Bruce Deitrick Price
K-12: Killing literature
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By Bruce Deitrick Price
October 31, 2019

It's amazing how many ways our schools find to discourage any interest that students might have in literature. Is there a secret laboratory where education professors figure out the best turn-offs?

The big prize is to bring children and literature together for life. One would think that K-12 education would be obsessed with encouraging students, by trick or by treat, to become competent readers and then passionate readers.

The first requirement is that students can read easily. (Or have they been trained to memorize sight-words, to guess, to skip, to fake it? Millions of American children struggle for years but never do become readers. It's easy to check. Point to a paragraph in the daily paper. Read this. If they skip words, add words, reverse words, or guess wildly, tell them to forget what they were taught. Start over and learn to read with phonics).

The next big requirement is that students have fun. That is the goal; and it's how you reach the goal.

Spoiler alert: whatever most schools do now, do the opposite.

What is the one literary thing that very few people care about? That would be poetry of any kind. If you're going to draw children in, you had better start smart. Instead, I see a site recommending 24 poems that "inspire creativity instead of yawns." I'm a poet all my life. I never thought that poetry's purpose is inspiring creativity. Entertain me! How about that?! Everybody wants to be entertained.

To take kids to literature, you want fun, humor, a good story. Start with nursery rhymes. Try Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star; Dr. Seuss; Carl Sandburg's Fog; My Love Is Like a Red Red Rose by Robert Burns; Casey at the Bat; Sick by Shel Silverstein. My own favorite: I've Never Seen a Purple Cow.

So let's agree, literature should be fun. Teachers should ignore every temptation to be pretentious and didactic.

But every adult in America can remember when they were told to read a long, difficult, boring novel. Typically it was a book written for adults, possibly many years ago. The Scarlet Letter is too much for most teenagers. Even To Kill Mockingbird is too much. Very few adults can get through Moby Dick. (I saw a list recommending The Kite Runner. Oh, please. There is not one kid in a hundred who would want to read that book.)

Ask around. Compile your own list of people's favorite books. I was an adult when I first read Treasure Island. Quite charming. Everybody likes Alice in Wonderland; Aesop's Fables; Sherlock Holmes; Jack and the Beanstalk; A Christmas Carol; David Copperfield; the Emperor's New Clothes; Pied Piper of Hamlin.

Now, what is one thing that almost all readers of every age are interested in? That would be background information about the creators. Isn't that why people read People?

This curiosity is the most natural thing in the world. That's probably why our high-brow world discourages it. Academics in the 1950s dictated that students should focus only on the text. This so-called New Criticism seemed determined to make literature as sterile as possible. It might be appropriate in grad school; in high school it's just dumb.

Find pictures of the writers when they are young, not so far removed from the students themselves. Tell the exciting details. Yes, Edgar Allan Poe was a depressed drunk. Lord Byron was the most handsome man in England but he had a clubfoot.

New Criticism has been recycled as Close Reading in Common Core. Children are supposed to read the same passages again and again, preferably nonfiction, preferably something boring like IRS instructions or environmental regulations. No one should be surprised if children learn to hate anything with words in it. David Coleman (World Controller at Common Core) has been called one of the most dangerous men in education. Now you know why.

Point is, let's not reduce reading to a set of rules. The spirit is what matters. People read for two reasons: information and entertainment. If it makes kids laugh or smile, go with that.

Find out if any students would like to be TV announcers or actors. Encourage them to ham up the reading of different passages. Then debate which approach is most faithful to the writing. If children talk about a poem for 10 minutes, they'll have it for life.

Jack Warner, the famous producer, reduced all of showbiz and aesthetics to one test, namely, was the seat comfortable? If he was squirming, that meant the movie was no good. Kids are engaged or squirming. Accept their verdict.

At the end of the year, have them vote on their favorites? Especially find what works best for boys. One of the surest ways to strangle literature in its sleep is to give books written for girls to boys.

Many of the classics have been made into movies. Kids think that is prestigious. Invite them to imagine how they would present the book as a movie, then show them the movie (or a scene), and debate whether the director did a good job. Encourage students to play critic, to state opinions, and defend them. Trading opinions, that's how critical thinking starts.

My nephew had a textbook for English class in high school. One section wanted to discuss symbolism. When is this ever important to casual readers? School should not be a treasure hunt for obscure clues. If symbolism is really important in some particular story, start off by explaining this. Ditto any other exotic technique.

Reading, lots of reading, comes first. If they are reading comic books, that's better than reading nothing. If reading is fun, if it's rewarding, children will knock down the door to find the next interesting thing to read. That's how the process starts. You can't speed it up by immersing kids in some high-brow stew.

The biggest change in American culture is that fewer people can read for pleasure. It's easy to understand. Schools contrive not to teach reading. And when children do learn to read, schools batter them with inappropriate recommendations and counterproductive instruction. I think we've got two possibilities. The educrats are hopelessly incompetent. Or they are engaged in a scheme to make sure the average American does not know what the word literature refers to.

More than 100 years ago, the far-too-influential John Dewey expressed his contempt for too much "language study." He considered this a "perversion." Certainly his perspective is odd for a so-called educator. We are still stuck with Dewey's curiously anti-intellectual vision. Let's tell John Dewey to take a hike.

Here's something delightful I just ran into on Quora, a reminiscence from 70 years ago when schools were smarter: "And I will never forget my 5th grade teacher, Miss Schultz. She read The Iliad and The Odyssey to us 5th graders, and we ate it up. She would always have us act out plays in front of the class, and would put the girls on one side of the room and the boys on the other to see which side could have more correct answers in an English language quiz. She was so far ahead of her time...And we practiced penmanship while listening to classical music!"

Fun. Lively. Entertaining. These are the essentials we need in classrooms.

Bruce Deitrick Price's new book is "Saving K-12 – What happened to our public schools? How do we fix them?" He deconstructs educational theories and methods on Improve-Education.org.

© Bruce Deitrick Price

 

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Bruce Deitrick Price

Bruce Deitrick Price is the author of six books, an artist, a poet, and an education reformer. He was born in Norfolk, Virginia, earned Honors in English Literature from Princeton, served two years in the Army, and then lived many years in Manhattan.

Price explains educational theories and methods on his ed site Improve-Education.org (founded in 2005). He has 400 education articles and videos on the Internet. More forcefully than most, Price argues that the public schools are mediocre because our Education Establishment wants them that way.

Price's literary site is Lit4u.com .

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