BOOK WARS and the art of teaching

Recently we 8th grade teachers met with the 9th grade teachers in our subject areas at the high school to which most of our students will be going next year (there is only one high school in the county). It was an interesting meeting and gave me a more concrete picture of what 9th grade will be like for my students next year, which in turn gave me another list of goals and guidelines–some last bits of wisdom to impart before this year ends.

At one point the meeting took an interesting turn. The subject: teaching novels. As you may know, money is tight in school districts around the country. When schools spend the money for class sets of novels, those novels are assigned to certain classes or grade levels to ensure that schools are getting their money’s worth. Unfortunately, some teachers tend to take this burden of assigning certain novels to certain grade levels to such an extent that it becomes an issue of staking territory.

Case in point: Let me backtrack to say that earlier in the year I asked if I could borrow 30 copies of a Steinbeck novel from the high school to read with my advanced English class. The response I got was, essentially, “no, because they will read it when they get to the high school.” … ? … ? … so what?

In the meeting, one 12th grade teacher, czar-like, made her opinion on this matter known by giving an example of a 10th grade teacher who wanted to read a certain essay with his class to teach satire (I’m sure you can all guess which infamous satirical essay I mean). But she rushed in to say no, no, you can’t teach that “because it’s in the 12th grade text.” [Yes, I interrupted her to confirm that by “text” she meant the textbook adopted by our county for 12th grade. She did.].  … ? … ? … so what?!?

I have never re-read a book or seen a movie a second time or even watched a rerun of a TV show and said, “Man, I wish I hadn’t done that again.” In fact, what usually happens is I find something that I missed the first time through which adds new meaning to my understanding of the characters or plot or theme or symbols in the book/movie/TV show. Undergraduate college students re-read texts until they become so full of themselves and their self-imposed expertise that they write highly academic analyses that are only accessible to other elite scholars (believe me, I know, I was one of them).

There is nothing wrong with reading a book twice.

In a burst of pride and I’m-a-good-teacher-too defense, I wanted to tell this teacher that the 10th grade teacher should be thanking me–that at least a handful of the students in his class would understand the plot of the text and be able to a) help other students out and b) offer more insightful analyses of the characters or events since they will already be beyond the level of decoding the text. I also wanted to remind her that every teacher teaches differently and has a different approach to a text (see previous comment about college students) so that even if a students read the same book every year from the 9th grade through the 12th grade, they would still be able to create new meaning (and, if you want to get technical, learn new skills) because they, as readers (and people experiencing life) evolve, just as the world around them evolves which, in a beautiful array of serendipity would only add to students’ experiences. How did this unspoken rule about not repeating novels come about anyway? Where is it written that, aside from issues of maturity and mature content in some books, a student’s experience of a novel must take place in a certain year of their schooling and must end at the end of the 3-week period allotted to study it? Surely no teacher is confident enough to say that s/he can teach everything there is to teach about that book in that amount of time (another benefit of studying more than once). Furthermore, what message does this kind of protective claim send to our students? That once the unit is over they should never open the book again? That there is nothing else to learn or explore? That’s like saying if you don’t get along with someone (of a different background or culture or belief system) on the first try, forget about it because there’s nothing else you can do, rather than challenging them to work it out or learn more about each other and integrate new information to create a beautiful, or at the very least, respectful, relationship.

At the beginning of the school year, I often asked myself why I didn’t choose to teach high school instead of 8th grade. But now halfway through the year, I look at my files and files of materials that I have spent hours and hour producing and realize that I’d like to teach 8th grade for a couple more years, if for no other reason (and there are, actually, several) because I now have a “stash” of materials to teach with, all geared towards 8th graders. I think that many of our nation’s elder teachers feel the same way; we are, after all, creatures of habit–we like our routines. Once you’re used to teaching the same texts, I suppose it’s easy to become protective of them. But to me, this approach is severely limiting to one’s colleagues and, ultimately, to one’s self. If we are truly committed to our students rather than our subject we will embrace the art of teaching as something that allows us to be creative and find alternatives that may deviate from our original plans but still enable us to communicate meaningful information to our students.

I don’t think I’m too far off-base here, do you? Have you had book wars in your school? If so, it is my challenge to you to see how you can take lemons and make lemonade, practice a bit of subversive teaching, and show your students how exciting it is to give something a second (or third, or fourth) look.

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