Monday, August 08, 2005

Thinking about Reading Literature

What is it about the excerpt?

I've been thinking a lot lately about that recent article in USA Today (of all places) about the teaching of literature in high schools. (Book Moot has also noticed this article.) Tasha at Kids Lit rightly points out that the piece is not intended as a criticism of teachers, but rather at textbook publishing in general.

There is something fundamentally wrong about teaching with excerpts. I face this situation in my teaching as well. There are many collections of excerpts available for the student of Russian--collections of excerpts from two hundred years of Russian Literature. The problem with this approach is everything must be contextualized. When you present two pages from Anna Karenina for a student to read, a responsible teacher has to explain a number of things, including but not limited to: 1) who is Tolstoy? (okay, so I'm not a deconstructionist); 2) what did he write besides these two pages?; 3) how do his works, and these two pages in particular, fit in with that monster known as Russian Literature?; 4) how are these two pages representative of the entire work? 5) What can we learn about Tolstoy's style and approach to writing from these two pages?

By the time you have addressed all these issues and more, you've basically killed the piece entirely.

Take this approach with high school students, and you've ameliorated any desire to read in the first place. What student after reading two pages of The Scarlet Letter would want to read any further?

In this context, the debate over YA in the classroom seems inappropriate. Much better to have a 16-year-old read an entire YA novel than a collection of pieces from all the world's literature. That one novel may inspire a student to read more.