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.