A Course Plan for Literary Appreciation and Analysis: Blogiversary Post #6

I struggle with conflicting philosophies about my job.  I teach English literature (as well as language and composition) as core curriculum in CEGEP, a transitional/professional college that all Quebec students must attend before moving on to university or to many professions.  My classes are therefore comprised of students of wildly varying levels of ability and interest when it comes to reading literature.

One element of my job is teaching students how to analyze literary texts.  One challenge of my job is that a large number of my students have little experience reading literary texts; a surprising number have never read a novel, for example, that wasn’t assigned to them in school.  This creates two important problems:

  • A student with little practice in reading literature has much more difficulty developing analytical reading and writing skills.
  • A literature class that focuses solely on analysis is unlikely to inspire a student to read more widely, thus perpetuating the problem.

Is it more important for me to teach students literary analysis, even if they’re not ready for it, or to help them discover pleasure in reading that will then lead them to develop basic intuitive skills that will help them analyze?  The latter seems like the obvious answer to me, but I still have a duty to prepare them explicitly for their English Exit Exam, which requires them to analyze a text.  In wrestling with this problem, I developed the course that I outline below.  My original post on this course is the fifth-most-widely-shared post in the history of this blog.

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Module 1: Literary Analysis Review

Text: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

In the first part of the course, we all read The Glass Castle and discuss the genre of the personal narrative.  We review elements of narrative (theme, plot, setting, character, imagery/symbolism) and they apply them to the memoir.  We then do a short analytical essay in class based on a choice of unseen texts (I like using the “Lives” section of the New York Times magazine as a source for excellent very short personal narrative texts.)

Module 2: Book Talks

Texts: students have a course pack containing copies of the front cover, the back cover or inside flap, and the first chapter of eight book-length memoirs.  I ask them to browse this pack and then tell me the three books they’d most like to read.  For example, one term, I included the following texts:

I assign one book to each student, taking their preferences into account whenever possible. Each book is therefore read by a group of 4-5 students.  Their major assignment for this module is a “book talk,” in which they must, as a group, present the book to the class and argue that their classmates SHOULD or SHOULD NOT choose this book as their final reading for the course.  Each person is responsible for a 5-7 minute presentation on one of the following topics:

  1. Theme: Identify an important theme in the memoir.  Make sure you state your theme clearly and precisely.  Then give evidence from the memoir to support your theme, WITHOUT GIVING THE WHOLE STORY AWAY.  Why does the theme make/not make the book a worthwhile read?
  2. Historical, geographical or social/cultural information: Describe the historical, geographical and social/cultural setting of the book (where, when, and in what social context it happens).  Make sure you make direct connections between the facts you provide and the events of the book. Why does the setting of the memoir make/not make the book a worthwhile read?
  3. Another element of the narrative: You may wish to discuss the author’s use of another literary element such as conflict, characterization or imagery, and how it helps us understand and appreciate the story. Why does the author’s use of this element make/not make the book a worthwhile read?
  4. Personal connection: Choose a scene, character, event or idea in the memoir that you found particularly interesting and discuss why you related to it.  Tell us about how this aspect of the book reflected events in your life, and why other people in the class might relate to it too.  Make sure you are comfortable discussing this personal connection, and consider whether your audience will be comfortable hearing about it.  Why do the personal connections we might make with this story make/not make the book a worthwhile read?
  5. Other important information you learned: Tell the class about an important topic you learned about from reading this book. Why does learning about this topic make/not make the book a worthwhile read?
  6. Difficulty: Tell the class about a challenge you had, and that they might have, in reading this book.  Is it worthwhile for readers to take on this challenge and read all the way to the end?
  7. What you loved: Tell the class about something else you loved about this book.  Be detailed, but again, don’t give everything away.  Why does this aspect of the book make/not make the book a worthwhile read?

At the end of each week, students must write a Book Talk Report about one of the two books presented that week. They explain what they learned about the book from the excerpt in their course pack and from the Book Talk.  They must identify at least one important similarity between the book they saw presented and the book they are reading with their group. Will they consider choosing the book they saw presented as their third course reading?

Module 3: Comparison

Text: each student chooses another book from the list above.

Students must write an essay comparing the memoir they presented in their Book Talk to the memoir they have chosen for their third reading.  In this module, we also look at examples of personal narrative in film (for example, Persepolis or Stories We Tell) and in radio/TV (This American Life).

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Up and At ‘Em

It’s almost that time again.

I hope you’ve all had a great summer.  Mine has been thrilling, terrifying and exhausting, all on a small domestic scale.  You will hear about some of it in the coming weeks.  The upshot: school begins on Monday, and I am neither refreshed nor enthusiastic, but I am nothing if not dogged, so I am lacing up my boots and printing up my course outlines.

I AM looking forward to communicating with you all again, so, beginning Monday, I will return to regular posting!  Once again, I will post on Mondays and Thursdays, but I am going to shake things up a bit.

Mondays will bring a current post on the events in Siobhan’s teaching life and/or the thoughts in Siobhan’s teaching brain.  On Thursdays, I will dig into the archives and re-publish a post I love that has disappeared from view, possibly with small edits and additions.

Look for the following new posts in the coming weeks:

  • Things I Learned From Buying a House
  • A commentary on Paul Tough’s new book, How Children Succeed (a previous post, “Fail Better,” explored an excerpt published last year)
  • Thoughts on introversion, and on Susan Cain’s book on the subject
  • More advice, solicited and non-, from Auntie Siobhan (send me your questions!)
  • …and of course, much much more.

As ever, I welcome your suggestions of topics.  Post them in the comments here, or visit this page to contact me.  And happy new school year!  See you on Monday.

Image by Dave Dyet

What If They Don’t Do the Required Reading?

It’s a perennial problem for teachers.  You plan a great lesson around today’s short story, but it turns out two-thirds of the students haven’t read it.  What do you do?  Do you kick out the slackers?  Give them class time to read it?  Give up and do something else?  As a follow-up to last week’s post on how we can teach students to be willing, if not enthusiastic, readers and writers, I’d like to throw a question out there from frequent commenter CrysHouse.  She asks, How can we use class time effectively if students don’t do the reading before they come?

I have a couple of techniques.  I have them do some written homework based on the reading, homework that they must then use for the class activity.  It counts for credit, they have to show it to me before we begin, and if they haven’t done it, they have to leave class, because they can’t do the day’s work.  Of course, I’m in a privileged spot here – most teachers can’t throw students out of class – but you could have students work on their own to complete the homework, and receive no credit for the class work they miss as a result.

I have been known, if it seems like no one has done the reading, to designate today’s work as a graded test.  They have to work alone to answer some questions or write a short response.  This, of course, makes more work for me, because then I have to grade the things.  It also doesn’t sit well with my most idealistic principles about separating grades from behaviour issues.  However, it’s pretty effective in impressing the importance of the reading on them, and at least then we can do some work with the reading the following class.

I don’t like the coerciveness of either of these approaches.  What’s more, because we do a lot of group work, the fact that some students haven’t read is often obscured, because their group mates cover for them and resent both them and me.  If all work were individual, it would be easier to allow natural consequences to reveal themselves – you won’t get much done if you haven’t read before class! – but this is not always possible, and I hate structuring all my lessons around the contingency that some students aren’t pulling their weight.

Do people have other techniques?  Is this problem solvable?  I wrote three papers on Robinson Crusoe in high school and college, and to this day, I haven’t read the damn book and don’t intend to – so who am I to fault them?  Is it possible that this is one more thing  we’ll just have to let go?

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Image by Davide Guglielmo

Willing to Read and Write

Yesterday, I told my college students that they need to read the next 150 pages of the novel we are studying, Life of Pi, over the next seven days.  This is not news – they got a reading schedule on the first day of class, and were told to read ahead.  Nevertheless, there was a collective gasp and more than a little laughter.  A few moments later, during a close reading exercise, I asked them to talk about a passage with a group and come up with a point that they might focus on “if you had to write a couple hundred words about this piece.”  Around the room, students looked at each other with horrified amusement.  A couple hundred words?  About this?  What does she think we are, writing machines?  There were quiet snorts and groans, subtly and not-so-subtly rolled eyes.

It’s early in the semester, and I still have reserves of patience that I won’t have in a few weeks’ time.  By October, I may break down and say something like:

“If you’re not sure you can read one hundred fifty pages of clear, simple prose in a week, or if you’re not sure you can write two hundred words about a two-page passage, that’s ok.  It’s not a problem if you don’t know how to do it – you can learn.  However, if you don’t want to learn how to do these things – if you don’t want to practice and get feedback and meet that challenge, and if you resent me for asking you to – then college is not the place for you.”

The previous class, I’d asked students to interview each other about their reading habits, and write a paragraph about their partners’ reading lives.  A predictable number of students said that they don’t like to read, never read for enjoyment, and last read a novel in the ninth grade, because it was required.  (The number was predictable to me, that is – anyone who doesn’t teach college might be astonished by the number of college students who have absolutely no interest in reading.)

I would like at some point to ask similar questions about writing, but they seem redundant – surely people who don’t read also don’t write?  However, “writing” has become a much more complicated phenomenon in the age of digital communication, and many would argue that our students “write” all the time, although a middle-aged fuddy-duddy like me might be reluctant to call much of the texting, messaging and Facebook posting they do “writing,” any more than I’d call a to-do list “writing.”  Maybe what I’m talking about is long-form writing: long emails in the spirit of “letters,” diary entries that go on for pages and pages, poems and stories and even stabs at novels, blog posts.

A few weeks ago, an article appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education called “We Can’t Teach Students to Love Reading.”  In it, Alan Jacobs explains that

“‘deep attention’ reading has always been and will always be a minority pursuit, a fact that has been obscured in the past half-century, especially in the United States, by the dramatic increase in the percentage of the population attending college, and by the idea (only about 150 years old) that modern literature in vernacular languages should be taught at the university level.”

Jacobs points to the American GI bill, and the influx of soldiers into American universities after WWII.  From then until now,

“far more people than ever before in human history were expected to read, understand, appreciate, and even enjoy books.”

 Once, only a tiny minority of people were expected to get a post-secondary education; now almost everybody is.  However, it is still unreasonable to expect everyone to enjoy reading, even though a university education – at least a traditional one – is difficult to pursue if you don’t.

Jacobs divides people into those who love reading, those who like reading, and those who don’t.  Universities, he says, are full of

“…often really smart people for whom the prospect of several hours attending to words on pages (pages of a single text) is not attractive. For lovers of books and reading, and especially for those of us who become teachers, this fact can be painful and frustrating.”

Jacobs says this is genetic – such people are “mostly born and only a little made.”  A furor has arisen around this assertion – here’s one post that takes it on – but I think he may in part be right.  But if readers and writers are at least “a little made,” what can teachers do to help make them?

According to Jacobs, maybe nothing.

“[The] idea that many teachers hold today, that one of the purposes of education is to teach students to love reading—or at least to appreciate and enjoy whole books—is largely alien to the history of education.”

Now, I’m ok with the fact that a lot of people don’t like reading and writing.  I think they’d be better off if they did, but I also think I’d be better off if I liked playing team sports, going to parties full of strangers, and drinking wheatgrass.  And I’ve written before about the wisdom or lack thereof of pushing your children to love writing.  If it’s possible for me to help my students like reading and writing more than they do, I’d love that – and I dedicate a lot of thought and time to this end.  But if not – if many students will never like to read or write no matter what I do – I can accept this reality.

I do, however, want and expect my students to be willing to read and write.  I want and expect them to see college as an opportunity to practice these activities, and to even be open to enjoying them.  I know that teenagers are not usually “open” by any measure.  Much of their energy goes into defining themselves as “this not that” – athlete, not reader; gamer, not writer.  However, I’m irritated at the prospect of another semester of complaints about being expected to read a lot and write a lot in English class.

Are there things we can do to make our students willing, if not eager, to read and write?  We can try to give them “books that interest them,” but in an extremely diverse class of 42 students, coming up with books that will please everyone is not possible.  We can give them choices about what they’ll read and what they’ll write about, but if reading and writing are themselves the problem, even making such choices can be difficult and frustrating.  By the time they get to college, is it too late?  Do I just have to grit my teeth and say, “I know you don’t like it, but you’re in college”?  Or is it time to start asking less of them?

Jacob believes that we should ask, if not less, then at least different.

“Education is and should be primarily about intellectual navigation, about…skimming well, and reading carefully for information in order to upload content. Slow and patient reading, by contrast, properly belongs to our leisure hours.”

If this is true, then there is no place for the study of literature at college, at least not as core curriculum for readers and non-readers alike.  Can we extrapolate from this that there is no need for “deep writing” either?  That asking students to write longer pieces – which is not to say two hundred words, which they would call long, but perhaps one-thousand-word essays – is asking too much of most, that the ability to do such a thing can only “arise from within,” as Jacobs puts it, and cannot be explicitly taught to anyone?

I would argue that the skills of deep reading and deep writing can be taught to anyone.  The caveat is that students must be, not necessarily enamoured of these activities, but simply willing to engage in them.  They must open to the possibility that they may enjoy them more than they expect, but also to the possibility that they may not.  They need to be prepared to keep stabbing away at them even if they find them difficult, boring or even infuriating, in the hope that they will get better, and with the faith that they will learn something.

Is this skill – openness, or gameness, even in the face of obstacles and possible failure – something that can be taught?  Because if we can teach our students (and ourselves, for that matter) how to be willing, how to relish trying, then we will all truly be learners.

Image by Peter Galbraith

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Word Jars and Grocery Lists: “Your Child’s Writing Life” by Pam Allyn

The premise of Pam Allyn’s parenting guide Your Child’s Writing Life is as follows:

“There are endless practical books to help parents raise their children.  But until now there has not been a book about the importance of getting our kids to understand that every book and story began when someone, somewhere decided to write down his or her thoughts.”

Allyn believes that writing is as important to a child’s development as any other fundamental skill, and that parents who help their kids become writers will foster their emotional, intellectual and academic growth.  It is hard to argue with this, and there is a lot to love about this book.

Allyn’s passion for writing is sincere, and so is her passion for helping children be everything they can be.  Parents or teachers who want children to love writing will find much to work with here: a list of great children’s books to inspire writing, a chapter full of tips to help with times when writing is frustrating, myriad interesting prompts for child writers of all ages.  I wish all parents would read this book and implement some of its general suggestions, because I suspect that, if they did, their teenage children would arrive in my classroom with, at best, a deep desire to write, and at worst, an appreciation of the written word and the impulses and skills needed to write something well.

I have a single, but large, quibble with Allyn’s approach. My quibble is not based in any real expertise.  I am not the target audience for this book.  I am not a parent, and I don’t even teach children of the age described by the author.  I was, however, a child, and a child who loved writing and continues to love it into middle age, so much so that I have dedicated my life to doing and teaching it.

Allyn’s advice often parallels my own experience.  For example, she tells parents,

“Give your child the time to write and the freedom to write as she pleases.  As your child finds her voice, she’ll need you to give her time to practice and experiment, delving into new worlds through the magic of her own creative process.”

This is exactly what my parents did.  They took writing seriously and never made me feel that I should be doing something else.  If I was hiding in my room and they came to check on me, and I told them I was writing, they responded in the same way they would have if I’d said I was practicing my violin or doing my math homework: they praised me, and then left me alone.   I’m a writer today in large part because my parents did everything right in that regard.

However, they never set up “writing centres” or “word jars;” they did not create “writing routines” or set aside daily “writing time” or keep emergency writing implements in a folder in the car.  This is not to say these approaches wouldn’t be useful for some children; they might certainly benefit a child who did not have an intrinsic writing obsession, as I did. I wonder, though, whether creating such routines and rituals might not risk turning writing into a chore, another homework assignment or extracurricular activity that needs to be slotted in.

For example, Allyn asks parents to create a “perfect writing space” for their child – with the child’s input, of course.

“Ask questions like, What do you like to write with?  Pencils? Crayons? Markers?…Is that light too bright or too soft? Do you like to write on big paper on a table or small paper on a clipboard?”

This kind of micromanagement – let’s get it exactly right together, and then you’ll be able to write! – can be anathema to creation, and to me it smacks of overzealous parental involvement.  When I was a child, I would have found these questions, and their implication that there is a “perfect environment” for my creative process, overwhelming and intimidating.  I would have preferred to be left alone in my room, where I would spread myself at my desk or on my bed or on my carpet, depending on my mood, or I might wander out to the landing at the top of the stairs or the hammock in the back yard.  I would make use of whatever implements I could find around me or in the junk drawer downstairs in the kitchen.  I was finding spaces and methods that worked for me, and my parents’ only role was to consider requests I made and fulfill them if they could.

(One of the greatest joys I have experienced, then or since, was the Christmas when, having been told I would not be receiving an expensive electric typewriter I’d been pleading for, I woke to find it under the tree.  It was years before I learned to type properly, but until then, just looking at it on my desk and poking at its keys validated my identity as a writer.  Several aborted runs at learning to touch-type meant that, when I finally took a typing class in high school, I was far ahead of my classmates and was ready to type up my stories and poems.  I was not asked if I wanted a typewriter.  It was I who decided it was time for me to have one.)

Throughout the early chapters of Your Child’s Writing Life, I encountered moments where I felt the line between support and interference was being blurred.  For example, Allyn suggests that, when your child is two, you

“cut out words you love from magazines and put them in little frames on her writing desk where she can see them.  Even if she can’t read them, you are modeling your love of words.”

This feels queasily invasive to me.  Why must a parent insert herself into a child’s experience to this degree?  By doing this, is the parent not modelling something about herself and what she values, rather than the child’s interests?  Why not cut words out and put them on your own desk?  If the child can’t read yet, why not play with words orally, allowing her to choose the words you dwell on?

(I once spent an afternoon in the pool with my much younger brother, who was two at the time.  I taught him the word “buoyancy,” which he thought was the best word he’d ever heard, not because he understood its meaning, but because it sounded so cool.  For the rest of the day and evening he would randomly shout, “Siobhan – bwincey!” and break into giggles.  Is this not a more authentic way to interest a toddler in language than framing words I like and thrusting them into “his” space?)

When a child is four, Allyn advises,

“Read aloud even your grocery lists, messages from favorite friends, emails you particularly like and other examples of the little notes and things that come across your desk each and every day.”

When I reached this point in Allyn’s list of “ages and writing stages,” I began to wonder how a similar book about “your child’s math life” or “your child’s sports life” would read.  Would it read, as I suspected, like a slightly unhinged manifesto in which every dinner hour becomes a chance to practice counting one’s peas, or every morning one turns getting dressed into calisthenics?  The litany of ways to encourage writing was exhausting me in the mere reading, and I began to wonder if any parent really spends that much time in direct, active, engaged interaction with his or her child, much less in direct, active, engaged interaction that focuses entirely on getting the child interested in writing.  What about just letting the child run around without making a story about it?  Where would one have time for that?  After a few days of Allyn’s program, I expect I’d be lying on the couch with a cold cloth over my eyes, unable to even keep my toddler out of the knife drawer, much less ask him what adventures the knives could be having in their drawer-house today.

Which is to say: taken alone, any of these suggestions seems like it could help foster a child’s interest in writing.  The key here, though, is in the words “foster” and “child’s.”  There is a great emphasis on how the parent and child will embark on this writing journey “together,” but this “togetherness” eventually gives the book a cloying, claustrophobic feeling.  It is understandable, if we are talking about a stay-at-home parent and a child of two or three, that the parent’s values and interests will take the lead and that the parent and child will share at least some of these writing experiences, but even at that stage, I suspect many children will benefit more from a gentle nudge and then some space to follow their own whims.

What is more, some children do not enjoy reading and writing, and for them, such “encouragement” can start to feel manipulative and burdensome.  Allyn does not seem to feel that there is any circumstance in which a parent should let “writing time” go in favour of other interests.  How is this different from a parent who insists that his child will play football or join the Mathletes even when the child has no real interest in these activities?

(My mother was and is a visual artist, and she encouraged my brother and me to paint and draw. I liked these pastimes well enough, and for short periods I invested quite a bit of time in them, but they were not a priority and I had no real talent for them, so I never pursued them with any seriousness.  One day, my mother presented me with a beautiful blank book with a Klimt illustration on the cover, explaining that this was a drawing journal and that I was to use it only for that.  [Apparently a friend of hers, an art teacher, had suggested that this might encourage me to draw more.]  The book sat guiltily in my desk for several years, until finally one day I couldn’t stand seeing it lie idle, and I took it out and began … to write in it.  I still have it, full of writing, not drawing, and I don’t think I ever told my mother that I had defied her instructions.  These instances of well-intentioned interference on the part of my parents were rare and delicate, and I am grateful for that.  Had they been more aggressive, I suspect I would have fully abandoned some activities that brought me occasional pleasure.)

Allyn’s book seems dominated by a common parenting philosophy that equates “support” with “direction” (or perhaps control?) and I’m  always concerned when parents invest themselves too deeply in shaping their children’s interests.  Children who like reading and writing will read and write, and parents can encourage that by talking with them about reading and writing, and responding to their requests for books, notebooks, laptops if they can afford them, and so forth.  If a child does not show an interest in writing, there are gentle things parents can do: fill the house with books, read and write themselves, suggest that the child write down the stories he tells at the dinner table.  They can give the child a diary and see what happens.  They can experiment with some of Allyn’s suggestions and see if they take, but I would be wary of promoting writing to such a child with the intensity that Allyn suggests, for fear of engendering aversion and resentment.  There’s no doubt that writing a lot will benefit him, but so will playing a lot of basketball or learning a lot about astronomy.  In the end, is it not best to expose him to lots of activities, let him pick the ones he likes, give him time to invest in those interests, and show respect and support for the ways he chooses to spend his hours, as long as they are healthy and promote his growth?

So I think that, as parenting books go, this one is worth reading, and many of its suggestions are worth trying. I also think that parents should consider just being who they are, respecting who their children are, and reading fewer books on the subject, or at least viewing even the best parenting books with friendly suspicion.  I value reading and writing above almost all else, and if I were a parent, I would have to resist the temptation to embrace Allyn’s advice whole hog.  I might even set up a “writing corner” or have occasional “writing evenings” with my children in the hope that my love of writing would infect them.  But I would not expect my children to fall in with the program, although I might learn a lot about them in the process.

Allyn, Pam.  Your Child’s Writing Life. Avery (a division of Penguin Writing Group USA,Inc.) New York: 2011.

What Young Adults Should Read

There’s been a lot of furor over the recent Wall Street Journal essay that claims that YA fiction has taken a turn to the dark side.  It isn’t surprising that my favourite commentary on this piece so far comes from Linda Holmes, editor of the NPR pop-culture blog Monkey See and moderator of my fifth-favourite podcast in the world, Pop Culture Happy Hour.  Holmes’ response aligns entirely with my own: adolescence is a dark time.  If we want teens to have some hope of emerging from it in one piece, we can’t present them only with, as the WSJ writer would have it, “images of joy and beauty.”  Holmes explains it this way:

It’s difficult to say to a teenager, “We don’t even let you read about anyone who cuts herself; it’s that much of a taboo. But by all means, if you’re cutting yourself, feel free to tell a trusted adult.”

I teach mostly seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds.  In my course on personal narrative, I prepare a list of books and ask students to tell me which ones they’d prefer to read.  When preparing the list last year, I hesitated over a couple of titles, including Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss (about the author’s consensual adult sexual relationship with her father) and Alice Sebold’s Lucky (about the author’s brutal rape and its aftermath).  In the end, I decided to include Lucky on the list, and when I presented the book to the class as one of their choices, I told them about its subject matter and my hesitations.  I warned them that certain passages were very graphic, and that they should keep this in mind when deciding whether they wanted to read the book.  True story: almost every girl in the class, and about half the boys, put it on their list of preferences; most girls put it at the top.  I assigned only five students to each book, but for their final course reading, they were allowed to choose any other book from the list that they wanted, and most girls and many boys chose Lucky.

What does this say?  Does it say that teenagers nowadays are inured to violence?  I don’t think so; many readers said that they found the book upsetting but rewarding.  Many of the boys who read it said it helped them understand the effect rape has on a woman; many girls said it allowed them to see how, after a terrible and scarring experience, someone could struggle on and make use of their suffering to help others.  But mostly they said that it was a really good read.

The reasons that it’s a good read may vary from reader to reader, but it probably has something to do with the fact that life is hard, especially when you’re seventeen or eighteen, and someone else’s experience of hardship – even if it’s extreme or, in the case of some YA fiction, less than totally realistic – can help you understand your own.  As Holmes puts it,

stopping — actually stopping — a YA reader from picking up a particular book because it describes behavior you don’t want him to emulate potentially cuts him off from something that might reach him in exchange for … nothing, really, except your own comfort level.

I think it comes down to this: kids read what they read for a reason.  They have a natural aversion to things they can’t handle, and a natural inclination toward things that speak to them in some way.  It may be that parents or teachers have to occasionally take something out of their hands or put up firewalls so they can’t stumble upon things that truly injure them, but I think the decision to do so needs to be very carefully considered.

If I had a teenage daughter, for example, I’d want to take Twilight away from her, not because it’s about vampires and has violence in it, but because it’s badly written and the heroine is a sap and it teaches teenage girls terrible things about being “rescued” by creepy men who are hundreds of years too old for them.  (Some commentary on my feelings about Twilight can be found here.)  But I wouldn’t take it away from her.  (As if confiscating it would mean she wouldn’t read it anyway!)  What’s more, I’d try my best not to make her feel bad about reading it if it meant something to her.  I’d ask her why she liked it, and I’d listen to her answers, and maybe I’d try to recommend something along the same lines that was, well, a good book.

But I wouldn’t expect her to read it.  That wouldn’t be up to me.

Image by Lauren J

Does Reading Great Literature Make You A Better Person?

I love Laura Miller, the Books critic for Salon.com.  However, in today’s Salon she’s making an argument that I’ve heard a lot and that I do not like.

She’s reviewing William Deresiewicz’s new book, A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship and the Things that Really Matter.  I have not read this book – Miller’s review is the first I’ve heard of it – but it’s gone straight to my wish list.  In it, according to Miller, Deresiewicz

explains how his long engagement with [Austen’s novels] helped convert him from a surly, preening grad student — “about as dumb, in all human things, as any 26-year-old has a right to be” and grandiosely convinced that anything other than “complex, difficult, sophisticated” modernist fiction was beneath him — into a decent, civilized man.

Miller is not convinced that the novels were responsible for Deresiewicz’s transformation.  Her argument is basically this: lots of readers are bad people.  In fact, everyone loves stories, but the world is still full of nastiness.

Some of the best-read people I know are thoroughgoing jerks, and some of the kindest and noblest verge on the illiterate…. There’s a theory…that fiction builds empathy, and therefore morality, by inviting us into the minds, hearts and experiences of others. This is what the British children’s book author Michael Morpurgo implied recently…when he claimed that “developing in young children a love of poems and stories” might someday render the human-rights organization Amnesty International obsolete.  While I’m all for cultivating such tastes in children, I also don’t think the love of stories has to be taught. Most children are keenly interested in stories in all their forms. (Reading is a different matter.) They always have been. Yet there has always been a need for groups like Amnesty and it seems probable there always will be, no matter how many stories we pump into our youth.

I hear a lot of variations on this argument.  “Joseph Goebbels loved literature.”  “Sit in on a PhD literature class and see if you come away thinking that literature makes people more empathetic.”  These statements strike me as identical to saying, “Broccoli isn’t good for you – people who eat lots of broccoli still get cancer.”  That is: sure, literature doesn’t cure terminal meanness, arrogance, or psychopathy, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t improve many people. What’s more, a particular book may not turn me into a bodhisattva, but I still might be more compassionate, having read it, than I was before.

Do you buy the idea that literature teaches empathy, that books can make us better people?  I still do, but maybe you can convince me otherwise.

Top 10 Posts of 2010

For  your reading and catch-up pleasure, I have once again compiled a “year’s top posts” list.  These posts are “top” in that they got the most hits; in some cases this may have been because of timing, a well-chosen keyword, or fluke, but in some cases I think it’s because they truly were the best posts I wrote this year.  If you missed out on these, check them out – they all said something to someone!

1. Encountering the Other: How Literature Will Save the World

I was glad this post got so much traffic, because I really like it.  I return to it from time to time when I’m wondering what the hell I’m doing with my life.  In it, I ask myself once again why reading matters, and come to the conclusion – with the help of some of my students – that “literature is the best, and perhaps the only, way to understand what it is like to be someone other than myself.”

2. What an “8th Grade Education” Used to Mean

The text of this post – purported to be an 8th-grade final exam from 1895 – has been making the rounds of the internet for a couple of years now, and, as I note in the update to the post, it’s been more or less determined that it is an authentic test, but not for 8th-graders.  The most interesting part of the post may be the comments section, in which readers once again wax in all different directions about what “education” really means.

3. Why Study Literature?

The central question of this post is an extension of that of #1 above.  Reading books is all very well, but why should the study and analysis of literature be core curriculum in college?  (Spoiler for those who want to read my further posts on this subject: I’m not certain it should.)

4. What I’m Learning From What I’m Reading: Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind

Zadie Smith + David Foster Wallace = post that gets tons of hits.  Guaranteed formula.  The post itself is really just a DFW quote, but it’s a good one.

5. I Am Disappointment With You’re English Teaching

The story of Khawar, a difficult student who was probably suffering from an undiagnosed learning disability, got a lot of response.  Another post about him also ended up high in the rankings.  (Khawar ended up passing my course, which once again had me asking myself what I’m doing wrong in my grading schemes.)

6. Ten Wonderful Things, Part Four: Harry Potter

Another way to get lots of hits: put the words “Harry Potter” in your title.  Nevertheless, the “Ten Wonderful Things” posts in general pulled in a few new readers, and it felt good to write them.  If you’ve ever wondered whether it’s cool to put a children’s bestseller on a college course, this post will give you an emphatic “yes.”

7. It’s Funny Because It’s True

It doesn’t hurt to include a funny animated video in your post, especially if your audience is mostly teachers and the video is an enactment of everything you ever wanted to say to the boneheaded student spouting excuses across your desk.  Throw in a real-life story of infuriating misspelled emails and it’ll be a winner.

8. Ten Wonderful Things, Part Six: Rereading

I’m not sure why this post got so much attention, but one thing I’ve noticed is that writing about books usually gives the stat meter a little bump.  I’m glad this post got read, because it’s a concept that means a lot to me – one of the joys of teaching literature, I need to keep reminding myself, is getting to read my favourite books over and over.

9. Why Children Shouldn’t Read

No doubt the provocative title is what gave this post its currency.  Like #4 above, the post is composed mostly of one long quote, this one from Susan Juby’s memoir of teenage alcoholism, Nice Recovery.  The quote is great, and even those of us who didn’t start binge drinking at thirteen can probably relate to its description of what too much reading can do to one’s perception of oneself and the world.

10.  A World Without People

This was my favourite post of the year, so if it hadn’t made it into the top 10, I probably would have found a way to squeeze it in here somewhere.  In this story, I have a very, very bad day that ends up being one of the best days ever, and, along the way, I stop hating everyone.

There you have it, folks.  If you need to catch up on your Siobhan Curious reading, start here.  And have a super happy new year full of stories, questions, and challenges bravely met!

My Top 10 Books of 2010

I encourage you all to make your own lists, either in the comments below or on your own blog (please post the link in the comments) because of course I don’t already have enough unread books in my house.

Note: These books were not necessarily published in 2010, but they were part of my 2010 experience.

1. A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

I really don’t care about the ins and outs of the music industry, but this novel made me care.  It also made me believe that a PowerPoint presentation can be as poignant and funny as a short story.  Without question, the best book I read all year.  Down side: I’m not sure there’s any point in my writing fiction ever again.

2. The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

A bunch of people working at, or linked to, an English-language newspaper in Rome.  Similar in structure to Jennifer Egan’s book in that it seems at first to be a series of disconnected stories, but it’s not.  Even the characters who seem the least lovable are completely absorbing.  Also: funny.

3. The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine

I cried at the end of this one.  Works best if you have recently read or watched Sense and Sensibility, but I expect it would be a joy ride regardless.  Sent me running for Schine’s earlier works, none of which really did it for me, but I’m waiting on tenterhooks for her next one.

4. The Likeness by Tana French

I am not usually a mystery reader.  Exceptions include P. D. James and Kate Atkinson.  I am totally chuffed about finding Tana French.  I finished The Likeness just last night and, although it was well past my bedtime, I reread the last page four times because I didn’t want it to end.  In short: detective is called to the scene of a murder.  The victim looks exactly, but exactly, like her.  Beautiful, heart-gripping chaos ensues.  French has a new book out this year and it’s garnered her a lot of new attention – I wish I were one of the cool people who had discovered her earlier.

5. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Enough has been said about this book.  My two cents: believe the hype.  It’s that good.

6. One Day by David Nicholls

Follows a “couple” – they sleep together in college and remain friends – by dropping in on them on the same day every year.  Very funny, often painful, at times a bit lumpy but worth it.

7. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

This is a bit of a cheat – I listened to this on audiobook last year, but read it for the first time this summer so I could teach it.  One of the most enjoyable memoirs I’ve ever read – easy, funny, moving, perfect for the classroom.  Walls renders her horrifying childhood and her impossibly selfish parents without a drop of pathos or self-pity.  Hard to believe such terrible memories could have produced such a wonderful and touching romp.

8. Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum

Linked short-stories about a middle-school teacher.  I don’t know if I loved it because I’m a teacher, but it seems I’m not the only one – Jonathan Franzen and Michael Cunningham both give it raving blurbs.  I don’t read a lot of short-story collections these days, but this one feels almost like a novel, like a string of perfectly irregular jewels.

9. Y: The Last Man: Book 4 by Brian K. Vaughan et al.

I am a graphic novel lover.  I’m not so much into the post-apocalyptic sci-fi vein, but the Y: The Last Man series is my favorite graphic novel series ever.  A young man named Yorick, and his male monkey Ampersand, are the only male animals left on earth after a mysterious plague.  They set off to find Yorick’s girlfriend.  Problems: they don’t know where she is, and being a man in this manless world is … complicated.  Stephen King calls it “the best graphic novel I’ve ever read,” if that matters.

10. The Popularity Papers by Amy Ignatow

This beautiful little book, styled like a note/sketchbook, is aimed at tween girls, and I wish I’d read it when I was one, but it just came out this year.  Lydia and Julie are not popular, but they have a plan to become popular, and this book is an illustrated log of their progress.  As you can imagine, their plan takes unexpected turns and even puts their friendship in jeopardy.  The two girls are enchanting, the pictures are delicious, and reading it made for an afternoon that I would have very much appreciated when I was twelve years old and unhappy with who I was.  Give it to a girl you know; it might change her forever, but at the very least, she’ll have a good time.

Literary Appreciation + Literary Analysis: A Course Plan

Regular commenter Crystal has asked for some more details about my Personal Narrative course, in which I focus less on literary analysis and more on literary appreciation.  Here’s some general info on how the course unfolds.  Feel free to steal/adapt/query, etc.

Module 1: Literary Analysis Review

Text: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

In the first part of the course, we all read The Glass Castle and discuss the genre of the personal narrative.  We review elements of narrative (theme, plot, setting, character, imagery/symbolism) and they apply them to the memoir.  We then do a short analytical essay in class based on a choice of unseen texts (I like using the “Lives” section of the New York Times magazine as a source for excellent very short personal narrative texts.)

Module 2: Book Talks

Texts: students have a course pack containing copies of the front cover, the back cover or inside flap, and the first chapter of eight book-length memoirs.  I ask them to browse this pack and then tell me the three books they’d most like to read.  This term, I included the following texts:

I assign one book to each student, so each book is read by a group of 4-5 students.  Their major assignment for this module is a “book talk,” in which they must, as a group, present the book to the class and encourage the class to read it.  Each person is responsible for a 5-7 minute presentation on one of the following topics:

  1. Plot summary: this is a challenging topic, because you will need to give a detailed enough summary to intrigue the audience, but you can’t give everything away!  Try giving a brief overview with a description of the important characters and relationships, and then identifying important events/scenes that you found interesting, and explaining why.
  2. Discussion of theme: Identify an important theme in the memoir.  Make sure you state your theme clearly and precisely.  Then give evidence from the memoir to support your theme, WITHOUT GIVING THE WHOLE STORY AWAY.
  3. Historical, geographical or cultural information: Identify the historical, geographical and social setting of the book (where, when, and in what social context it happens) and discuss important facts that readers may need to know that will help them understand the story better.  Make sure you make direct connections between the facts you provide and the events of the book.
  4. Discussion of another element of the narrative: You may wish to discuss the author’s use of another literary element such as conflict, characterization or imagery, and how it helps us understand and appreciate the story.
  5. Medical information: Some of these memoirs are about physical or mental illness.  You may wish to provide facts about the conditions the narrators or their family members suffer from.  Again, make sure you don’t just give a list of facts – connect your information to the characters and events in the book.
  6. Author info: This book tells a story of a particular event or time in the author’s life.  Besides the events in the book, what else is interesting about the author?  For example: what happened before or after the events in the book?  Has the author published other books, stories, etc., or have other works been written about him/her?  Is the author still alive?  If so, what is he/she doing now?  Tell us any information about the author that you think adds to the information in the story.
  7. Personal connections: Choose a scene, character, event or idea in the memoir that you found particularly interesting and discuss why you related to it.  Tell us about how this aspect of the book reflected events in your life, and why other people in the class might relate to it too.
  8. Difficulties: Tell the class about some challenges you had, and that they might have, in reading this book.  Explain why it will be worthwhile to take on these challenges and read all the way to the end.
  9. What you learned: Tell the class about some important things you learned from reading this book, and tell them why the book is effective in teaching readers those things.
  10. What you loved: Tell the class about some things you loved about this book.  Be detailed, but again, don’t give everything away.  Sell the book to the class!
  11. Bonus topic: Dramatic scene: Two or more group members might want shorten their talk from five minutes to four, and then to bank their extra minutes in order to perform a scene from the book at the end of the talk.  Take care not to run over time if you do this.

After all the presentations, students must write a Book Talk Report in which they explain their impressions of each book and justify which book they will choose for their third reading.

Module 3: Comparison

Text: each student chooses a second book from the list above.

Students must write an essay comparing the memoir they presented in their book talk to the memoir they have chosen for their third reading.  In this module, we are also going to look at examples of personal narrative in film (maybe Persepolis?) and in radio/TV (This American Life).

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My goal in the course as a whole is to balance the ministerial requirements of the course (understand and analyze a genre) with my personal goals for the students (learn to behave as readers by choosing reading material, discussing it with others, making informed decisions about what to read next, thinking through the pleasures and difficulties of a text, etc.)

Toward the end of the semester, I’ll let you know the general student response to these various books.

Your questions and suggestions are welcome and anxiously awaited.