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Don't do me any favors!

Sunday's Washington Post had a column by English teacher Nancy Schnog called "We're Teaching Books That Don't Stack Up." Ms. Schnog's premise is that today's kids are turned from potential readers into bored video game players by high school curricula that stress "the classics" (Dickens, Hemingway, and the like) and don't let students read books whose stories actually hold their interest. She makes some good points. Here are some excerpts from her column:

...According to the National Endowment for the Arts, more teens and young adults are dropping literary reading than any other age group in America. "The percentage of 17-year olds," it reports, "who read nothing at all for pleasure has doubled" in the past 20 years. I teach juniors and seniors — yes, 17-year-olds....

. . .

As much as I hate to admit it, all too often it's English teachers like me — as able and well-intentioned as we may be — who close down teen interest in reading.

. . .

Far too often, teachers' canonical choices split from teenagers' tastes, intellectual needs and maturity levels. "Why do we assume that every 15-year-old who passes through sophomore English is an English major in the making?" asks a teacher friend. "It's simply not the case. And the kids go elsewhere, just as fast as they can &mdash anywhere but another book."

. . .

[Here Schnog quotes from a student whom she describes as eloquent and smart] "Why waste time thinking about fabricated situations when there are plenty of real situations that need solutions? Cloning, ozone depletion, and alternate fuels are a few of the countless problems that need to be addressed by the next generation, my generation."

But [still Schnog quoting the same student] read his closing words: "Granted fiction has a place in this world, but it is not in the classroom. It is beside the night lamp next to your bed, the car ride to the beach, the soft glow of a fireplace. Fiction is about spending beautiful days indoors because you can't wait to get to the next page. Because I like science fiction, my Shakespeare, my Fitzgerald, my Dickinson are Haldeman, Asimov, Herbert. They dare me to think and question my beliefs."

Sounds great for spec fic, right? But look where Schnog goes next:

If that means an end to business as usual — abolishing dry-bones literature tests, cutting back on fact-based quizzes, adding works of science fiction or popular nonfiction to the reading list — so be it. We can continue to alienate teen readers, or we can hear them, acknowledge their tastes, engage directly with their resistance to serious reading and move gradually, with sensitivity to what's age-appropriate, toward the realm of great

Did you get that? She thinks schools should cater to students' tastes for lowly work like science fiction so those kids can then be weaned from it to "serious reading" and "great literature." Her assumption is implicit: If it's science fiction, it can't be great literature.

I beg to differ. Greatness in literature has to do with the writing, not with the subject matter of the story. To quote her student, great literature can teach you to question.

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( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 25th, 2008 11:46 pm (UTC)
I think she's got the right approach, in terms of starting kids with 'lowly work', rather than the classics, though like you, I don't like what she implies about SF.
Aug. 25th, 2008 11:52 pm (UTC)
Yeah. I could not believe how little of what my kids had to read in school had been published in the last twenty years. I actually like Dickens, but expecting today's teenagers to empathize with Pip in GREAT EXPECTATIONS is a bit much.
Aug. 25th, 2008 11:56 pm (UTC)
I hated lit in school, and I never even progressed to the classics. They made us read readers that could never possibly be published as an ordinary YA title because they were SO BAD.

Okay, so one of the poems we had to read was Blake's The Tyger, which I adore, but still.
Aug. 26th, 2008 12:14 am (UTC)
You should write an LOC to the Washington Post!
Aug. 26th, 2008 12:02 pm (UTC)
Maybe I will!
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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