24 August 2004

How a Teacher Chooses Some Books

There's been a fair amount of linking around the blogosphere to this article from the NY Times, headlined, "Why Teachers Love Depressing Books", and while I don't have much to say about it, not having read much YA lit, I've been spending a lot of time over the past week or so deciding what books I will use in the classes I teach this year, so I thought I'd share some of the thoughts that go through one teacher's head when faced with writing a syllabus.

First, some background. I'm going into my seventh year teaching at a private boarding school in central New Hampshire. While some of our buildings might remind you of Dead Poet's Society, the school I work at is not at all the sort of Americanized Eton portrayed there. Many of our students have been, for better or worse, labeled with some sort of learning disability, and though we are specifically a college prep school, the graduates go off to a wide variety of colleges. We don't have a huge endowment of money to play with, making roughly 90% of the budget determined completely by tuition, and about 20% of that budget goes to financial aid, so that while, yes, the majority of our students come from families that have a monthly income higher than my annual one, there are plenty of students from a wide variety of backgrounds. There are a few things that make teaching at this sort of school appealing to me: small classes (15 students average for my classes), a lot of curricular freedom, and students buy their own books, which means I can assign things that aren't just what the English department happens to have in stock. (Yes, there are things that I don't like, too. Ask me how I'm feeling after thirteen straight days of fifteen hours worth of various duties, including dorm duty. But the good outweighs the bad, at least for now.)

For this coming year, I'm teaching one section of Advanced Placement Literature for seniors and three sections of American Literature for juniors. We are on a trimester schedule, and the Fall trimester is eight weeks long, plus one week for final exams. The first books of the year have already been decided on, because, for a variety of reasons, the English department thought we should start each grade level off with the same book. For the juniors, it's The Great Gatsby, for the seniors, Kurt Vonnegut'sMother Night. Thus, the immediate decisions I need to make are about what to use after my classes finish those first books.

At the moment -- I have a week and a half to keep changing my mind -- I'm planning on following Gatsby with Neil Gaiman's American Gods and then Willa Cather's My Antonia. Technically, I probably shouldn't use the Gaiman, because he's a British writer, but I think it offers some interesting views of American culture, and, most importantly, it's fun to read. I guarantee that at least one kid in each section of that class will say to me, "Mr. Cheney, I've never read a book that's this long in my life," or something to that effect. English teachers get blamed for ruining reading for people, and, frankly, a lot of that criticism is justified. The basic, traditional paradigm of English teaching seems to pretend that everyone should become a literary critic. That's silly. Over the past six years, I've probably had fewer than ten students who went off to college to immediately become English majors. If I teach kids that reading is hard, boring work, that's the association they're going to be left with. If I start from the premise that reading can be fun and can be rewarding, then maybe when we get to the hard and sometimes boring work, that won't be all they remember. At least, that's what I hope.

I was somewhat reluctant to do My Antonia, but I like to have a variety of perspectives in a term, whether those perspectives be geographic, historical, cultural, or whatever. Hence, My Antonia seems a good perspective to add to Gatsby. I haven't taught it before, but my department head, whose judgment I trust, has, and said though she expected everyone to hate it, many of the students said it was their favorite book of the year. That works for me. I'll also sprinkle in some short stories and poetry, but I don't want to cram the term too full with reading, because I need the kids to have time to do some writing. My philosophy with writing in the Fall term is similar to my philosophy with reading: I need to come up with assignments that will not make these kids dread every assignment I create for the rest of the year. Few of them have ever had a positive experience with a writing assignment before, which is a major reason for the poor quality of their written work: writing assignments are often as fulfilling as chewing your leg off to get out of a trap. The expectation from the school and from parents is that by the end of the year my students will be better able to express their ideas through writing, and so I need for them to start out by realizing that such a thing is possible.

The AP class is different in crucial ways. I have mixed feelings about everything in life, but particularly mixed feelings about teaching AP, where some elements of the class are determined by the fact that I'm supposed to be preparing the students to take a huge, demanding, and pretty ridiculous test at the end of the year. To do well on that test, they need to have a basic understanding of the history of Western literature and be able to write specific, concise literary analysis on the spot. The department head determined I'm the man for this job, and the school spent a good amount of money sending me to a week-long conference about the AP lit test a few years ago, so I do it, and do my best not to waste everyone's time.

The fun is in working with kids who actually don't mind reading and, sometimes, writing, and being able to talk about reading and writing at a pretty high level with them. This year, I'm excited by what I'm planning to do in the fall: using Alex Irvine's One King, One Soldier as an inspiration and anchor, we're going to read parts of Tennyson's Idylls of the King, a lot of Rimbaud (including letters), Eliot's "The Waste Land", and Donald Allen's The Postmoderns poetry anthology. I betting they'll like One King, One Soldier, and that it will be a good way to open up some interest in texts they would otherwise find dull, off-putting, and inscrutable. Somehow I need to design the assignments to be a kind of quest...

So you can see the choice of books is a mix of some of my own interests (because if the teacher isn't excited about the texts, why should the students be?) and some of the requirements of the specific classes, my guesses about the students, and the expectations of administrators and parents. I've worked at other types of schools and have worked extensively with teachers of everything from first grade to Home Ec. to college, and while my own process of creating a curriculum is not common (I start from scratch every year), the thinking is generally a similar mix of mundane needs and creative struggles against limits. While some teachers care for nothing other than making sure kids get a certain canon of literature pushed into them, a greater number, in my experience at least, are far more focused on what the students can learn and what skills they can develop, what habits of thinking they might discover -- using reading and writing as a tool to do so. And every good teacher I've met ends the year saying, "I could have done better." (That's what keeps me, at least, coming back each year: I suffer the delusion that one day I'll actually get it right.)

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