Last Sunday’s Washington Post ran an article I’m surprised more bloggers haven’t jumped on yet. In her piece, “We’re Teaching Books That Don’t Stack Up”, English teacher Nancy Schnog laments the disconnect between her students and the classics of Western literature she is required to teach. She cites a recent NEA survey that indicates that the percentage of 17-year-olds “who read nothing at all for pleasure has doubled” since 1988, and offers some anecdotal evidence about how that disregard for reading has translated into a complete disinterest in the “decidedly internal rewards of classical literature”.
Although she does ring the “digital natives” alarm as one contributing factor (meh), she also admits that:
…it’s time to acknowledge that the lure of visual media isn’t the only thing pushing our kids away from the page and toward the screen. We’ve shied away from discussing a most unfortunate culprit in the saga of diminishing teen reading: the high-school English classroom. As much as I hate to admit it, all too often it’s English teachers like me — as able and well-intentioned as we may be — who close down teen interest in reading.
The apathy runs both ways, though, and this bit struck pretty close to home for me:
When students have to produce an essay on a book they care nothing for, it becomes a nightmare for both the student (think “all-nighter”) and the teacher, who’ll spend precious weekend hours reading papers devoid of content. The upshot of this empty drill: teens increasingly resistant to great books.
So what’s happening in our secondary English classrooms? Certainly, we want students reading material that they find engaging, but most schools, I imagine, also want to push the well-roundedness that a liberal arts education professes to provide, so it can’t be all “Miley Cyrus and Brittany [sic] Spears biographies”, as one particularly hyperbolic commenter wrote at another source.
After reading Dr. Schnog’s article, these are the essential questions I took away:
- What can we do to encourage, rather than discourage, student interest in reading?
- How can we “teach the classics” without “transform[ing] them into dessicated lab specimens fit for dissection”? (the words of a parent quoted in Schnog’s article)
- How important is the literary analysis essay to teaching secondary English? (OK, maybe not an essential question, but one I’ve been wrestling with for a few years now, and this is just as good a time as any to bring it up)
This one’s approaching TL;DR territory already; I’ll continue in a day or two. Just wanted to clear my mental clipboard and float this out there… I have some thoughts of my own, but I’d appreciate yours as well, particularly on any other key takeaways from the article.
In the meantime, Dr. Schnog held a WaPo-sponsored Q&A session the day after the article was published; here’s the transcript.