Aaron Udel: Teaching classics just isn't enough
DALTON — In Jamie Gass's recent OPED column in The Eagle "Make Room for Pushkin, literary greats in schools" (Mon. June, 24), Mr. Gass makes assumptions and claims about public education that are troublingly far from the reality that I have experienced as an English teacher.
Gass advocates for teaching the classics of Western literature, especially the works of the Russian writer Alexander Pushkin, in schools. He then makes the unsupported claim that "the classics of Western literature have largely been discarded from the school curriculum," which he implies is responsible for low reading scores and "cultural serfdom."
Six or so years ago, before I spent time in the classroom, I might have endorsed Mr. Gass's position. However, having spent a considerable amount of time trying to do what he advocates — teaching classics in school to create a culturally rich society — I know that it is not that simple or that easy.
STUDENTS MUST READ
First of all, his generalization that schools don't teach classics anymore is not supported by any evidence. At various times in my Honors English 12 class I have taught "Oedipus Rex," "Beowulf," "The Canterbury Tales," "Macbeth," and "Frankenstein." These works have some things in common. First, they are all classics of the Western canon. Second, most of my students hated them, or refused to read them.
No doubt Mr. Gass would suggest that I have made some error in my approach to teaching these texts. However, over time my approaches have been informed by other professionals in the field who have a national reputation for their work. These include teachers like Kelly Gallagher and Jim Burke, both English teachers who have written extensively about their pedagogical approaches. I based my approaches on the work of my professional colleagues, tried new approaches every year, and still met with limited success. This points to other problems.
Students' reading scores won't improve unless students read more, but most students' experiences with reading only occur in school. They don't read books outside of school. Ever. I've taught students who are notable exceptions, avid readers of high interest books outside of the school. They read fantasy, teen romance, and science fiction (i.e. non-classics). They are usually my best writers, and the ones who score the highest on standardized tests. They are excellent communicators because they were raised in households that valued and encouraged reading for fun and self-improvement. I am the product of one of those literate households, and I am extremely grateful for it, but most students do not share my experiences So, what can we do to help them? I believe that the answer is to encourage more student choice and expand the range of what we consider worth teaching.
Some of my greatest experiences as a teacher have come as a result of me helping students to find books that they actually read instead of pretending to read. This doesn't mean that we should abandon the classics entirely; they will always have their place. Instead, a judicious selection of classic literature together with a large amount of student choice could be greatly beneficial.
To that end, I have been expanding my classroom library to have books to recommend to students. For the first time last year I gave a series of book talks that encouraged students to borrow books that I just finished reading. I have required students to select books of their choice in an independent reading unit. Our entire English department has modified our summer reading assignment to encourage students to read books of their choice rather than mandate teacher-selected classics. All of this is meant to supplement, rather than supplant, a diet of the classics.
AGE OF DISTRACTION
In talking about how schools can be a "culturally regenerating force," Mr. Gass seems to assume that schools can move culture more than culture moves schools, but he has it backwards. The forces outside of school greatly impact students' development inside it. Mr. Gass himself notes the presence of pop culture, smart phones, and video games. Their effects cannot be understated. We live in an age of distraction, and our brains are changing along with the technology that we use in ways we have only just begun to understand. It is hard enough to induce students to read a few pages of text, let alone a few hundred.
This is not to say that teachers cannot make a difference, or that schools don't have a valuable role to play in our distracted society. But it does mean that we should stop looking at schools as "culturally regenerating" force that can cure the ills of our society simply by teaching writers like Alexander Pushkin. That's more than wishful thinking. That's Pushkin it.
Aaron Udel is a teacher at Wahconah Regional High School and the son of long-time Eagle contributor Edward Udel.
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