , Blogger Dr Pezz said...

One example I blogged about a while back was having the kids find a connection between Minority Report (starring Tom Cruise) and Julius Caesar (the play). It was a great lesson and really engaged the kids. They then began linking Brutus' actions with our current government's preemptive strategies.

 
At 3:10 PM , Blogger Mr. McNamar said...

Dr Pezz,
I agree that Shakespeare is wonderful for teaching the art of persuasion. I introduced my sophomores to pathos, logos, and ethos before reading the first Act of Othello. It seemed to go well.

But, I still am not convinced that every student needs to study Shakespeare in order to achieve those goals. And though Joe from above will continue to hope that I change my mind, I just can't see how every student will use the wisdom and grace of Shakespeare beyond the classroom.
That isn't to say they won't use someone's widsom and grace, only that it won't be Shakespeare's.

 

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