Friday, April 11, 2014

Create Your Own Literature Class

So, it looks like I'm going to be teaching Freshman English this fall. And, of course, my mind is already running with the possibilities. (I remember one night, when I had my first baby in the bassinet beside me and had not taught for two or three years and had no prospects of teaching for quite a while, I woke up and had an idea for a poetry unit. I stayed awake for a couple of hours mentally planning a poetry unit for Juniors. Never used it -- don't remember it now -- but it was an awesome unit. This is what I do.)

But some questions have come to mind as well, and I would be curious how my readers would answer them, so here goes:

1) What should we read? The class is "World Literature I", to coincide with the World History class their taking at the same time, so we're reading literature NOT written by Americans (that's for later) written from the beginning of history to around the time of the American Revolution. (Yes, that's a huge amount of history to cover in one year . . . I don't have any say in the history curriculum.)

And realistically, it's not actually "World" Literature. It's more "Western Civilization" Literature. Because no, we probably won't get to anything written in Africa, Asia, or South America during that time period. Not that such literature wouldn't be of value to read -- we simply don't have a lot of time.

So, given those parameters, what goes on the reading list? I skimmed the table of contents of a few college level world literature books just to get authors and titles in my head and see what stood out as "one can't graduate from high school without reading this" material. And there was far too much. We have to read a Greek play, yes? And some Homer. And something from the Canterbury Tales. And something from Dickens, certainly. A King Arthur something. What about poetry? Which poets are a must?

And Shakespeare! Shakespeare falls into this time period. When I ask myself, which Shakespeare plays is it necessary that every person with a high school diploma must read, my list is far too long.  Romeo and Juliet . . . Julius Caesar . . . Macbeth . . . Hamlet . . . A Midsummer's Night's Dream . . . Taming of the Shrew . . . (okay, the last one isn't a must except I just love it, and you have to get in some comedy). That's a year's worth of study right there! Sigh.

2) How much of each piece do we read? My first year of teaching, we were required to cover The Scarlet Letter, and I found that every other Junior English teacher in my school (and there were a few -- it was a big school) only had the kids read excerpts. They summarized many chapters for them and had them read the crucial chapters. I was stunned; I'm not sure it had ever occurred to me before that one could read a book that way, much less teach it in English class that way. But, frankly, it made a lot of sense there. We simply didn't have time to cover everything we were required to cover, and there are parts of The Scarlet Letter that really drag, after all.

But this fall, I get to determine my list of what I'm required to cover. (Well, for the most part.) So, the question is, do we read more material but read some of it in excerpts so they get at least an exposure to the piece, the author, the "type" . . . or do we read less material so we can read each piece thoroughly and deeply?

This depends, of course, on my goals for the course -- so that is the real question here. Is my goal that each student leave with a big overview of the vast library of literature the world produced in that huge swath of time? Is my goal that they learn to read any piece of literature thoughtfully and analytically? Is it my goal that they enjoy reading serious literature enough to want to read more for the rest of their lives? Is my goal that they find meaning in every piece we read that can make a difference in their lives now?

Yes. Simplistic answer, but ALL of those are my goals. And that's the problem.

So, anyway . . . I'd love to hear some perspective from the rest of you. Most of you are grown now, I believe. Looking back, what did you learn in high school literature classes that really made a difference to you today? Or what do you wish now you had learned? I'd really love to know.

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