I know that I am, like, annoyingly old-fashioned about this, but it seems to me that a big part of the problem is that we have lately empowered students to think that their reading of a book is inherently good and/or interesting.
Too often, we teach kids that all readings are created equal and that there are no bad ideas and etc.
But kids are not in school so that they can tell us what they think about Holden Caulfield. They’re in school to learn what to think about. And whether or not you like Holden is not, imho, the most important or interesting thing you might be thinking about when reading Catcher.
It’s not Holden’s fault if people read him poorly.
Those fighting words are from John Green in his response to a recent New York Times piece on kids’ dislike of The Catcher in the Rye and, perhaps more significantly, its main character. I recommend reading the article, reading John’s response, and then — most of all— the comments. For many of them are from high school kids and quite a few of them are fans of Holden.
To me the missing ingredient in this discussion is the teacher. A great teacher can make most books interesting. (Mind you — I’m not saying likable. You can enjoy the experience of reading and talking about a particular book — say Catcher — without necessarily liking it.) Now I know that all too often teachers in schools sadly make the experience of reading a book together as a class a misery. But I have to say that I believe that done right it can be transcendent. With a great teacher a group becomes a community discussing and considering and wondering and thinking hard about all sorts of stuff by way of a great book. It bugs me that there is such a negative view about community book readings — IN SCHOOL SETTINGS. After all, people are big on book groups and whole towns and cities reading a book together. Yet too many of these same folks tear up and spit out teachers and schools for doing something similar.
Good teachers guide and prod and get everyone thinking hard. I teach 4th graders and I like to think I’m able to do this with our study of Charlotte’s Web and am arrogant enough to think I could do it with Catcher in the Rye. It doesn’t always have to be just personal. Sometimes reading is about something else — about ideas, about the world, about all sorts of stuff. When we do a close reading of Charlotte’s Web we consider the circle of life, irony, nature, death, and tons more. The kids move outside of their personal response to consider those of others and whether those change their own. The conversation is exhilarating. For the kids and for me. As wonderful as when I first did a close reading of the book with U.C. Knoepflmacher at Princeton in 1990.
I don’t think every book in the classroom needs to be done by the whole class, but I think it is a shame if some aren’t. Be it Catcher or Charlotte’s Web or another book that is full of meaty stuff to tussle with, to consider, to rail against, or to love. Books and teachers and students together can create extraordinary classroom communities. Don’t rule them out.