I’m searching for books to teach in this new course that integrates grade 10 academic level English, civics, and career studies. I’ve been having on-going discussions with our librarian about each book, and so far I’ve read about 20 different candidates.
The typical curriculum in our school teaches To Kill a Mockingbird and Romeo and Juliet and an independent novel. We used to read a play also, but I can’t remember which one. I’ve been encouraged to alter the curriculum towards whatever I personally think would be best for kids.
The last time I taught English was about ten years ago. I had a grade 11 general level class read Of Mice and Men, an independent Steinbeck novel to compare, the play A Raisin in the Sun, and finally Romeo and Juliet. I’m not sure why there isn’t a play offered in the standard grade 10 course. I love Tennessee Williams plays, but they’ll do Glass Menagerie later, so he can wait to be introduced. The only other plays I love are Theatre of the Absurd, which might be a bit much for them.
A colleague has two general concerns with most of the books I suggest: they’re too old or they’ve got too many naughty words.
She suggests I read something recent, but I find all the books she offers me dull or insubstantial. When I suggest something older, like Crime and Punishment, she cringes.
I’m back to the dilemma: do we teach books kids will like, a recent and popular selection many might have already read or might pick up on their own anyway, OR do we introduce kids to books they might not like as much, but they find challenging and will add to a dying cultural literacy, an older canonical book that’s stood up to the test of time.
I clearly lean towards the latter option.
School is the only place we have the opportunity to enlighten kids to famous novels and plays. We keep Shakespeare on the table each year in high school for that reason. I fear if we shift to current popular choices, we’re losing the chance to broaden their literary horizons. The recently published novels haven’t stood the test of time at all; I think most of the ones sent my way won’t be read even twenty years from now.
In lieu of a play, I plan to have the class read two novels, plus an independent, and, instead of Romeo and Juliet, I’m going for Twelfth Night – one of my favourites from high school. My most favourite was Merchant of Venice, but that’s banned in our school board. There are similar themes in Twelfth Night and Merchant of Venice, so I’m wondering if I can get away with showing the film version of MoV as a comparative. I’m wavering a bit on this one though because it will be a lot of work to create all the materials for the play, and there’s lots of R&J stuff to work with already. AND then I could show Water for Chocolate.
I was thinking about Breakfast of Champions and Fight Club for the novels.
Both have some bad words, and a few racy drawings that are childlike and pretty innocent for 15-year-olds, but I can include a warning about the language so parents can call to ask me to provide a different novel (which rarely actually happens). We offer books in classes currently that have a significant more swearing including the “c” word right out there in The Kite Runner. Fight Club has surprising little swearing. I wouldn’t show either movie adaptation, the former because it’s horrible, the latter because of the violence that is less objectionable to read about than to see in full colour.
My colleague thinks even BoC is still too old to offer to kids today, and the drawings are offensive, and FC has too many swears.
They have some common themes that would be intriguing to discuss: mental illness, environmental destruction, prejudice, capitalism, sexual obsessiveness in our culture….
But then I read an interview with Niall Ferguson, a Harvard prof, in the Globe and Mail. He suggests “education reform is urgently needed in the West.” So I checked his website for further thoughts. And here’s what he says:
…children who don’t read are cut off from the civilization of their ancestors.
So take a look at your bookshelves. Do you have all—better make that any—of the books on the Columbia University undergraduate core curriculum? It’s not perfect, but it’s as good a list of the canon of Western civilization as I know of. Let’s take the 11 books on the syllabus for the spring 2012 semester: (1) Virgil’s Aeneid; (2) Ovid’s Metamorphoses; (3) Saint Augustine’s Confessions; (4) Dante’s The Divine Comedy; (5) Montaigne’s Essays; (6) Shakespeare’s King Lear; (7) Cervantes’s Don Quixote; (8) Goethe’s Faust; (9) Austen’s Pride and Prejudice; (10) Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment; (11) Woolf’s To the Lighthouse…..(And get War and Peace, Great Expectations, and Moby-Dick while you’re at it.)
And I remembered loving Crime and Punishment as a teenager. It’s positively gruesome! I had thrown it out there to my colleague way at the start but was shot down because it’s too old and boring for today’s teens. But, are we going to let the diminishing attention spans of teenagers dictate what we have them study, or are we going to fight the dying of their sustained focus and get them on longer, more complex and distant texts? So I think I’ll replace FC with C&P.
I hate getting them in grade 12 philosophy and they can’t read the short essays by Plato and Rousseau and all those guys. They really can’t read at an academic level. They need help sentence by sentence, and they’re almost in university. If I can get them reading more slowly, looking up difficult words (actually coming across difficult words instead of making a list of vocabulary words that they already know), and understanding more subtle inference when they’re in grade 10, they’ll have a much easier time of it in grade 12 and beyond.
In some schools in the states it’s suggested at the gr 8-9 level, so the 10s could certainly do it. Or they should be able to at any rate.
And BoC and C&P can be compared through mental illness, moral agency, social alienation, nihilism….
If parents would have worried about fight clubs starting up in class, the kids can make much quicker work of things with an axe!