During my first year of teaching high school on the West Side of Chicago, my literature class was in the midst of a well-planned group reading of The Great Gatsby when my well-honed ear detected some soft snoring from amongst the students. How dare you sleep in a class that is neither mathematics nor the period immediately following lunch?
Outraged, I looked up to castigate the guilty party for his egregious offense. Unfortunately, I could not single out the "snorer" as the whole class was knocked out.
The sleeping student body phenomenon would be oft repeated in my literature class for years to come. The Scarlet Letter? Snoozers. The Catcher in the Rye? Can't relate zzzzzz! The Old Man and the Sea? Counting sheep. 1984? Like eating ribs before bed. And don't even get me started on the whole of British literature. Dickens, Shakespeare? Imagine a roomful of students simultaneously entering REM.
Of course, it is my responsibility as a teacher to engage the students in these classics so they can understand, analyze and appreciate the writings of our greatest thinkers. But I cannot.
I have tried strategy after strategy, sought advice upon advice, and still, I am unable to spark sustainable interest in the vast majority of my students. Few students do the readings and even fewer seriously consider the ideas or themes presented in these writings. The class discussions are disgracefully unanimated and the student essays are dull, tedious and impersonal. For most students in my class, the months dedicated to the canons of Western literature are a dreadful waste of time. And yes, I know, this failure is mostly my fault.
This absolute uninterest in the classics is in direct contrast to the students' reactions to books they are better able to relate to and understand. When my literature class reads great books like I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, A Long Way Gone, Our America, Random Family, Push, The Outsiders, Smoke Signals, The Color Purple, Mama, There Are No Children Here, etc., the students are actually vying for the privilege to read in class. The class discussions are dynamic and cover tremendous ground. (There is nothing as satisfying as when a class discussion becomes so intellectually and emotionally charged that a security guard enters to make sure everything is okay.) The students' writings are more thoughtful, perhaps revelatory.
Miraculously, some students even do their homework. A lot of the students are fully engaged, and learning actually occurs as we analyze the ideas, themes and literary techniques presented in the aforementioned books.
There are some high school literature teachers in Chicago so superbly talented, energetic and creative that they are able to engage their students in any and all writings. However, these miracle workers are the remarkable few and their students are incredibly fortunate. The rest of us mere mortals struggle mightily to interest our students in any literature, nonetheless a study of the classics written by white men of yesteryear.
Why should we continue to mandate the teaching of British literature (for instance) if teachers such as me are unable to provoke such little student thought, reflection or learning in the classroom? All the benefits of studying and learning the classics are irrelevant if few students are actually reading or engaged in the material. In fact, I believe that our educational emphasis of these classics plays a small role in turning many of our young people away from book-reading altogether (as documented in a recent, well-publicized NEA study).
The only assigned book I liked in high school was Of Mice and Men. Luckily, my parents were voracious readers and helped me discover the pleasures and excitement of writers like Tom Wolfe, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, Tom Robbins, etc. Their books were epiphanies that hooked me as a reader for life.
However, had it not been for my parents' involvement, my own high school literature experiences would have forced me to conclude that novel reading is tiresome, uninteresting and irrelevant. (Only upon rereading my high school novels as an adult did I finally begin to understand and appreciate the themes and ideas of these classics. The Stranger is a perfect example.)
As such, on the first day of school, when I ask high school juniors and seniors to list their favorite books, too many write "None." After the class finishes an especially intriguing novel, I have had students inform me, "That was the first book I ever read (all the way through)." If there are not avid readers in the students' homes, who is going to teach and show these young people a love of reading?
The books I hope will foster the students' love of reading are well written, intelligent, thought-provoking and clearly relevant. If these books produce more response, thought, engagement, learning and other academic results from the students, shouldn't these writings form the backbone of my literature class?
Considering my abilities as a teacher and the personal and academic interests of my students, I believe I am better serving the present and future needs of my students by offering more accessible readings that will hopefully ignite a lifelong passion for reading. After all, isn't it better to have read and learned, than never to have read at all?
Will Okun teaches English and photography in a Chicago school with many students from low-income and minority homes.