Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Classic Literature vs. High-Interest Reading

We had this debate the other day at school and the consensus among the actual teachers is unanimous. It is better to have the students read high-interest material than force them to read classic books.

High-interest can be many things. The reading teacher, Lynn, has several series of novels that are sort of like the old after-school specials. Family problems, high school problems, dating problems, high sea adventure, real-life stuff. The point that she likes to make is that the kids are READING. She has some recalcitrant students actually come in excited to read the next chapter.

There are several community members and people around here that are pushing her to read "high-level classics." I put that in quotes because what exactly makes it high-level? Lynn pauses at the regular old textbook anthologies and says that most of the stories are just plain boring to a junior high student. I have to agree wholeheartedly. Isn't it better to get the kids to read ANYTHING rather than watch them fake reading a story that they have no connection with?

I see myself in this category of learning and I am a high level reader with a degree in English and education and almost finished with my master's in English. I absolutely HATED The Scarlet Letter when I was a junior in high school. I wasn't ready cognitively and emotionally to understand exactly what Hester Prynne and the Reverend Dimmesdale were going through. Marriage? Infidelity? Passion? Religious views on this stuff? I hated it.Then I had to read it again a couple of years ago because I HAD to teach it to the juniors at South Kitsap High School. As I read it on my own this time in order to refresh myself on it, I couldn't put it down. I LOVED it. Maybe it was because I was thirty years old now and had more maturity and experience. Possibly. I was more ready for it now. Awesome read. Same thing happened two years ago when I chose to do Ethan Frome in my senior lit class because it was the shortest novel to choose. I LOVED it. Read it in almost one sitting. Phenomenal story and pacing. But then I had to teach these books. No matter how enthused I was at them, it didn't rub off. No matter how much we worked together, I couldn't get them to understand what these characters were feeling. How do you understand extramarital affairs and how they hurt the heart when students had trouble finding a bloody date? It never connected. Even though Ethan Frome is a hundred or so pages only, and a quick read and no where near as dense as The Scarlet Letter, the kids hated every minute of it.

I also recently had to read Frankenstein for my master's degree. Ugh. It felt drawn out to me. Much of it was told through dialogue, not action. I have to say as an English degree holder that it was okay--I saw the importance of the novel through the time period and why it is remembered today. Being a high level reader, I was excited a bit by the climax. I just felt that while reading it, I was trudging along. I didn't want to pick it up some nights. And it's not a long book. I wasn't struggling with it or anything, just didn't want to read it. If I had been reading it on my own, I never would have finished.

Also, I must say that I read some of my absolute favorite books in a college class called Young Adult Literature. That class introduced me to Robert Cormier and Susan Cooper, amongst a myriad of others that I would rather read than some other books labeled as classics. What's wrong with these books?

I don't care whether students are reading comic books and horrible paperback novels. I do it too. I just finished a Star Trek novel, for crying out loud. With my degree and credentials, you'd think I was sitting here everyday reading Tolstoy or Joyce. No way. I've tried that before, thinking that I should be reading something "better." I have started and stopped reading Moby Dick no less than ten times. I would rather pick up something else, like that new R.A. Salvatore fantasy novel that Amy bought for me. I know it will be fun and I'll love it.

No wonder the kids hate reading class most times. They are forced to read something they despise.

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