Teaching Kids, Books, and the Classics

My  Huffington Post blog post earlier this week on Walter Dean Myers generated some tweets including this one from NYDNBooks:

over at @huffpostbooks, teacher MonicaEdinger calls WalterDean Myers remarkable. Wonder what she’d think of this:nydailynews.com/blogs/pageview…

So what did I think about Alexander Nazaryan’s blog post “Against Walter Dean Myers and the dumbing down of literature“? My first response was that it seemed so intentionally designed to ruffle feathers that I’d take the high road and ignore it. The tweet seemed clearly a ploy to gain traffic and controversy and I didn’t want to be a pawn in that. Besides, I knew others would take on the gauntlet and they have on twitter, in the blog post’s comments, and elsewhere.

But I’ve changed my mind after reading some of the responses because what makes this slightly different for me is Nazaryan’s description of his students’ responses to the “classics.”  I teach younger kids in a very different sort of school, but I do agree with him that the classics, taught right and well as it appears he did, can be absolutely remarkable learning experiences; I’ve even written a book about it.  But where Nazaryan and I part ways is that I don’t think  that classics are the only thing to teach. In fact I think that there can be (and should be) opportunities for students to read and respond to a whole variety of books including those by Myers and other contemporary YA writers, exciting engagements with classics (such, as a matter of fact, those described by Nazaryan) being just one of them.

Reading to me is many things and so I think we teachers need to provide many different experiences with reading and books.  My fourth grade students read all sorts of material on their own, for themselves, for all sorts of reasons. In fact, for much of the school year  they chose the books they want to read, not me. But at a couple of points we do consider a classic together, say E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web.  We grapple with it, look at the writing, the theme, and much more.  The kids do think hard and are challenged in the ways that Nazaryan challenged his students. Years ago I taught older kids The Iliad and it was an amazing experience too. And so I’m absolutely in agreement that done right kids absolutely love this. (Done poorly and you create new cohorts of people who end up hating the classics and/or think that teachers are book killers.) And so I’m with Nazaryan about providing such opportunities for kids in every sort of classroom in every sort of neighborhood. And not with him in feeling that you can do that and also encourage and support kids in their reading of Myers and other contemporary writers.

Bottom line: our classrooms are filled with all sorts of readers and need to be filled with all sorts of books, all sorts of writers, and all sorts of reading experiences.

16 Comments

Filed under Classic, Huffington Post, In the Classroom

16 responses to “Teaching Kids, Books, and the Classics

  1. Pingback: Welcome, SLJ Readers « A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

  2. Monica –
    As always your post is insightful and thought-provoking. I’ve been reading your blog longer than most and it is one of my inspirations for my own new blog.
    Your bottom line is so perfectly written – I plan on sharing it with my children’s lit students on the first day of class next week.

  3. Well said. Although I was a big reader in high school, I don’t think I would have liked just reading the classics. It’s essential to open up lots of doors to kids; you never know which reader is going to be struck by which book. I remember hearing a guy in high school mention that he hadn’t liked a book since third grade until we read “The House on Mango Street” for a class. I wonder if Nazaryan would cut that from the syllabus too.

    • You just never know what is going to grab someone or do just the opposite. I’m just not an absolutist, especially not when it comes to teaching and learning.

  4. I’m sure many folks don’t like Walter Dean Myers’ books, but then again, it was too much Thomas Hardy and a mediocre version of Malory that turned me off reading for some time, despite a teacher I loved. I can make no great conclusion from my experience, of course, unless I set up a straw man type of argument and say the classics are bad for kids and we should avoid them. The either/or mentality is just so odd to me, and your bottom line so sensible.

    • Interesting that the teacher you loved didn’t convince you to love the books he/she taught. I think something similar happens to some of my students with Alice in Wonderland when I read it to them— some like it and some don’t, but all enjoy the experience.

  5. Your book, at least from the title, seems to take the approach that books exist so that students can learn to read better. But why do we want students to read? If we want them to read because we want them to be able to function in a white collar workplace, or being reading is some sort of intrinsic good, then we certainly ought not mind what they read–so long as they’re reading.

    I’m afraid, though, that I agree with Mr. Nazaryan. Reading isn’t an end. It’s a means to grow, learn, and become a better, happier person. Reading should help us aspire to a better, deeper appreciation of ourselves and our world. We learn nothing from reading about people just like ourselves. If the purpose of reading is to elevate, as Mr. Nazaryan claims, Walter Dean Myers’ books fall seriously short.

    A book doesn’t have to be a classic to be good, but it should help the reader grow.

    • Just to say that the title of my book was done by the publisher and if you read any of it you will see that it is not about teaching kids to read better. I partially ascribe to Nazaryan’s point that literature can elevate. And I do think classics can get kids to think and consider like no one’s business. But I do also feel strongly that reading is not just that. Reading can be as basic as making sense of a form, learning how to follow directions on a test (something my students need to know), or reading a parking sign (something many New Yorkers ruefully learn they can’t do very well). Books can help a reader grow or they can just provide some very basic information. All of that is reading, I think.

  6. I adored the Odyssey and was bored to tears by the Iliad. What generalization could that guy then draw about my relationship to Homer? As Monica and most people who enjoy nuance (and not button-pushing-op-eds) point out: Books, tastes, kids vary. When I read Kate Chopin’s The Awakening in HS, it absolutely changed my life; some of my classmates (boys and girls) found it Narcolepsy City. We all attended the same decent-but-not-great, socioeconomically and ethnically diverse public school in RI. So since you never know what book will hit whom how, why not teach a lot of different kinds of books? Grrr. Argh.

    • I feel so strongly about being thoughtful about the books we use in our classrooms. For example, I almost never read aloud a book of more than 200 pages so that if there are kids listening who aren’t connecting to it they aren’t stuck listening to it endlessly. And I also try to select read aloud books that speak equally to boys and girls.

      And as for classics, when I do Alice in Wonderland I expect that it isn’t going to be beloved by every kid, but we do so many fun things with it that the kids always have fun and gain an appreciation of the book and author even if they don’t fall in love with it. (One of my new fun activities is playing croquet in the classroom as I found a set that is just the right size. We also do a sort-of Virginia Reel so they get the Lobster Quadrille. It’s a small classroom by the way:) And I’m careful that when I’m reading it to them that they are reading all sorts of other books on their own that they do love.

  7. I imagine that most of the people who think kids should only read the classics don’t actually have any children and don’t know many. It’s a nice high-falutin’ attitude with no basis in reality.

  8. I agree completely with this post. Also, we need to always bear in mind that what we see as literary “classics” were frequently regarded as the “popular” literature of their time. It is not always easy to know which books will stand the test of time. To learn to be a discerning reader, it is necessary to be exposed to many types of literature and fiction.

  9. Amen, Amen to this post. If they don’t read a wide variety, they develop no measuring stick of their own. The danger comes when we try to decide for them—and that gets dangerously close to censorship.

  10. Pingback: Rasco From RIF » Roundup of Children’s Literacy and Reading News – January in Review

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