Literature Pop Quiz

Q. True or false: The primary theme of The Great Gatsby is the disintegration of the American Dream during the very height of material prosperity in the 1920’s.

A. In the very act of asking that question, I have imposed two assumptions upon you.
    1. You ought to have read The Great Gatsby.
    2. The American Dream is related to an empty and unsatisfying material prosperity.

Maybe you agree with both of those assumptions. That is not the point. I could as easily have asked the following.

Q. True or false: The primary theme of Atlas Shrugged is the hampering of individual excellence by collectivist mediocrity.

A. Again two assumptions:
    1. If you haven’t read Atlas Shrugged, you’re somehow lacking.
    2. Individuals can excel only by escaping the bonds imposed by a mundane common culture.

And again, whether you agree or disagree with those assumptions isn’t the point. The point is that the texts we assign our students and the questions we ask about those texts invariably impose a set of values. Dictating titles and questions may be a more subtle form of cultural manipulation than book banning, but it is hardly more innocent.

Lately, I’ve been perusing textbooks of various literature series for K-12 students, noting common selections, reading the suggested questions and discussion topics. I’m tempted to put these books in a time capsule, so that historians centuries in the future might easily grasp the common assumptions by which we live. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear them use the phrase “lockstep.”

The trouble doesn’t lie in the titles we choose, however. Instead, it is inherent in a lecture mode of teaching, or even a teacher-led discussion. As the adult in the classroom, the person with the most life experience, the most developed vocabulary, we cast the longest shadow.

Somehow, we need to step aside to let the light fall on our students. Somehow we have to nurture a passion for reading and learning without making a bunch of little thought clones. Somehow we have to do all this without losing control of the classroom.

That somehow, according to educators such as Frank Smith and Linda Rief and Nancie Atwell and Donald Graves and others, is to teach literature as part of a writing workshop. Allow students to choose texts according to their own interests. Let me say that again: Allow students to choose what they want to read. Better to lure them into reading through their own interests than to leave them with the impression that all “school reading” is boring. Next, have them explain to their peers why they chose that text, and what they got out of it. Make sure this sharing happens sometimes in small groups, sometimes to the class at large, sometimes orally, sometimes in a more formal piece of writing. As a fellow reader and writer, model sharing your own reading choices and response writing. It’s okay to let your enthusiasm show in this, because once trusted to make their own reading choices and to present, defend, and rethink their own reactions to texts in a community of readers and writers, students naturally become enthused themselves.

Then, as a fellow reader and writer, you can even introduce them to selections from The Great Gatsby or Atlas Shrugged if you wish. Your students will be ready to decide for themselves whether they’d like to read more, what themes they discern, and just how valid those themes might be—or how much they as readers are being manipulated by someone else’s agenda.

—Les

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