Friday, February 19, 2010

Literature Obsolete?

Read the following words of concern in Education Week - entitled "The Case for Literature" By Nancie Atwell :

The National Council of Teachers of English is looking for volunteers for an ad hoc task force whose charge is to gather evidence about why literature should continue to be taught in the 21st century. Apparently, the worth of book reading had become an issue among the work groups that, behind closed doors, were writing the K-12 “common-core standards” that promise to shape curriculum in U.S. classrooms. Given that the Common Core State Standards Initiative is dominated by test-makers and politicians—representatives from the College Board, ACT, Achieve, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the National Governors Association—I was dismayed, but not surprised, that the NCTE was finding it necessary to lobby on behalf of literature.


We beat into children's heads that book reading makes them excel easier in school. Goodness knows they need to read more than the Internet and social media venues. So now that young adult works are so popular thanks to Rowling and Myers, who the heck thinks that literature is passe? Sorry, but that has to be a room of blithering idiots so far removed from reality they think the world is flat. Don't get me started on academia. It's good most of the time. Then again, it can screw with kids' heads. Education can be a tool or a weapon, depending on who stands in front of the class.

Like in any group, there are radicals, the secluded, and the narrow-minded. Put those people in decision-making roles and they become dangerous. Downplaying literature falls much along the lines of tossing history. It dooms us to lesser thought, and repeating mistakes. It stunts evolution, or sends it on some ridiculous tangent. Shall we rejuvenate book burning while we're at it? Literature offers so many purposes for young people today like:

  1. Demonstration of strong writing.

  2. Training in deep thinking.

  3. Exposure to thought processes that aid critical thinking in all realms.

  4. Education about other time periods, societies, populations and cultures.

  5. Intelligent entertainment.

  6. Study of how all the pieces of a hard work process produces beautiful results.

Too many children, much less adults, can't sit still long enough to solve a detailed problem. They want quick answers and electronic solutions. I would love to see children go through a mandatory month of books, art and outdoors with few modern conveniences so they could have the simple gift of time to absorb the world through senses and slow, easy thought. They'd learn to recognize a beautiful phrase or simple artistic lines. Living for the moment, instant gratification, and immediate electronic feedback are fine in theory, but as with anything performed in excess, these concepts ruin the ability for a child to dissect life and solve his own problems.

Many teachers who recognize the power of stories to create readers are doing all they can to squeeze time for independent reading into mandated, proven-ineffective programs of instruction that perversely substitute activities, drills, textbooks, quizzes, and tests for engagement and experience.

Nothing teaches a child more thoroughly than reading and writing. Reading great works and writing while the words are still fresh on the mind is empowering. Build a strong foundation in the written word, and a child grows up more confident, more accomplished, and more respected.

The child speaks better, writes better and thinks better than those who haven't read a book in a year. If I had to interview someone for employment, one of the questions would be, "What's the last book you read and how did you like it?" The sad thing is how many people wouldn't be able to answer.

Look at history. If you recall, cultures kept many groups illiterate, to keep them uneducated and easier to control. To create a bigger divide between the upper and lower classes.

Once you create a ravenous reader, he remains such, and therefore, continues learning at a faster pace than his peers, for the rest of his life. Free reading and letting kids read anything just for the sake of reading, is only good to teach the habit of picking up a book. But teachers must open doors, steer and lead those students to great works that aid their development, deepen their knowledge, and teach them to reach for more than light entertainment.

Teach a child to read advanced works. We all know people perform only up to the level expected of them. Make them hungry to read, think, analyze and critically deduce. Make them smart! No, scratch that. Make them realize they can make themselves smart . . . now and for the rest of their lives.

The opportunity for every student to sit quietly and become immersed in an actual book may not be high-tech, instantly quantifiable, or lucrative for the College Board. It just happens to be the only way that anyone ever became a reader.

Make teaching literature obsolete? Gracious, what is this, the Twilight Zone?


Sharon Mayhew said...

Wow, you said a mouthful! We are so blessed here in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Two of the advanced classes in high school are Great Books one and two. I can't wait for my daughter to take the classes, nor can she wait. She was reading fairly well by four, she thought she could read at three. She memorized books when she was three. She is currently working on her first novel. She is at about 18,000 words right now.

As an elementary school teacher I felt that one of my most important books was to create the love for learning. Books of all kinds were the tools I used in my classroom.

BECKY said...

Hope, This truly is un-friggin-believable. How sad and very Twilight Zone-ish, to say the least. Thank you for keeping us informed.

Becky Mushko said...

This retired English teacher agrees with you one hundred percent!

Carol J. Alexander said...

Hi Hope,
As a homeschooling, writer mama, I bless you!
Two things...don't wait until the child can read to expose them to great it to them. My little guys have developed an incredible vocabulary from what I've read to them. And learned advanced thinking skills from what we've discussed about what we've read.
Second...when our public library started loaning movies, put in computers and Internet access and set up video games in the back for kids, they saw a huge increase in patrons but also a decrease in books checked out.
In teaching writing to my children, I have them study passages from literature. My 15 yo is working on character development. I highlight passages from classics for him to read as examples on how to do it.
Thanks, Hope for opening our eyes to whats going on in the world around us.

Karen Lange said...

Wow. This is just crazy. Thanks for posting this. I must say, I agree with you.
Have a good weekend,

Janet Glaser said...

I present a life story writing workshop at a local high school in the evenings. I was pleasantly surprised to see a copy of Hamlet on the teacher's desk. What flashed through my mind was "How does a teacher in this high-tech- iPod-texting age teach Hamlet to kids?" Hooray for creative teachers!!

Nancy Julien Kopp said...

I'm in full agreement with all you said, Hope. I'd love it if you would send your thoughts to an Op-Ed page in a major newspaper perhaps, or somewhere it might be picked up nationally. Your thoughts on this matter are good ones.

Paul Callaghan said...

As a high school English teacher I am regularly confronted with the attitude that "reading sucks I'll never read after I leave school". From the reluctant teenager who knows everything I can understand (but not endorse) this. However, so often when I visit the homes of these kids there isn't even a tv guide in the house. Their families are living the proof that you don't have to read. To survive, not thrive mind you. If thinking and creativity are the skills we are supposed to teach for the 21st century (as the politicos tell us)and it's not happening at home, surely literature in schools is a must.
But hey, what does someone who actually teaches literature know compared to the great bureaucrats on high?

R L said...

Wow--thanks for sharing this. Textbook literature is horrible.
Because I homeschool my child, I use the Jr. Great Books Foundation series, which includes a fantastic selection of great authors and titles.

Anonymous said...

Hope, this is crazy! Seems to me that the "elite ones" of our society are the ones who shut the doors to our seeds, all for selfish gain! Truly a sign of the times! If they win, our great-grandchildren won't be able to read our history! Shocking.

Angie said...

You are right on! I still remember many summers as a youngster. We all signed up for the reading program at the local library. My siblings and I would walk to the library every week, or so, and get new books to read. Oh, I could hardly wait to get home and start reading. It has stood me well in my life as an adult. I thank my parents for giving me my very own REAL books as a second grader! I still remember the warm fuzzy I got every time I settled down to read. This should be how all kids feel about reading. Good luck to all the English, Reading, and Literature teachers out there. You have a high calling!

Kristi Bernard said...

Wow! Reading is so necessary. I am all for this post. Thanks.