Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Dilemmas I - Spinach

(Explanatory note: At Punahou the 30 members of the English department are spread across 26 courses, most of which are electives. Teachers who share a particular course—say, Identity and Culture, or Creative Writing—generally participate in regular subdepartmental meetings, at which they share ideas and current practices, and also make nitty-gritty decisions about course content. Each of the major subdepartmental groups also has a representative on what is called the SHIP group (SHIP is an acronym for Spirit, Heart, Intent, and Purpose.) The SHIP group meets once every (6-day) cycle, in order to try to explore and clarify the overall departmental mission, to draft policy initiatives to be presented to the department as a whole, and to assist one another in answering questions which have arisen in the subdepartmental meetings. The post which follows is my own attempt to think through one issue that arose at this week’s SHIP meeting.)

How should we decide what texts to put in front of our students? Each year in each of the subdepartments a kind of debate takes place. Our freshmen, for example, currently read four major texts during the year: Haroun and the Sea of Stories and The Odyssey during the first semester, and Midsummer Night’s Dream and Woman Warrior during the second semester. This year, as in every previous year, there are teachers who strongly advocate for dropping Woman Warrior in favor of a text the students would enjoy reading more. This year, as in every previous year, there are teachers who advocate strongly for keeping Woman Warrior in the curriculum on the grounds that it is a rich and challenging text that rewards close study and works very well to foreground issues of voice and identity which are thematic in the freshman English program as it is currently configured. The same arguments might be made for any of the other core texts with the exception of Haroun, which presents another dilemma: does the user-friendliness of the text justify its rather self-indulgent forced humor and one-dimensional allegory?

As we discussed these texts, and the larger issue of the logic of text selection generally, I found myself entertaining two quite different visions of what we are trying to do as educators. At one extreme I am certainly prepared to endorse the position that our job as teachers is to place challenging texts in front of our students and then teach the students how to read the texts well. That’s what happened to me when I was in school. I would, in all likelihood, never have read Oedipus Rex, or MacBeth, or The Scarlet Letter, or "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'" if one of my high school English teachers had not made the decision that it would be beneficial for me to do so. And I am grateful to them that they did: those texts, and many, many others like them, opened for me the door to the life of the mind. I think a course which placed rich, challenging texts in front of students and helped them come to appreciate and value them would be a hell of a course, and that students would benefit tremendously from it.

At the other extreme, I am certainly prepared to endorse the position that our job as teachers is to develop in our students a love of reading and the habit of being a lifelong reader. And I’m not sure that any of the texts I just mentioned—or, for that matter, many of the books that are in our current core curriculum—are going to get that job done. I have taught, and enjoyed teaching, a more or less pure reading workshop course of the kind that Nancie Atwell and others have made famous with middle-schoolers. I can easily envision a course in which ALL of the decisions about what books students are going to read—as well as what writing they are going to be doing—would be made by the students themselves, individually. I think it would be a hell of a course, and that students would benefit tremendously from it.

At the same meeting, we had a parallel discussion about the electives we offer, and what sorts of constraints, if any, we should place on the number of electives available and on the kinds of choices students can make. We could, for example, simply say, that during junior and senior year you have to take four electives: one writing course, one literature course, one philosophy course, and one performance course. (Most of our elective courses are semester-long.) Or again, taking the broader view, we could simply say, “Here’s the menu, choose what you like.”

I had a conversation with a grade seven teacher last year who noted with a combination of alarm and resignation that she recently for the first time has students coming up to her and announcing “I’m not a reader,” as if it were a lifestyle choice, like deciding not to try out for basketball. When a student has already decided at age 12 that s/he is “not a reader,” it’s pretty clear what is going to happen freshman year when that student bangs up against The Odyssey. Whatever is done in class will get done. Whatever is to be done at home will not get done, and if pressed, the student will in all likelihood resort to the same strategic subterfuges that have sustained reluctant readers all along, and which are now made easier by the ready availability of online cheat sheets and prewritten essays.

I don’t have an answer to the dilemma. Or rather, I guess I have three: Option A (“Eat your spinach, it’s good for you.”), Option B (“Eat whatever you want.”) and Option C (“After you eat your spinach, I’ll let you choose a dessert.”). I guess what I’d like to see is a coherent schoolwide (K-12) vision of what option we endorse. Or perhaps the smorgasbord of options we currently offer is ultimately in the best interests of the students after all. (And yes, Virginia, that does sound suspiciously like a copout. But that’s where we are today, November 27. Tomorrow is, as my mother was fond of saying—after Scarlett O’Hara—another day.)


C. Watson said...

As one of the freshman teachers you mentioned, I've been thinking almost daily about the 3 options you list at the end of your post. First, I want to provide an anecdote. I ask students to write a reading process reflection as the final exercise after finishing The Woman Warrior. One particular student came in for help. He felt like he wasn't saying exactly what he meant in his paper. Essentially, he was dancing around the fact that he did not like the book, and the process of reading it was painful. However, along the way, episodes from the book reminded him of personal experiences about which he wrote often. Is this the kind of experience we're going for?
Secondly, I have a question for myself: When we teach texts do we make the distinction between books that students will access easily and enjoy and the books that we consider "good for them?" Maybe I do sometimes. But what if I was more transparent about it? Like, "okay get ready for The Woman Warrior, it's this semester's 'challenge' text. Let's see what we can do with it and what it has to offer us?"
Finally, I keep going back to something I heard in a podcast called ShrinkWrap Radio. It was from an interview with a California teacher-of-the-year who had asked her students what it was about her class that was so great. She came to the conclusion that what helped students engage most authentically was that she engaged in honest inquiry with them. So what does that mean for book selection?

Patrick said...

As a current student in junior year, I have nothing but gratitude and thanks towards my freshman and sophomore teachers (and the program of course) for pushing these great works of literature on us. It challenged our minds and mandated an engagement with a higher-level of thinking that I necessarily did not have at the beginning of my high school career.

It is safe to say that during 9th and 10th grade, the Woman Warrior and the Odyssey as well as Romeo and Juliet (which was the designated 9th grade shakespeare read) did not become favorites among the class. Many people thought these books were long and boring...and I confess that some of those horrid thoughts fluttered through my mind, but it is also safe to say that the purposes and goals of the English Department for sophomore and freshman year had been achieved. I gained a new level of literary comprehension, creativity, and depth, that I was not accustomed to. I had been prepared to face the complex works of literature that awaited me during junior year, and I was eager to face them (I succeeded in that summer American Literature class and was able to investigate and analyze the literature we tackled in a productive method).

The English Department of Punahou School has consistantly prepared students for higher-level academics as well as life. The English classes and electives are the courses that I most look forward to, and I have even taken measures towards adding in three electives per semester during my senior year. There is also an abundance of courses and information to be learned from the English Department with fabulous instructors to study under. Whether that information is grammatical, literary, spiritual, or moral, all information is well worth learning.

I truly believe that the English Department has been maintaining a great balance between the two conflicting visions, and although there is no answer to this dilemma, the English Department has been achieving the closet to what I would have assume to be the "right answer."