Monday, January 17, 2011

Lorrie Moore is Right

This weekend the New York Times ran an op-ed piece by Lorrie Moore on the Huck Finn n-word thing I posted about last week. She suggests that Huckleberry Finn isn't really appropriate for high schoolers and should be studied in college. Well, she's right, I think, and I was wrong. It's a great essay.

Of course, convincing high school teachers to change their curricula is probably more difficult than cutting a word from a book. And what should replace HF? I guess we can't answer that question until we figure out exactly what the goals are when we teach literature to high school students. Lorrie Moore suggests that a main goal is to get kids to like to read. That's a good goal, but I don't think it's enough. The fact is, for many kids, the books they read in their high school English classes will be the last novels they ever read, no matter how much those books cater to their tastes. Perhaps some of those books should challenge their tastes -- broaden them. The Scarlet Letter was the most difficult book I'd ever read back in 11th grade; I remember opening my bedroom window and leaning out into a snowstorm to try and stay awake through it. I hated every page of that stupid book. But I learned that I could actually read something hard, and understand it. (Later we read O.E. Rolvaag's Giants in the Earth, which was about 900 pages of Norwegian immigrants trying to bury their dead children in the frozen prairie. OMG. I can't believe I read the whole thing. My English teacher was a genius.)

These days high school curricula are much more multi-cultural, which is good, and I suppose HF has hung on so long in part because of the difficult questions about race and history it raises. But what else is out there? Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which Moore mentions in her essay, is terrific and a perfect choice to teach to teenagers: it talks about identity, history, and culture, but is also very funny and brilliantly written.

Can you think of any other great books for a high school literature class?


Anonymous said...

Lord of the Flies - Golding

rmellis said...

Oh, yeah! "Sucks to your asthmar!"

5 Red Pandas said...

Eh, I hated teaching "Lord of the Flies". I guess it's a decent book to teach if all your students are reading at a HS reading level but when I taught HS English the majority of my kids didn't, even if they were in a "regular" class. I think the biggest problem with Flies was the language. For my students it was often like translating from another language.

In NYC HS's they're reading stuff like Bodega Dreams, Drown, Walter Dean Myers, The Things they Carry, Edwidge Danticat, and some classes in my building are reading No Country for Old Men, and Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson.

They also read Shakespeare and that's a real challenge to teach but I found that if I laid it out like a challenge and made them feel smarter for attempting it, things went much smoother. Even I have to "translate" what he's saying. It's not easy!

Catcher in the Rye is still taught. Hell, I even taught My Antonia, though I really had to work my ass off to get my kids invested in that book with varied success.

Many of the teachers are really young and they're bringing in more contemporary literature because 1) it's often easier to read and 2) it captures the imagination easier.

I would never teach Huck Finn unless I was teaching an advanced lit class simply because of the language. I don't see the point in making a battle out of reading when there are so many other meaningful books that aren't quite so hard to read. I also agree that Huck Finn might be more appropriate for college, especially if the history classes in HS aren't going that deep into the background of the book. That's why I don't see the point of taking offensive words out. There are so many other books to teach, why compromise a book simply to make the experience more palatable?

Jay Livingston said...

Something Moore says at the end of her essay reminded me of your earlier post about books for teens, especially boys. After dissing Mockingbird and praising Alexie's Diary, she says, "There must certainly be others and their titles should be shared."

Moore is a writer and a teacher of fiction. She (presumably)has read widely, and she seems to have a teenage son. And even she can come up with only one recommendable book. (Maybe there are suggestions in the 380+ comments, but I haven't looked.)

Anonymous said...

Ooh yeah, Adalena, Bodega Dreams would be a good one. Our friend Jonathan used to pass it around to kids in detention, which he presided over.

Adalena said...

Well, it was clear to me that she's not reading YA fiction. It's much better than it was years ago. I don't want to make assumptions about Moore, but I suspect that one reason Alexie's books is on her radar is because of his adult fiction (and the award). In my experience teachers aren't keeping up with literature enough and too often fall back on their favorites or what they learned, instead of figuring out how best to serve their students. Who should people be talking to? Librarians. Public and school librarians see the books students want and read and react to more than anyone else. Just check out the ALA website for lists of books that have depth and teen appeal.

I spend my early fall creating lists of books I'll order for the library. Because of my school population I spend much of my energy finding books that appeal to and speak to African-American students as well as to Latino students. It's really hard, but there is so much more out there these days.

A great book, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks deals with feminism and is such a fun read it would be great to read with students.

I also wanted to add that teachers in my building are using Persepolis and Maus, both graphic novels, to great success.

Sasha said...

I think a bigger problem than reading skills is simple maturity. Kids can digest Shakespeare because even though the language is complex, the emotions aren't--so his plays might be time-consuming, but they shouldn't be *difficult* to teach.

Reading literature is supposed to help develop kids' empathy, so I think it's a good thing if they're reading books written from points of view very different from their own...on the other hand, I just don't know that they're going to have the basic life experience to empathize with Anna Karenina (for example), no matter how hard they try.

The books I would save for later aren't necessarily the more "difficult" ones, but rather the ones that kids just aren't yet emotionally equipped to appreciate.

And yeah, maybe some kids just won't read after high school--but maybe they will. It's the school's job to give the kids a solid foundation, not to try to build some slap-dash edifice. I think it's more important to consider what the kid is getting out of his reading experience right now rather than how it will affect him when he's thirty-seven years old.

bookfraud said...

When I read The Scarlet Letter in high school, I thought it was the most idiotic book written, and The Turn of the Screw was absolute torture. “Araby” might as well have been written in Gaelic and Faulkner’s “The Bear” was positively soporific. But they didn’t turn me off to Hawthorne and James for life, and I became enamored with Joyce and Faulkner in college.

And reading Invisible Man my senior year of high school positively changed my life, and thought Dickens, the sisters Bronte and Sinclair Lewis were the bomb; other students were less-than-impressed. In fact, they didn’t like reading anything, nowhere, no how, unless it was a comic book or romance novel. I knew kids that loved The Outsiders but that was really the extent of it.

So my poorly informed viewpoint is that by the time you’re in high school, you love reading or you don’t. You may not “get” Huckleberry Finn when you get your driver’s license, and 99% of high school kids won’t entirely “get” Joyce, but I don’t see that as a reason not to try. If it’s the last book some of these kids will read, it might as well be a classic.

5 Red Pandas said...

I applied for a grant for my library and I had to find out what percentage of students in the building read at or above the 9th grade reading level. LESS THAN 20% do, and that's based on flawed standardized tests that people have accused of being dumbed down. This is a huge problem in NYC and it's depressing. It was also my experience that trying to teach books that are above the reading level of your students is not productive for you or your students. If their reading skills improve by the end of high school they might be ready for Twain, or Hawthorne or other classic writers if they choose to go on to college. There's always the kid that wants to challenge herself and those are the kids I get at the library. They come down and I get to turn them on to things they might not have been otherwise exposed to. I certainly enjoy my job now much more than when I had classes of 30+ kids looking at me like I was torturing them with literature.

I'd also argue that my students were generally more "mature" in terms of life experience than many teens, but unfortunately along the way they weren't taught how to read.

Sung said...

I think nine out of ten books read in high school shouldn't be read in high school. I read 1984 as a junior, and it's a book that simply was never, ever meant to be read by anyone under the age of 25. I'm serious...when you can rent a car without an insurance surcharge is when you should be allowed to read 1984. The book simply does not make enough of an impact unless you have been beaten down to some degree.

I also don't think Catcher in the Rye is high school material. Nothing Salinger wrote is for kids, period.

What should kids be reading? Early Stephen King, definitely. Night Shift, Salem's Lot, Carrie.

- Sung

Anonymous said...

Great to read the comments here.

I loved Hawthorne, but then I'm a New Englander. I thought the Scarlet Letter was amazing, I couldn't put it down.

I hated High School, though. Most of the teachers were just plain awful. You need good teachers. A great teacher could make any book come alive.

-Nancy ( born c. 1947 )