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January 07, 2008


This post (and the newspaper column that instigated it) made me sad.

My mother started to read to me as soon as I was born. By age 4 I commenced to read everything I could get my hands on. My parents kept a library of classic literature in our basement. Being a social misfit, those books were my best friends. By the time I reached high school, I had read each of them a dozen times at least. The dreaded high school assignments were mostly books I had already read, so rarely a challenge. I voluntarily signed up for a course in world literature so that I would learn some new reading genres.

My husband's experience was more like the folks'in Back Fence, with the added difficulty of growing up in a foreign country with nothing to read in the house. Hubby's parents never read to him, either.

You can guess which path we took with our child. He recently was thrilled to receive "Treasure Island" for Christmas. He is 7.

Bottom line: READ TO YOUR KIDS. It is time spent with them that you will never regret.

Novels kept me somewhat "sane" in high school.. I read Dickens, Gone with the Wind (several times) all of Hemingway...etc....That is why this article about banning novels in some California schools is one of my favorites from susan ohanian's site. Read it and weep.

In 8th grade I was given 20 of the classics in comic-book form by my home-room teacher. (Comic book renditions of Les Miserables, The Man Without a Country, and yes, even Tale of Two Cities.) They worked for me. I looked thru them (repeatedly) and the stories stuck, even if only comic book renditions. Later, when I was ready for the books ~ I read them all. It's possible the cartoon images influenced my later reading (Jean Valjean comes foremost to mind as pictured on the comic-book cover; muscled, long black-hair flying, holding up a collapsing donkey cart.) But that doesn't bother me - they were the springboard to 1000's of hours spent happily reading. Which is to say I agree with Terry Olson when he says "[s]ometimes the classics may just have to wait their turn." - In my case, it was a savvy teacher who realized that, and hooked me by what I (at 13) was ready for (comic books!)

I know what you mean about A Tale of Two Cities, Silas Marner. I just didn't get them in high school. Total turnoff. On the other hand, my parents read to us at an early age. My first very own book was Treasure Island at age 8, my very first hardback, as a matter of fact. I read it often, even though I didn't understand some of it at the time.

It's a good question- how to select a "classic" novel that an entire class can relate to?

Hey Terry,

I'm starting to update our Novick bloggers through email and just realized that I don't have your email address. Would you mind emailing me at lizkimmerly{at}gmail{dot}com so I can get you on the list?

Thanks and happy new year,

My biggest mistake in high school was taking Bible as Literature from a Southern Baptist. I could have taken American Lit, but nooooooo.....

I did have a good experience in British Lit, though, so that kind of made up for it. And my college freshman year interp. of lit. class was outstanding. (One Hundred Years of Solitude, Caucasian Chalk Circle, etc.) In both of those positive young lit experiences, I have to say it was the teacher, not the material, that made the difference. I think I would have enjoyed Bible as Lit had it been taught more objectively.

In response to Robert Canfield's question, "how to select a "classic" novel that an entire class can relate to?"

This is where creative teaching comes in. Instead of making the whole class read the same book, create a list of 10-20, with short synopses (you can get them off Amazon). Let students choose which they will read. Their discussions can be in small groups at first, and then each group can make a presentation to the class, so that everyone will learn about the books they didn't read (and maybe even read them on their own!) as well as the ones they did read.

It's not rocket science!

Very interesting comments. I was especially taken by Andrew's experience with "classic comic books" (or "graphic novels" as they're now called.) What a good story about an innovative approach to teaching the classics. Brilliant!

I agree with Zarwen that the key to literacy and preparation for the travails of high school English classes is making sure the child knows how to read and is fond of reading before starting school. And she's right again in asserting that creative teaching is "not rocket science."

Ditto Steve's experience with the Bible as literature. No (western) adult can be considered culturally literate without some familiarity with both the Bible and Shakespeare.

Of course you're all intelligent and good readers. I was most gratified, however, to read Robert Canfield's reaction which is much more representative of the actual high school experience with college prep-oriented high school lit classes.

We have to keep in mind that many students, even here in Portland, don't come from especially literate families.

I teach middle school and many kids come in saying they don't like to read. "Books are boring." I ask them if they like movies. Oh, yes, they all like movies. I ask them if they would like movies so much if they were all the old black and white love movies. They say no. Then I try to explain that the problem if they don't like to read is they are choosing the wrong books (the old black and white ones). The lesson then has the class analyze how they choose a good movie and we then use the same ideas to understand how to choose a good book. A great lesson, probably my best in 40+i years of teaching. The analogy is really powerful.

There are so many great children's literature books out there it is just a matter of getting the kids into the right ones. This lesson really helps. Seldom do I ever hear the I don't like to read attitude again. When I do I just ask them how they are choosing their books. And we review the main ways. Works great to get kids to read (need a good classroom library though so it is easy for them to get a good book).

The #1 way? Same as the movies. A friend's recommendation.

Whoops, forgot to sign the last post.

I love this discussion and do not see this as an either-or proposition. I think we should do it all--"classics" as well as popular culture. The key is a rich, varied environment, choice, and dialogue. Some stories that popped to mind when I read these posts:

--I was confused by Tale of Two Cities as a high school sophomore and entranced 30 years later. I am glad I had to read it at 14 though as it lead me back to it in my middle age. I also had a mom who laughingly referred to herself as Madame Defarge as she sat knitting in political meetings, so that image remains firmly entrenched in my mind. (Madame Defarge is a character from Tale of Two Cities who knits the names of her enemies into her work).

--I minored in Women's Studies in college (there was no major in that topic although you could major in Turf Science if you wanted, but I digress). I did not read many of the traditional classics, but instead read Zora Neale Hurston, Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, Harriette Arnow etc. We also read male writers like Ibsen and Tolstoy. My own reading later lead me to contemporary African American novelists, anything on Australia, and Haitian writers. I still think I should read the standards, hopefully I live long enough to do that. This is why I do not watch TV--my book list is too long!

--My brother's nephew immigrated to the US from Thailand and lived with my brother and his wife during high school. He was getting pulled into gang culture and materialism and not studying so my brother made this rule. They would read and discuss books together. They alternated--my nephew's pick (usually popular novels with a lot of sex and violence) then my brother's pick. He went for the thickest classics he could find. I can only imagine the discussions, but this method worked. The key was the choice that each of them had.

--My eleven year old daughter was reading Little Women by herself but got stymied by the language. Now I am reading it to her and discussing it as it goes along.

--I have a friend who is an anthropologist and teaches college Humanities in Detroit. She will use ANYTHING to teach from the lyrics to a Kanye West song, to a Disney movie, to contemporary Haitian fiction. She says the glorification of the "classics" is overdone. She teaches critical analysis "by any means necessary". I love her iconoclastic methodology, her joy and interest in the simplest things. I stumble from dinners at her house filled with new ideas.

--I do have a bias towards ORIGINAL, COMPLETE texts. Teaching from abridged versions, or novel excerpts is insane and erodes our intellectual capital.

Not for the younger set! I think it's a good way to introduce them to a story, and it will motivate them to read the original when they are ready.

Hmm. Maybe I should start an online book club.

It's been my experience that most people don't have time to read --really read-- until they're out of school. When I finished college (for the first time) I read just about all of F. Scott Fitzgerald and then I stumbled across a copy of Dostoevsky's short novel "The Double." I was hooked and now consider the great Russian novelist my favorite writer. Easily.

I agree with Anne that the "classics" are over-emphasized. That's one of the problems with a standardized curriculum. Of course, like all people, I want people to read what I read and that includes many of the classic books that many high school students find impenetrable. But as said in the post, there's a time for everything and the teenage years may be too early for some books.

The most important responsibility of a teacher is to inculcate in the student a true love of reading --and learning. That's the sort of literacy I'm concerned with.

Zarwen said it best --they'll read it "when they are ready."

Zarwen wrote about my objection to the abridged or excerpted texts "Not for the younger set! I think it's a good way to introduce them to a story, and it will motivate them to read the original when they are ready"
OK--I can compromise on the abridged texts, or comic book forms. Lois Burdett, a genius teacher from Stratford, Ontario rewrote most of Shakespeare's plays in modern English couplets. Her young elementary students illustrate her books They are fabulous and obviously written by a woman who loves Shakespeare and can convey that to her very lucky students.
But excerpts in text books put out by Scott Foresman, with comprehension tests at the end? That kind of "educational" material is designed to kill the love of literacy. not nurture it.
Until I got to high school I had to read sanitized excerpts in reading textbooks. I identified two kinds of reading--the painful, compulsory reading I did at school and the rich, varied books I got lost in at home.


I'm with you on the "sanitized excerpts in reading textbooks." That's no way to meet a book for the first time. It's like introducing yourself to someone and giving only your initials instead of your name! I was very fortunate to take classes in high school where everything we read was the real deal--no stupid reading textbooks!

I agree whole-heartedly, Anne and Zarwen. Literature anthologies are useless. A teacher (a good one) may find one or two pieces in an overpriced anthology suitable for classroom lessons, and I'm talking about the material, not the "comprehension" questions.

Speaking of books, PBS is running a series of dramatizations of all of Jane Austen's work starting this Sunday on Masterpiece Theater. First up is Persuasion.

I know you say you don't watch TV, Anne, but you should really make an exception for this.

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Sometimes the classics may just have to wait their turn.

Let students choose which they will read. Their discussions can be in small groups at first, and then each group can make a presentation to the class, so that everyone will learn about the books they didn't read (and maybe even read them on their own!) as well as the ones they did read

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