Monday, November 20, 2006

SBD--Enjoying the stuff, dammit.

I talk a lot about my kids. They are an intriguing bunch, at least to me. My eldest daughter is what we might call an "old soul". Very, very smart (an A student, well except for that B in P. E.), and very, very articulate.

She hates Sixth Grade English. Hates it.

Oh, how this pains me.

She is stuck in one of those didactic hells we all find ourselves in from time to time; her teacher has a specific way of teaching her class and she will not be flexible in any way.

The textbook with reading samples and discussion questions is NOT to be read during free reading period. Grammar will be taught from pre-approved worksheets, NOT using examples drawn from the sample text. (Therefore my daughter has no clue how to USE any of the grammar she's learned.) After reading the assigned short book at home, the class will, after being called on individually, re-read the entire book aloud. All students will pay attention. Reading for enjoyment or reading ahead is strictly discouraged at all times.

So right now, the class is reading I Know Where the Red Fern Grows, which my daughter finished well before Halloween. Every day she goes to class (it's now mid-November) and listens as her classmates plod through it, paragraph by paragraph, rereading it out loud. She's not allowed to draw while she listens, she's not allowed to take notes while she listens: essentially, she's learning to hate this book.

I'm dying with her.

I LOVED my English classes. OK, I was for the most part blessed with excellent English teachers. But, you know, even I had to do mildly boring things. At one point in Sixth Grade we had to memorize a list of prepositions in alphabetical order. I remember it started with "Aboard, about, above, across..." and then I forget the rest. But that aside, we read some great stuff in Sixth Grade:

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (Which I hated until I got to the end. Eww. Freaky.)
"A Rose for Emily" by William Faulkner (Eww. Freaky.)
To Kill a Mockingird by Harper Lee (Which still makes me cry.)
"The Story of an Hour" by Kate Chopin (Which I adore.)
"The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (Which to this day still gives me nightmares.)
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (The first of five class readings for this. I never grew to like it.)
"Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" by Joyce Carol Oates (Devil?)
"The Dead" by James Joyce (which I didn't like at all until I read the entire Dubliners.)
"The A & P" by John Updike (Which I still don't like.)

So here's the thing, some of those I didn't really enjoy, but I learned how to appreciate the art within them. The ones I loved, well, I still love them. And beyond the idea that we have to read only the things that we lurve, I learned how to search for symbols, themes, foreshadowing, unreliable narrators, points of view, details, and controversies. I learned how to compare them, how to write about them, how to build a character sketch from the text, and how to dissect a text to support my point of view. And I did all that well before High School or even college.

I remember LOVING to search for symbols. Oh! A window! What could THAT mean? Oh! A flower! Innocence? Death? Romance? Which is it? And sometimes in my adolescent enthusiasm, I would go way too far, wringing meaning out of every description, trying to turn every scene into some greater allegory. (If Flowers Mean Something, then the vase must mean something, and the table, and the hallway, and the door at the end.) It took a bit of work by my Ninth Grade teacher to convince me to tone it down a touch. But hey, I was engaged. I was excited. I was eager to not only read, but to re-read, and to re-read again, trying to work out the structure of the story, the motive of the narrator.

My daughter's learning how to be a passive reader and how to build a diorama based only on the characters in the book. Oh, there's a good skill to have. Because so diorama-building is so ubiquitous in adult life. Wouldn't want to build up critical thinking skills, or, god forbid, writing skills.

So, this weekend, I started my daughter on a home course of Litera-toor.

I downloaded from the web four short stories: "The Gift of the Magi" by O. Henry, "A Rose for Emily" by William Faulkner, "A Good Man is Hard to Find" by Flannery O'Connor, and "The Story of an Hour" by Kate Chopin.

I wrote out some questions for her: Is there a moral to this story? When did you first suspect that this story wouldn't end the way you anticipated? Who is the narrator? Does the narrator like the characters? Does the author like the characters? Tell me about a theme, or a series of images in the story that you think the author included for some reason.

She read the stories, and we sat together to talk about the questions. I didn't ask her to write anything (yet).

And we genuinely enjoyed ourselves. Shocking, I know. Because, according to the educators, this shouldn't be at all fun. Every drop of enjoyment or discussion should be wrung from young students' minds.

Here are some of my daughter's interpretations:

The heroine in "The Gift of the Magi" is an idiot. She cries and sobs too much. Jim's OK, but he's kind of flat. And the last paragraph is very confusing. We think there's a moral, but O. Henry's writing is so dense at the end that it's hard to get to his meaning.

"A Rose for Emily" is creepy but beautiful. You need to read it about four times to get a sense of what happens when. A time line could help. The scariest line in the story is when Homer is described as being "in the attitude of an embrace." Ew.

"A Good Man is Hard to Find" is funny, but it's disturbing that it's funny. We shouldn't be laughing at the grandmother. The title means a lot of different things, depending on who's saying it.

"The Story of an Hour" is just so sad. The twist is meant to be ironic and show us something about the way men treat women, but really, it's just so sad. Too sad to even talk about even.


There now, that wasn't so hard. I find it hysterical that she has so little patience for Della, the heroine in "The Gift of the Magi." My daughter don't like no sniffling women. And I didn't expect her to be so troubled by "The Story of an Hour."

So we've decided that we're going to do this every week. I'm going to try to pull together ones which link together in some way. I'm thinking of doing angels and devils next. "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" is an obvious one, and maybe "The Minister's Black Veil", and I'm trying to remember the name of the Mark Twain story about the little boy who breathes life into little mud people and then stomps on them--after all, they're his creations to do with what he will. I'd also like her to read some Ring Lardner, and Guy de Maupassant, and Edgar Allen Poe, and Saki, and everybody else I can think of.

Why are we so dedicated to wringing the life out of books? Why are we so dedicated to believing that a work such as Romeo and Juliet (which I read in Seventh Grade) is only a High School text because it was written by, shhhhhh, silence please, Shakespeare? Why do we do this to kids? Why do we refuse to teach them how to write? Why do we refuse to teach them how to read for context and subtle meanings? It's as if only knowing the plot is good enough.

Why do we teach the good readers, the smart readers, the articulate readers, how to hate reading?

9 comments:

Mailyn said...

The only answer I can come up with, which is the same one I've had for years, is that our system sucks. Teachers don't seem to be excited about teaching. I remember growing up I had very few teachers that would seem as if they enjoyed what they were doing. What's the point of working in something you don't like or don't seem to believe in? That doesn't motivate anyone. I am just glad my grandma and mom were better teachers than most actual teachers. They got me reading and writing before I started school and we always read good books rather than the crap they feed the kids nowadays. My little cousin came home one day with some stupid book, can't remember the name, that looked as if it was meant for pre-schoolers or something and she was already in the 5th grade.

I posted about some of the classics in a new series that B&N came out with so you may want to get some of them for your daugther. I think they would make a great collection for kids.

C2 said...

See, one of my pet peeves about the educational system is this - Why do they continue to stress math science math science math, when the literacy levels are so bad and so many people are vocal about not enjoying reading??? You really can get through life quite well without algebra and trig and calculus. However, life is hard if you can't read and understand what you're reading.

Part of the problem has to do with poor selections of reading material chosen for text books. Kids now are reading the same stuff kids were reading 40 years ago...kids now are NOT the same as kids 40 years ago! That's not to say they shouldn't read classics, just maybe differentclassics, you know?

Anyway, no more rambling. ;-D It's great that you're working with your daughter to encourage a reading habit! I always say that people either are or are not readers - if they are, they will read anything, anytime, if they aren't, they can learn to be, sort of. They may never develop the same love of books a true reader has but they can appreciate books, all the same. Okay, really done rambling now.

CindyS said...

Awww, can I join in?

My English teachers wrenched the joy of reading right out of me! Okay that was high school and what they were getting us to read wasn't what I would consider age appropriate. Wait.

Stone Angel bore me to tears and by the time the character was an old woman I just didn't care.

Catcher in the Rye was a bore and the teacher seemed to grasp all these meanings from the story that quite frankly, I just didn't see. Also, it was a story about boys -blergh.

Shakespeare? There's a reason why it's better to see the plays - reading it was a nightmare - it wasn't until I saw the BBC version of the 'Shrew' story that I realized just how funny it was.

Oh and years ago I would have said I wasn't a reader. It wasn't until I discovered romance that I started reading up to 3 books a week. All of a sudden I didn't care about the other subjects I was supposed to be studying ;)

CindyS

Marianne McA said...

I'm not sure what sixth grade is, but my oldest (who's 15, Year 11) can't stick her English teacher. The teacher does all the reading aloud in class herself - how endless must that be? - and seems to freely share with them her dissatisfaction with teaching as a profession.
And they're reading P&P which my daughter hates with a passion - she can do a very funny fifteen minutes on the wetness of people whose idea of an evening's entertainment is to walk round the room. As far as I can make out she's getting through on her knowledge of the Andrew Davies' adaption (which she thinks is also fabulously wet - but my thirteen year old loves it, so she's watched it several times by default.)
Truthfully, I don't remember liking Austen (Northanger Abbey) at school either - I needed to grow up before I enjoyed the books. And I've never read any more Hardy or Dickens. School killed more authors for me than anything else. I suspect the reason was that while I was a very competent reader, I was immature, and hadn't any interest in adult writing.
My fifteen year old isn't a great reader, though she likes books that make her cry: "This book is evil, you have to read it." She's been working her way through the Malorie(?) Blackman series.

I applaud what you're doing with your daughter, but I literally couldn't do it - wouldn't know how to approach books that way. Neil Gaiman has questions for reading groups at the back of some of his books, and they always bemuse me: it's such a foreign idea to analyse fiction.

Oddly enough my daughter is trying to write a play at the moment. [If I stop to think about this, I'll panic, because I'm not convinced she knows what she's doing, and she's taken the theatre for a night in April.] But that to me is weird - I can't see how you'd enjoy writing, and not enjoy reading.

Anonymous said...

Why, oh why do they squelch creativity in the public classroom?

In sixth grade, I loved The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. Talk about creepy.

Have your tried Jhumpa Lahiri or Best American Short Stories. There's one in the 2006 edition, Self-Reliance, which is one of the most beautiful stories I've ever read.

Good for you for being so proactive. Your children are very lucky to have a mother like you.

Racy Li said...

I really empathize with you. I learned to love reading not from any of my teachers but from my mom.

Suisan, if you're interested in this book, drop me an email at superstories *remove*asterisks* at racyli dot com and I'll send it to. I don't know why I have 2 copies of this book (considering I haven't even read it yet), and I'll be happy to give it to you.

Suisan said...

Kids are about eleven or twelve in sixth grade.

She's a great reader--voracious actually. But she's on the edge of learning that anything assigned for school is not to be enjoyed.

But she's definitely learning to only read for plot. There's not a touch of "literary criticism", although that's an obnoxious word. What I mean to say is, they are not learning about what a third person narrator is, or what a symbol is.

It's all just superficial and flat.

But we're getting there...

Anonymous said...

Annahid: Hey, we stopped doing that Mom!!!!!!!!!!!!! And those new ones sound good :(

Suisan said...

You Little STINKER!!

Get off my blog!!

Love ya,

Mom