Friday, July 06, 2012

Books I would want NOT taught in school: a small reflection

The headline of the article from Salon says "Reader Responses: Books You Want Banned." It makes it sound like they want the books permanently banned. In reality, it is an article about people expressing which they do not want to see taught in schools. This may be for reasons ranging from the ever infamous dissection that teachers shove down students throats to the fact that, well, the books just plain suck. In some cases, the tragedy is the book might have been appreciated by some kids down the road had they not had it rammed up their keisters by the schools.

Anyhow, in the interest of having some fun, these are the books I would certainly leave out of schools if I had my way. They would be optional readings because I believe to instill love of reading that dissection and the ever popular "let's all read the same book, at the same time, at the same pace, and heaven help you if you read ahead past the rest rest of the class" approaches are not the ways to do it.

On a disclosure note, if my four readers do not know this by now, I was a public school teacher many moons ago, and yes, I was forced to do the dissection, which led not only to a good number of my kids hating certain books. It also led to me hating books and authors to the point I will never read them again. So, I give a big "eff you" to those "curriculum specialists" who forced to get real creative and work around them to minimize the damage.

So, my (partial) list:

  • Anything by Dickens, but specially Great Expectations.
  • From now on, as far as I am concerned, you may NOT introduce Shakespeare with Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare has a lot of better plays, some actually pretty funny. Use one of those instead if you absolutely have to teach Shakespeare. And for the love of all that is holy, you better be willing and able to teach any and all ribald and bawdy references. Teaching Shakespeare, or Chaucer, or others without going into the puns, innuendos, etc. is like trying to swim with your hands and ankles tied behind your back. If you have to be squeamish, because heaven forbid the kiddies hear about titties or farts, you probably should not be teaching it then. Anyhow, the kids have already heard about the tits and farts anyhow.
  • The Spanish equivalent of the above is Cervantes. If you think Shakespeare's English is difficult (and it can be without some proper training), give Baroque Spanish a try. Cervantes does have various shorter works that may be more accessible. If you must, put Cervantes on a list with similar authors of his time. Don Quixote is good, but it is one hell of a reading odyssey to your average teen.
  • Lord of the Flies. Overdone at this point. 
  • The Scarlet Letter.
  • Moby Dick. If you have to do Melville in school, his short fiction is both more accessible and a bit easier to discuss.
  • Jane Eyre, Portrait of a Lady, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and similar.
  • Anything by James Joyce. Making any school student read this is just sadistic torture pure and simple. 
  • The Catcher in the Rye. This overrated tripe needs to go from any school. Heck, as far as I am concerned, this outdated teen experience book just needs to go. There is a reason the author pretty much went into seclusion after.
The article quotes a teacher who argues that if you are going to teach some of these books,  you need to do so with context: history, politics, social sciences, and in some cases, yes, this would include sexual information. To teach 1984, to pick an example, it does help to have some of the Cold War history in place, not to mention hooking up with current politics.  Having said that, some of those books taught in schools are just bad; you teachers and administrators are not doing kids any favors by forcing the same texts year after year.

If I had my way, there would still be some curriculum. Let us be honest here. The idealists who claim we can just let kids pick whatever they want fail to take into account human nature. If you let kids literally pick anything, all they would read is Dr. Seuss (no offense) and Curious George because they are easy. So, as teachers and librarians, we can and should set some parameters. Maybe a list, be it thematic, by authors, so on, and let students pick. For instance:

  • Say, you have to read some Shakespeare: here are some choices for your grade level. 
  • You have to read a dystopian novel? Pick from these, and the list does include contemporary as well classics. So both Brave New World and Hunger Games could get in, along with other things. How about V for Vendetta?
  • You have to read something that also deals with American history: so you can have various American classics, but also why not something like Watchmen, which if you look closely, does have quite a bit to say about 20th century United States? Notice I said about American history, not necessarily written by an American. Actually, such an idea could open other ideas such as how foreigners see the U.S. in literature for example. 
  • If you read the Bible in school, probably for some world literature class (I am assuming public school here. Parochial schools have "their way" of teaching the Bible), you have to read other religious texts as well and have contextual lessons to go with it. Again, this opens up history, politics, and other important subjects. 
  • More World Literature. Read something like Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, but make sure you provide a good history of colonialism and post-colonialism for context. In fact, a book like this can help you understand, with proper context, things such as why India and Pakistan pretty much hate each other. Read one of the dictator novels from Latin America, say El Señor Presidente by Miguel Ángel Asturias. With proper historical lessons, you can come to understand not only Latin American history but also U.S.-Latin American relations. Again, provide a list and go from there.
The point is there are many ways to promote reading while getting a good education without having to do the usual sleep inducing, fairly irrelevant, so-called classics that kids will grow to hate. Then again, some of my suggestions would actually take some work and planning, and in the era of teaching to the test and doing just the bare minimum, not likely to happen.

I can probably add a few more to my list, but the above were ones that came to me right away. So, what would you add to your list of books that should not be taught in schools? Maybe you want to defend something you read in school that most other people hate? As always, the comments are open.

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