Everyone Seems So Sure About What We Read and How. I’ve Got Questions about Why.
The longer I go without being able to go anywhere or do anything, the more Twitter starts feeling like my real life. This can’t be good for me. This can’t be good for anyone.
I don’t know about you, but my little corner of teacher Twitter has been doing a whole lot of shouting lately about what we read and how we read it. I’ve mostly stayed out of it for a few reasons. For one, the “science of reading” and “defend the cannon” crowds are passionate to the point of being terrifying. I once made the mistake of wearing a Twins hat to a bar in Boston while they were playing against the Redsox. The conversation was not productive.
I care about books a lot more than I care about baseball. I think the crew at #DisruptTexts is awesome and deserves support. Also, I feel like if we called a moratorium on reading books by white guys for the next ten years, we’d be a lot better off (I say that as a white guy who not only reads a bunch of white guy books, but is about to publish his second one).
The second reason I’ve stayed mostly out of this particular twitter brawl is that I have a lot more questions than I do 280 character declarations of rightness lazily aimed at straw men.
Rilke, in Letters to a Young Poet, has a thing about living with questions, that “perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, one distant day live right into the answer.”
Which is to say that I’ve been thinking about books when I take walks and stuff, asking myself why we teach novels. Is literature in schools so that we can teach the book in front of them, or so they can read the ones that haven’t been written yet?
Do we value novels in our classrooms as curriculum or art? Because they are difficult or because they are relevant? Do we read them as tools or as testimony?
Do we teach books as puzzles? Is the work of the reader or of the class and teacher to take the blocks of texts and extract some combination of metaphor, imagery, structure and style as pieces that fit together nicely? Are the books we read in school a question with an answer?
My instinct is to teach students to read with questions. What does the text do and how? Why?
Verlyn Klinkenborg, in his rather perfect Several Short Sentences about Writing said, “We forget something fundamental as we read: Every sentence could have been otherwise, but isn’t.”
What if our young readers became older readers who had learned to pause when reading something, anything, that hit them in that spot where words hit, and thought about how those words could have been otherwise?
A good amount of great literature has lived in my classroom over the years. Othello and Romeo and Juliet, The Things We Carried, Their Eyes Were Watching God, poems by Donne, Ackmavtova, Shire, and Neruda; short stories by Alexei (since removed), Adichei, Vonnegut, Jackson, and Chekov. The graphic novels MAUS, Daytripper, and American Born Chinese.
I like all those things an awful lot, but I can’t name one book so important I think everyone must read it.
The best all class novel experience I’ve had was teaching Kindred by Octavia Butler, except I barely even taught it.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote this in his introduction to Anne Sexton’s Transformations,
“How do I explain these poems? Not at all. I quit teaching in colleges because it seemed so criminal to explain works of art. The crisis in my teaching career came, in fact, when I faced an audience which expected me to explain Dubliners by James Joyce.
I was game. I’d read the book. But when I opened my big mouth, no sounds came out.”
That’s how I felt about Kindred. The idea of taking that book, the experience of reading that book, and distilling it to a worksheet, to an essay, even, or a series of well-structured fishbowl class discussions, felt wrong.
We read the book, you know, the way that people read books, without chapter quizzes or reading logs, without a single worksheet or due date. They read it, grabbed extra copies for their mom and brother and friend at another school. We read it, and that was all, and that was enough.
My second favorite text to teach was Othello, and that unit looked exactly different. We autopsied that shit; studied the bones of the play and flesh of the language. We compared the history of performances of Othello to performances ranging from blackface to Black Panther and how Iago’s use of the perception of Othello as “other” illuminated a fault of the human psyche reflected across history.
These days, my all class stuff is usually shorter. We practice on short stories, poems, film, paintings, and pictures the kinds of analysis and reading skills I want students to use on a novel, and then I let them pick what they’re going to read. I wrote up the whole unit with links to materials if you want to see what this looks like.
The debate has lots of all class or choice, cannon or disruption. There are lots of ors.
But school is 13 years long and teaching isn’t that simple. We can do lots of boths.
Maybe it’s even a good thing if we’ve all got slightly different answers to the question of why we teach the books we do, so long as we are all living the question.