Sunday, July 7, 2013

Things I have been thinking about lately

    So from out of nowhere I have been sort of been fantasizing about what sort of literary education I would have wanted in high school.
I went to two different schools: a private jewish high school for my first two years and a public school for my last two years which each had varying theories and approaches to teaching books. I was never a particularly good student in either setting. It strikes me now how directed the classes were (and I assume still are) at getting everyone ready to write college level academic papers, with emphasis on thematic or character analysis, and sometimes symbolic or historical analysis. This seems so misguided to me. Considering that, at best, between ten and fifteen percent of high school students will go on to be english majors, and even fewer of those will go on to be English professors we essentially stick kids in these classes where they are told what to read, are asked to do these really abstract analyses then compare them to each to each other. No wonder people hate to read as adults: they are conditioned at a very formative point in their lives that reading is a boring slog and an activity only good for writing papers. Not only this but I have heard that the style of analysis taught in high school is looked down upon in college level courses. So, not only do these kids have to learn these skills, they have to forget them only a few years later.
  We all know high school is sort of a joke.Perhaps its greatest goal it to keep kids out of trouble for the last few years before they become totally unmanageable, with the end goal of those four years to condition the kids to get ready for college and for those not going to college...i donno hopefully keep them from getting pregnant a little longer? Okay I'm being cynical here but it seems like there could be a much better use of time, especially in literature and english classes where a huge impact could be had on what are essentially the future reading public, and a foundation could be set for the creation of a knowledgeable and interested reading public.
   Essentially the syllabus I have been considering has, as its main goal, to have the kids come out independantly interested in literature and reading regardless of what it is they want to read. As I mentioned earlier I was not an avid reader in high school. I went on a Discworld jag one summer and read a few Battletech books but it was not until my senior year and after I graduating from highschool that I even considered reading to be a worthwhile endeavor. I think a lot people too come to literature later on in life entirely on their own which I think is great but what should be understood is that, like a lot of hobbies, reading and finding books is a set of skills that takes practice and development but is a set of skills that once they are learned will be with someone for the rest of their lives (cf. writing a six page paper exploring the significance of the green light in 'The Great Gatsby').      
  While I will certainly admit that there is a certain subset of kids (and adults) that will never read and will fight all attempts to approach literature. I don't expect to magically convert these kids. A syllabus like what I am suggesting could serve to convince the sort of middle group (the kids who are not existentially adverse to literature but not total book geeks) that maybe (good) literature is something which could be a part of their lives for sometime to come. I think integral to the whole plan of lessons et c. would be the teacher's maintaining a cautions optimism and faith that kids are able to choose thier own books. This would of course be directed and prescribed by the teachers but by allowing kids to use trail and error, their own taste and a certain amount of time spent searching to find books would foster a self-direction which would give them a feeling similar to that which is described in other areas as 'ownership'.
    While the whole plan is, at this point pretty amorphous and rudimentary I figure it would go something like this: a broad list of important, respected and influential books from the 19th and 20th centuries would be provided with small synopses attached. Students would choose between fifteen and twenty titles based off the synopses and titles then go on to find a range of reviews of each from a variety of professional and amateur sources, as well as from when the book was published and from contemporary sources. The student would then narrow their list down to between five and seven preferred titles. From this list the students would then choose one book to read the first ten percent of. If the student found this first book to be interesting, engaging and of high quality they would then go on to read the book. If, after reading the first part of the book it was found to be unsatisfactory the students would write a small statement explaining why they did not like the book then return to the list and start reading another book on the list. This would continue until a satisfactory book was found. Each student would then read their chosen book, keeping notes. Naturally there would be a considerable amount of difference in what each student would be doing at any given time and most class time would have to be spent with the teacher helping out the students one on one, reducing lecture time but increasing student-teacher interaction and, hopefully student-student interaction. Once a student finished the book they would then write at 1000-2000 word review of the book which would then be posted to a review site such as goodreads or amazon. Each review would touch on: plot synopsis, style, thematic elements, historical importance, place in the author's oeurve, and a personal opinion of the novel as a whole.
   After a successful review the student would then have a few possible routes to take:
1. Analyze the author's body of work through interviews, biographies and articles about him or her and find another of their works to read.

2. Do the above with a focus on the author's contemporaries, influences, students or other similar writers then choose a book similar to the writer.

3. Choose another work of the original list.

This gives the student a lot of flexibility in what books they read and, ideally, serves to build up the notion that literature is an interconnected and evolving system. Learning about the authors as well will show that there are personalities behind each work and that it is possible to find other works from each author. This general cycle would continue for the remainder of the semester with regular checkups, journals and a certain amount of prodding and assistance provided by the instructor at all times. There would be a certain expectation of writing output per week, with larger pieces provided every few weeks.
   This would, of course, only be feasible with students who were already at least a little self directed and with a class size between ten and fifteen students. Thus AP or honors would be ideal, though the syllabus could be tweaked for regular usage or considered as a unit within a more traditional LA class.
   The class (or project) would conclude with a longer reflective piece where each work and the place of each work was considered and a consideration of the whole experience would be made. These would, again, vary considerable between student and could take many different forms so grading would have to be on the amount of work and general quality rather than on syllabus points et c.

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