Jessica Day George

Friday, June 22, 2012

PRESENTING...[insert book title here]!

Recently I have been involved in conversations via the Twitters and the Facebooks about books that people were assigned in school that they hated.  In particular, "The Classics."  (Ominous music!)  And then, of course, the usual disagreements start.  Some people love Steinbeck, others (like me) would not hesitate to revile his books to his face if he weren't already dead.  (If he comes back as a zombie, I will still revile THE RED PONY, I'll just do it while I run.)  So I've developed a bit of a theory.  It's called the, "It's All About The Presentation" theory.

Before we discuss this theory, I'm going to warn you that there will be spoilers about several books in this post.  It's just too hard to talk about some of these books without discussing specific plot points.  All of the books I'm about to spoil are over twenty years old, though, so if that bothers you, I'm sorry.  And also: KRISTIN SHOT J.R.!  ROCHESTER HAS A MAD WIFE IN THE ATTIC!  THE ALAMO DOESN'T HAVE A BASEMENT! DAISY WAS DRIVING THE CAR!

Moving on!

In eighth grade I had a very nice English teacher we'll call Mrs. W.  I liked Mrs. W. as a person, I even worked for her after school part time, checking in assignments and recording grades.  Mrs. W., however, needed to rethink her syllabus, or possibly how she described the books and poems to the class.

The syllabus, and her descriptions/discussions of the books (as I remember them):

THE RED PONY by John Steinbeck - Farm animals are there to work, they're not pets you should get attached to.  The pony was unsuited for ranch work, since it was from a circus, and could not survive.  The mare needed to die to save its foal, which happens all the time in the real world, and using a hammer was the humane way to do it.

THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK (the play) - Everyone dies but her father, and no one knows what gave them away after they'd lived in this tiny, horrible room for years.  It's a terrible tragedy and very real tragedy, and if you don't cry reading this, you have no compassion.

THE POEMS OF ROBERT FROST - Look for the images of death!  Sleep, slowing down, cold, darkness, leaves dying, winter coming.

Z FOR ZACHARIAH by Robert C. O'Brien - Everyone dies in a nuclear blast but this one teenage girl, then someone finds her, but he's not very nice.

One nonfiction book of our choice.

Okay.  So.  There's actually some good stuff on there, right?  Who doesn't love Robert Frost?  And Z FOR ZACHARIAH is a post-apocalyptic YA that would fit right in with some of today's bestsellers.  But by the end of that class I think we all needed a children's chewable Prozac.  Basically, to Mrs. W., everything was about death, with its attendant themes of fear, betrayal, pain, and grief.  And the thing about Mrs. W. was that she was a cheery lady.  Always a big smile on her face.  By the end of the semester, it started to seem a bit creepy.  Also, Robert Frost himself has said that he was startled by people's insistence that so many of his poems are about death.  "Stopping By Woods ..." is actually a pastoral piece about stopping by the woods on a snowy winter evening to watch the snow drift against the trees.  I kid you not.  But in eighth grade English we learned that ALL his poems were about death, regret, and even suicide.  We watched the movie of THE RED PONY, but before she started it she warned us that they had "softened" the ending because people didn't want to watch the mare's head be bashed in with a hammer.  (Darn Hollywood!  Spoiling everything!)

Would I have liked THE RED PONY if it had been presented differently?  Well, probably not.  I mean, that scene where the vultures FREAKING EAT THE PONY WHILE IT'S STILL ALIVE AND THEN VOMIT ON THE KID IN SELF-DEFENSE is pretty hardcore.  It'll scar a reader.  But all this discussion of Z FOR ZACHARIAH makes me want to read it again.  Also, it's written by the guy who wrote MRS. FRISBY AND THE RATS OF NIMH!  How about telling kids THAT, Mrs. W?!  Just the words "post-apocolyptic" would have intrigued me, but that's not how she chose to play it.  And what about pairing something like Steinbeck with something a little more light-hearted?  EH?!  Essentially, that year we studied novels, biographies, plays, and poetry, all about death.  It was bleak.

I'd better talk about something else before I have a vulture-induced flashback.

Who can tell me what book starts with: "The Nellie, a cruising yawl..." ?

Why, yes!  It's THE HEART OF DARKNESS by Joseph Conrad!  Good for you!  I was assigned to read that book not once, but twice.  Once in AP English with Mr. W. (no relation to Mrs. W.), and in Humanities 201 with Prof. P.  The first time I read it, I hated it!  It was awful!  And weird!  And boring!  And horrible!  And what even happened?!  The second time, while I didn't clasp it to my bosom and add it to my list of all time favorites, I liked it.

The difference?

The first reading was part of the AP English Extension Program.  Since we were on a trimester system, you only had class for trimesters 2 and 3, and during trimester 1 you read several books on your own and wrote papers on them.  THOD was the first of those books.  I was handed the book by a teacher and given a deadline.  The end.

The second reading, in college, began with Prof. P. passing out a packet describing the different types of analytical theory.  Feminist Theory.  Modernist.  Post-Colonialism.  Marxist.  All those fancy things.  He then assigned us the book, saying that THOD had been analyzed by experts in each of these fields, that it was a very controversial book and that the movie APOCALYPSE NOW was based on it.  After reading the book, we discussed each of the theories and how they had analyzed the book.  It was fascinating!  I came out of it understanding and appreciating the book so much better, knowing tons about Conrad and about the Congo.  What a remarkable difference!

Now, before you all start accusing me of talking smack about public education and blaming them for my hatred of Steinbeck, there's two things you should know.

1. That's not what I'm saying.
2. My sister is an AP English teacher at a public high school.  A darn good AP English teacher.

Let's talk about Mrs. M.  Mrs. M. also taught at my high school, I had her in 9th and 10th grades.  Mrs. M. could not understand why her classes seemed, in her words, traumatized and afraid of books.  She told me that she was regularly asked "How many people die in this book?"and said that most of her students would blurt out, "Death!" when asked what the theme of any book or poem was.  Mrs. M. undid all the trauma.  She taught with exuberance and panache. (She also did vocabulary words like exuberance and panache.  I also learned how to pronounce "chic" from her.)  I remember reading THE ODYSSEY and A DAY NO PIGS WOULD DIE, and having fun.  (Except for the part with the pig rape in that second one.  Yeesh.  Nobody could lighten that up.)  We didn't talk about death.  We talked about characterization.  Setting.  The language of the books.  We made travel brochures for a Land of the Lotus Eaters Resort, and talked about the Shaker religion and how much meat could be on a squirrel.  In 10th grade we read THE GREAT GATSBY and talked about flappers and the Jazz Age and the metaphor of the shirts.  Then we watched the movie and talked about how Mia Farrow's quavery voice was both irritating and kinda perfect.  We were engaged in the material and we could tell her our ideas and opinions.  She didn't announce, "This book is about THIS, children," and we all had to accept that answer no matter how we might disagree.

Mr. W. turned out to be another great teacher, once the extension program was over.  We read THE SCARLET LETTER and WUTHERING HEIGHTS with him.  He pointed out the various dialects in WUTHERING HEIGHTS and how they indicated class, talked about the servants as comic relief, and let us call Rev. Dimmesdale a wuss when we read THE SCARLET LETTER.  He gave us poems from a variety of time periods, and encouraged us to read as many books off the AP list as we wanted, not just the two outside reading books required.  He had a bookcase full of books from the list for us to borrow, so we didn't even have to walk across the hall to the library, and he didn't care which ones we read, or whether we picked books because they were short.  I read THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE because it was short and right there on the bookcase, and I loved it.  My friend Cade read MOBY-DICK because he wanted to read the biggest book on the shelf, and he quite liked it.

I read MOBY-DICK in college, with a professor who called himself "a Melville scholar."  You were not allowed to disagree with anything he said.  Every paper that we wrote had to reference MOBY-DICK in some way, because according to him it's the greatest book ever written, and all literature and aspects of one's life can be compared to it.  If you made a grammar mistake in a paper, he made you type the sentence out correctly twenty times and turn it back in.  The edition of the book that we were required to buy and read had the title as MOBY DICK.  No hyphen.  You can guess what happened to everyone in the class after they turned in their first paper.  Uh huh.  Yep.  Ask me how I feel about MOBYhyphenDick sometime if you've got an hour to kill and are sick of my RED PONY whining.

It's all in the presentation, kids.

I hated THE LORD OF THE RINGS the first time I read it.  Hated.  It.  My sister, noted LOTR enthusiast, was shocked and appalled.  But here's the deal.  Mrs. J., my Honors English teacher in 11th grade, was not a fan of fantasy.  She had LOTR on her list of outside reading books, with all three volumes listed as one book.  You couldn't just read FELLOWSHIP.  You had to read them all.  Over 1,000 pages.  If you expressed any interest in fantasy whatsoever, she would assign it to you, and you would have the same amount of time to read it as someone who was reading THE GLASS MENAGERIE.  I'm entirely convinced that she did it to suck the fun out of fantasy books.  Nothing else on her list was even slightly fantasy or sci fi, and she only allowed non-list books if they weren't sci fi/fantasy.  I read LOTR in one weekend, took the quiz on Monday, didn't remember anything else about it except that they walked and walked and walked and sang songs and did they even kill the bad guy?  Who was the bad guy?  I had no idea!

Mrs. J. was also fond of saying things like, "This next chapter is the key to the entire book."  She said it about the used car salesman chapter of THE GRAPES OF WRATH (and sealed my hatred of Steinbeck), but didn't explain any further.  Didn't discuss the chapter at all.  Didn't answer any questions.  Just nodded knowingly and moved on, leaving us scrambling to highlight the whole chapter and try to figure out why.  My friend Marshall read THE CATCHER IN THE RYE for one of his outside reading books, and Mrs. J. told him the chapter where Holden visits his teacher was the key to the entire book.  Marshall, who hated the book and had no idea what was going on, frantically asked me to read the chapter and tell him what it meant.  I read it.  No freakin' clue.  If memory serves, Marshall hated every book he read in that class.  I can hardly blame him.

Teachers, parents, librarians: I beg of you!  Talk to your readers!

Tell them about the book they're going to read.  Don't spoil the ending, but tell them why.  Why is this book still around after so many years?  Why are you giving it to them?  Why do you like it?  Why do you hate it but want them to read it anyway?

Then listen.

Listen to what they think about it.  Listen to what they think it's about.  Listen to their questions and try to answer them, or help them find the answers.  That's how you get someone to like a book.  Or at least not loathe it.

Just do me a favor and don't assign them THE RED PONY.  No one needs that.

Note to Rachel6: Who is your brother to command you to read Improving Books?  Is he your legal guardian?  Are you prone to Lightmindedness after leaving the seminary at Bath? Did you run off with a handsome officer billeted in your village last year?  And why does he appear to believe that Improving Books must be written by men and over fifty years old?


Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure I had all those same teachers in high school, except Mrs. J. My Honors teacher was Mrs. B., and we mostly studied mythology. That was okay with me.

Loved Mr. W. and Mrs. M. LOVED them. Didn't like Mrs. W. at all, for the EXACT SAME REASONS. Everything was about death in that class. Your pencil broke? A death omen! Someone hooked her wig with a fishhook cleverly concealed in the doorway? Death to you all!

Angie said...

I do so love your rants! They make me giggle, especially since we have similar viewpoints on things.

Oh and we called my AP English teach "The Troll" and she really was.

Jessica Day George said...

Oh, my goodness, Ems! The infamous Wig-Fishhook Incident!

Man, I wish I could've done more mythology! I had Mrs. B, she mostly told us weird and inappropriate stories of her misspent youth. Did you know that you can be allergic to vodka?

Bruce said...

Loved the rant. As an 8th grade English school teacher, I can totally appreciate the the teenage Jessica's issues with The Red Pony. Most years, unless I forget, I do an anonymous survey with my students to get their takes on the books and units I've taught. It is an instructive piece of reflective data to help me plan and think about the upcoming year. It's always a balancing act of finding the right set of books that meet the curricular needs, peek the students' interests, are also challenging/rigorous, and appeal to the various students I teach. This year we read The Hobbit, Anne Frank, The Killer Angels, and Ender's Game. Overall I was satisfied with this selection accept for the realization I need to spend more time next year providing context and background for The Killer Angels. It's my job as the teacher to help them see it's relevance, and I can't do that, I need to make adjustments. I know that one of my students will one day write their version of this blog post on Killer Angels and they'll be right to do so:)

Tasha Seegmiller said...

I'm a teacher. I will not tell students what a book is about, and when I teach Jekyll and Hyde, even though students have seen League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Van Helsing, I forbid the to tell what they have figured out until the last chapter when it is explained.

The reason people don't like to read is because they have no joy in it. And the classics aren't being taught as much because students aren't reading because the joy has been taken away and then the ability to read goes with it.

I assigned my advanced students to read Gatsby and The Alchemist (Coehlo) over the summer, but for my regular students (high school juniors) my efforts are two fold. One, most of them say they are going to college and I need them to comprehend what they are reading. They are so programmed to look for bolded words and answer standard questions that they can't see the bigger issues. Two, I'm trying really hard to help them see that there are actually books out there that they can read.

But most important, I want them to think. Not regurgitate, think.

Unknown said...

You're going to hate me, but I escaped high school (WITH AP English) AND college (minoring in English) without reading THE RED PONY, CATCHER IN THE RYE, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, MOBY DICK, A DAY NO PIGS WOULD FLY, THE HEART OF DARKNESS, or Z FOR ZACHARIAH.

I read WUTHERING HEIGHTS in elementary school for fun, but never had to discuss it in class. A year or so ago, I tried to read THOD, but, yeah, it was boring, and I stopped.

Sometimes I feel sooo under-educated with all the "classics" I haven't read... but since I still have no desire to read them, I'll stick to my genre fiction.

nephite blood spartan heart said...

I hated everything my freshman and sophomore teachers assigned ~ The Good Earth, Ethan Frome, Of Mice and Men, The Old Man and the Sea and a lot of Robert Frost.

It was exactly the way it was presented, looking back it seemed we were told these books were important but it was all through a lens (that in my arrogant opinion as a writer now) was without true love for the written word. I actually think it was curicullum that old Mr. G (my teacher) did'nt himself buy. Like he knew these were important books but never really expressed to us WHY.

And oh yeah, I love Apocalypse Now over Heart of Darkness, it just worked better, for me.

E. C. said...

I'm totally lucky - I'm homeschooled, so my teacher is my mom. And she doesn't make me read anything.
Or perhaps I should say, she can't get me to stop reading? I mean, I started in on The Little House in the Big Woods in first grade, after which I devoured Narnia, The Hobbit, and anything else that happened to be around.
By the time I was thirteen, I'd read The Count of Monte Cristo, Les Miserables, and The Lord of the Rings, and was halfway through the local library's children's section. It's all in the presentation: my mom wanted me to read, sure, but she didn't want me to miss any great children's books just because I could read fast and comprehend well. But after a while, I wanted to take on a challenge. So I started in on classics, and by now, I've read quite a few, not all of which I've liked. Honestly, you can't tell me to like 1984. It just leaves a sour taste in my mouth. But I'm willing to try reading new things, because I wasn't forced to read them for school. Watching some of my friends tell me that they hate reading makes me sad, because it shouldn't be something to hate! There's a book out there for everyone, I firmly believe. I like reading lists as suggestions, but being required to read a book doesn't make me really enthusiastic about it, honestly.
One thing that I love about my mom is that she listens to me talk endlessly about books. She encourages me to expand my horizons, and I have to say, I've become pretty well-read simply because she didn't set any limits on what I read. I guess I'm incredibly lucky, because that let me feel that I could read anything, instead of getting the impression that I had to read things to make a grade. Consequently, I think I'm better read than most of my peers, because I can choose what books are going to shape my life. That really has made such a difference.

Lyn Merkat said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lyn Merkat said...

Yeah, I think we all had teachers like that who would give too much away (like spoilers) or read too directly into the symbolism that you don't see the other possibilities. I was fortunate enough to avoid The Red Pony,
but I did read on my own often. In middle school, I enjoyed animal and survival stories like Kjelgaard's Big Red series and Gary Paulsen's books. But I remember (grade 7) we read the books My Brother Sam Is Dead
and then The Crucible. Sorry but that first title already has me set up for the worst. But yeah, those books that could stir up all types of thoughts, but mostly seemed to bring the whole moral down in class when put together.
I much preferred high school where I got into Harry Potter as a freshman. I wouldn't have even considered lengthy fantasy without the "gateway" books of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Yes, they were on the reading list and I found I liked Steampunk and fantasy through reading them. I don't honestly understand why some teachers stray away or frown on those genre books. There are some that have merit too.
So while some books left me feeling bored or annoyed at the stupidity I felt at certain events in them, I later found some amazing books through titles I did like.

Cassandra Covill said...

Ugh, thank you! In my seventh/eighth grade english class (there were two teachers who liked to combine their classes, who I had for both years), we read ANNE FRANK, HARRIET JABOBS, ANTHEM, FREDERICK DOUGLAS, and KNIGHT. The only one I enjoyed was KNIGHT.

With HARRIET JACOBS and ANNE FRANK, it was basically because of the ridiculously excessive amount of work we had to do. EVERY SINGLE TIME WE READ, whether it was a chapter or ten chapters, we had to summarize what we read, list every character in todays reading and their character role, list every analogy and its significance and theme, list every setting change and the change of mood that went with it, and many other awful things of that sort.

FREDERICK DOUGLASS was just a horrible book. And we had written two essays on ANTHEM before we had even finished it.

Mara A. said...

I was homeschooled, and my mom was very nice about letting me pick what books I wanted to read, so I never had any traumatizing experiences with classics, of which I am thoroughly grateful, because I don't know what I do without my wonderful classics. But when I got into college and took some Humanities classes, I didn't enjoy the books we read, because I HAD to. Having to read something takes the joy out of it for me. But my instructor made the stories as engaging as she possibly could, and had us form discussion groups, and that took some of unpleasantness away. And my Shakespeare instructor gave me a new appreciation for Shakespeare; he helped us understand the playwrite in a new way and I'll always be glad of that, because I was so missing out before when I didn't like Shakespeare!

Allerednic said...

I definitely agree about it all being in the presentation. Every year in my English classes in High school, we read things I liked, and things I didn't like. However, how the teachers presented it made an enormous difference. I was lucky enough to have wonderful teachers all four years, though, and I'm so grateful! Because of them, I realize that just like with other books, there will be classics I like, and classics I don't like.

Deirdre Mundy said...

Heh. For my eighth grade teacher, Mr. F, everything was about sex. I remember feeling intensely uncomfortable in that class. I mean, I skipped the dirty bits in every book I read (A friend recommended the Jane Auel books-- did you know they only take about 10 minutes to read if you skip to the plot?) and here was this man telling me ALL the bits were the dirty bits!! And, he, of course, also hated scifi and fantasy and thought we were wasting our time on it.

Anyway, I actually dipped into this blog to harangue you. I've loved all your books for a while now, but now I have a third grader, and she's read Dragon Slippers and just finished Tuesdays At The Castle and won;t stop talking about it and you have displaced Edward Eager in her affections--- so you really need to write some more middle grade when you get a chance, because she's still a bit young for the princess books....... :)

Alternatively, if you can put together a list of your favorite MG authors to tide your new young fan over, I'd appreciate the reccs! :)

Ms. Yingling said...

So true! To this day, I swear I loved Fahrenheit 451 because I adored my teacher! I am a big supporter of "not every book is for every reader". My daughter loved 1984. She also loved Watership Down, so something is clearly just wrong with her. You are right, though, that the teacher's love of a book can make a huge difference. May I quote your fabulous line " But by the end of that class I think we all needed a children's chewable Prozac."??? THanks for this!

That One Girl said...

I was privileged to have the world's best A.P. teacher. While we dealt with some heavy texts--Hamlet, Heart of Darkness, Things Fall Apart, Crime & Punishment, Tess of the D'Urbervilles--she let the books speak for themselves. As a result, there were some books I liked and some I didn't, but NOT for lack of thought-provoking class discussion.(And I've since reread them, and come to appreciate them more. I think it was just the wrong time in my life for some books, like Tess.)
That was very different from my earlier high school experiences, where everything was either overexplained (really? does EVERY color in Gatsby have to have greater significance?) or under-discussed (we read "The Crucible" out loud as a class, then took a multiple-choice test. What a waste).
I don't understand why junior high teachers think it's a good idea to have students read "The Red Pony." Is it because its short story format makes them assume it's appropriate for children? We read it the same week as 9/11, and my cat died the day before we read it. Even if circumstances had been otherwise, I can't imagine any of my peers would have walked away more enlightened or with a greater appreciation for literature as a result of having read it. What a horrible thing.
Still, TRP didn't ruin Steinbeck for me. Thanks to aforementioned Amazing AP Teacher, East of Eden is one of my all-time faves. What a beautiful book.

Emma Nauvoo said...

Where did your sister get the nightshirt? Because I'm same exact way ;)

~T~ said...

In 8th grade we read The Red Pony, A Day No Pigs Would Die, My Brother Sam is Dead, Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies... Everything was about pigs and death. The teacher was kind of fun, but he chose awful books. Except for Ten Little Indians, but I was already an Agatha Christie fan.

Anonymous said...

I don't remember what we had to read before the exam years (UK, 70's) but I do remember how I overdid things! Had to read Tess of the D'Urbervilles for one exam - so went on to read every title by Thomas Hardy. Every. Single. One. And likewise for the other authors we were studying. I really ruined literature for mysrlf, by over consumption!