(Not) Reading Between The Lines

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There’s an interesting opinion piece, called “Teach the Books, Touch the Heart”, that just appeared in the New York Times Sunday Review that I thought I would share. It’s by an English teacher who has concerns about the lack of literary content being tested in some schools. He/she conducts “reading classes” with middle school students where they read such works as Of Mice and Men, Catcher in the Rye, and Lord of the Flies, but says these classes have had to cut by two thirds in order to concentrate on test preparation, to ensure increased marks on summative assessments.

There’s a disparity here between the materials used in teaching and learning and goals of literature as an art form. Too often, according to the teacher in this article, literary sources are not included in testing and have led to a situation where an English teacher can teach literature, but it’s plain comprehension of text, not greater meaning and issues, that are important:

Since beginning this new program in September, I have answered over 600 multiple-choice questions. In doing so, I encountered exactly one piece of literature: Frost’s “Road Not Taken.” The rest of the reading-comprehension materials included passages from watered-down news articles or biographies, bastardized novels, memos or brochures — passages chosen not for emotional punch but for textual complexity.

In my own experience, I’ve seen exams that, though they may have the required literary components (an unseen short prose piece and poem), these pieces are poor at best. What is often asked of students in such cases is comprehension of text and a superficial assessment of greater meaning. Often the works chosen are so poor that there’s little real meaning that must be found because the selection practically spells it out. This may give the student who has struggled with literature all his/her life a chance to answer correctly on an exam, but what of others who are bored to tears by what is presented to them as literature on exams (and I don’t just mean advanced students)? I’m not suggesting that these pieces should be intentionally difficult, but they should challenge the student beyond understanding plain text and surface meanings.

I’ve had many discussions with students about just this issue. In one conversation I remember clearly, the student was lamenting the fact that they had been looking forward to an exam to see what interesting unseen poem would appear, but was disappointed to see “what passes for literature”. She then went on to discuss why the poem should not have been chosen (simplicity, lack of metaphor and other figurative language, lack of concrete imagery, etc). It’s in her anger at what she was expected read and answer questions on that I saw a serious problem: if we, as the teacher in the article above says, water-down selections for use on tests so all students have a chance of doing well, then really we are only benefiting the students with the least ability in this area, while others who genuinely enjoy reading and literature itself are left bored or angry with what they are seeing. It stands to reason that some of these students more sympathetic to the arts may lose that connection they seek in their reading, or lose all respect for literature education they see around them: after all, these poor texts must be what literature is if they are the focus of English classes.

The one value I see in this kind of poorly chosen work being used in school is that students with a sense of what literature really is and the value of it can mount arguments against and criticisms of its use in classrooms (I had a very similar conversation with a number  of students about No Man’s Land by Kevin Major, that consisted of them outlining why it should never appear in a grade 10 English class again). The critical thinking is there in order to have these kinds of discussions, but ultimately all this takes enjoyment and true learning out of literature for those who thought, at one point perhaps, that there was something to be read between the lines.

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