Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Literature In The Public Education System. Part I

I am weary of the constant maligning of public education which goes on in the media and social media every day.
One of the repeated-ad-nauseum items one finds on book blogs and tweeted out by writers of all types is the lie that kids never have read anything in public schools.  While it is very true that plenty of kids will put far more effort into NOT reading something than they ever would if they actually read their assigned texts, in general, it is a lie to say that teachers are to blame for kids' coming out of school not having read even a book.
Let me give you an example: me.
I am a product of the public education system.  Only one of my school days ever was spent in a private school (on an exchange day), charter schools didn't exist at the time, and parents did not homeschool kids unless the children had some medical condition.  (One of my classmates in 1st grade had mono for almost the whole year, for example.)  Thus, public school it was for me, schools which had very mixed socio-economic levels among the students.  (Our school boundaries at the time encompassed some of the wealthiest and some of the poorest areas of the city.  I knew kids who lived in mini-mansions and kids who were refugees and owned only a couple of changes of clothing.  It was pretty diverse.)
Now, granted, I was and am a good reader.  I found reading to be the easiest of all my assigned tasks in every single grade, but, naturally, I did not love -- or even like -- everything I read.  Also, because I was a good reader, I was in honors classes, and this may have made a difference in what I was assigned to read.
However, I have kept a list (Note: I kept extensive journals throughout my secondary school years.  This info was easy to find.) of my assigned reading and some of what I read for fun as well.

7th Grade:
In the Junior Great Books Program, we read the following:
"Harrison Bergeron" by Vonegut (I recall being very disturbed by this initially.)
"The Stone Boy" by Berricult
"The Gun Without A Bang" by Scheckley
"The Overcoat" by Gogol (This was the story that made me understand metaphor and allegory. I recall very well my ah ha! moment when the teacher explained that it was not really about an overcoat at all.)
"Gaston" by Soroyan
"The Open Boat" by Stephen Crane
"The Evildoer" by Chekov
"Rufus" by Agee
"The Rocking Horse Winner" by Lawrence  (This one disturbed me.)
"The Zodiacs" by Neugeboren
"The Companion" by Yevfushenko (poem)
"Univac to Univac" by Salomon (poem)
A condensed version of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (I liked this.)
We also read the John Christopher series The White Mountains, The City of Gold and Lead, and The Pool of Fire, which I loved and re-read so often that my paperbacks nearly fell apart.

8th Grade:
In the Junior Great Books Program, we read the following:
"The Ledge" by Hall
"The Way We Went" by Knight
Antigone by Sophocles  (Yup.  You read that right.)
"Sucker" by McCullers
"Two Lovely Beasts" by O'Flaherty
Apology by Plato
Crito by Plato  (Yes.  Plato in 8th grade.)
"Mateo Falcone" by Merimee
"The Griffin and the Minor Cannon" by Stockton
"Master and Man" by Tolstoy
"The Children" by Stembridge (poem)
"Seeing Eye To Eye Is Believing" by Nash (poem)
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde by Stevenson.
We also read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, one book per term.  I loved that part the best, although I know I liked Jekyll and Hyde as well.

Unfortunately, I don't have as complete a record of what I read for fun in junior high.  I know that our library was not a very welcoming place at the time, that I felt too old for our local bookmobile, and that there was really no such thing as young adult literature back in the day; everything was either for children or for adults.  I'm pretty sure I re-read many of my gradeschool favorites, such as the Louisa May Alcott books or the Frances Hodgson Burnett books many times.  I also loved Freaky Friday by Mary Rogers.

High School:
Freshman year:
Antigone by Sophocles (yet again)
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
Great Expectations by Dickens (twice. Once as one of our options, and then the whole class was assigned to read it.  I remember complaining about it, as I had not liked the book either time.)
Silas Marner by Eliot (I thought it was boring.)
A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens
The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart
Wuthering Heights by Bronte
Pride and Prejudice by Austen
Rebecca by DuMarier
The Catcher in the Rye by Salinger (I thought it was stupid and boring.)
The Scarlet Letter by Hawthorne
Brave New World by Huxley
The Three Musketeers by Dumas
The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald
All Creatures Great and Small by Herriot
And every short story and poem in the old Outlooks Through Literature book, including some by O. Henry, Poe, Conan Doyle, and the one that stuck with me so very well, "By The Waters Of Babylon" by Stephen Vincent Benet.

On my own:
1984 by Orwell
The Hollow Hills by Mary Stewart
The Last Enchantment by Mary Stewart
All Things Bright and Beautiful by Herriot
All Things Wise and Wonderful by Herriot
The Good Lord Made Them All by Herriot
Fahrenheit 451 by Bradbury (I didn't really understand this one at the time.)
And, no doubt, lots of others I didn't bother to record at the time.

Sophomore year:
Huckleberry Finn by Twain (again)
Julius Caesar by Shakespeare (didn't like this one much)
Leaves of Grass by Whitman
Our Town by Wilder
The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck (hated it)
lots and lots of Greek and Roman mythology, which I didn't like much
poetry by Frost, Dickensen, and Poe

And that's about it.  I believe I re-read many of the books from the freshman year for fun.  But my sophomore English teacher was just average, rather than really good.  We just weren't assigned that much reading.

Junior Year:
MacBeth by Shakespeare (loved it!)
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
and I think I recall re-reading Austen and Bronte for this year.  This teacher was excellent, but we spent much of the year learning research paper skills, and we therefore did less literature.  However, I am not sorry, for the thoroughness of her teaching left me prepared for college writing and research.  One of our papers had to be an open court case, and we had to research off court records at the courthouse and microfilm at the library (in those pre-google days of yore).

Senior Year:
lots and lots of philosophy, from the Mortimer J. Adler series
Cancer Ward by Solzhenitsyn (over Christmas break, no less!!! I HATED this book!)
The Snows of Kilimanjaro and other stories by Hemingway
The Prophet by Gibran
Siddhartha by Hesse
Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Hardy
Ghosts by Ibsen
An Enemy of the Public (or People, in other translations) by Ibsen
Cyrano D'Bergerac by Rostand
The Screwtape Letters by Lewis
The Spoon River Anthology by Masters
Dubliners by Joyce
Winesburg, Ohio by Anderson
Intruder in the Dust by Faulkner (hated it)

To my great dismay, we did not "have time" for Hamlet.  I never forgave that teacher, although he was fabulous in many other ways.
We also read many, many poems: Millay, Plath, lots of Shakespeare's sonnets, Donne, Frost, etc.

On my own:
Beneath the Wheel by Hesse
Return of the Native by Hardy
Jude the Obscure by Hardy
Far From The Madding Crowd by Hardy

And this, folks, was from a public education.
This is one of the many reasons why I have so very little tolerance for those who claim a kid can't get a good education in the public system.
We read.  We read almost entirely works of classic literature, and we wrote about them.  We did research papers and pastiches (in order to imitate the best that we might learn from their styles).
And for those of you who are going to argue that no one teaches this way anymore, I will soon finish up a blog post about how English is taught in the school where I teach now.  (Stay tuned.)  :)

1 comment:

  1. We have the same problem in math. I don't know how many times I've heard parents tell their kids "Yeah, I hated math too." or "I could never get it either." instead of "Yeah, it may not be easy, but if you work at it you can get it." or "Try, you'll be amazed at what you can do if you just try." Most of the students I see that fail at math do so because they give up, because they are given the out of "I just don't get it." I had a student years ago, I still remember his name but won't mention it here, that really struggled with the math, but he came in almost every day after school and we went over things again and again. It was amazing how much he accomplished (no, he never got As) just because he didn't give up, he (his parents, his siblings, I don't know) didn't allow the "I just don't get it." easy way out.