(Editor's note: This column is written by High School English teacher Jerry Heverly. Its tag line is inspired by education blogger Joe Bower who says that when his students do an experiment, learning is the priority. Getting the correct answer is entirely secondary.)
As a teacher of literature I am a failure.
We are “reading” Of Mice and Men (OMAM), Steinbeck’s entertaining story of two men trying to make their way in 1930’s America. It’s a good story, well-suited for the fourteen year-old’s in my classroom.
Despite its modest length (barely one hundred pages) OMAM is edgy enough to shock the most blasé teenager. I’m quite certain that if we had to submit this novel to the San Leandro School Board in 2012 it would not be approved.
Its use of the N word to depict mid-twentieth century racism would offend a chunk of the electorate. The male characters throw out the B word repeatedly and use enough profanity to make my toughest kids nearly blush.
And its misogyny bothers many female teachers.
There’s much in OMAM that I can use to stir the blood of my students.
The problem is that the lower-track kids that I teach are immune to the blandishments of any book.
Approximately 50% of my students have never read any book, not Harry Potter, not the Babysitter’s Club, not that picture biography of Muhammad Ali on my library shelf.
Another 40% have read some sort of facile teen literature, Mrs. Rowling’s books or Twilight or the like.
In a class of 32 I might have one or two students who had read anything you might classify as a classic.
If I assign the book as homework (read pages 33-37 and answer the questions) about 20% of any given class will honestly do the work.
If I call on students to read it in class the soul of the narrative dies before it reaches the eyes or ears of my students. In addition this process is so slow that kids come out of the experience viewing reading as torture-by-teacher.
Three years ago I decided that my best strategy is the do a dramatic reading of the book. I put my whole soul into the effort. I prowl around the room, emoting tirelessly, often getting in the face of students.
“’Course Lennie’s a G—d—nuisance most of the time,” said George. “But you get used to goin’ around with a guy an’ you can’t get rid of him.” You can imagine the fun I have with text like this.
We’ve had some interesting discussions of issues related to the text: what do you do with a doddering old house hound who is incontinent? Why are so many homeless men loners? Should we condemn George because he’s no social worker and prone to manage Lennie imperiously?
I genuinely believe that this opening novel of their high school careers is my opportunity to “sell” literature as a worthwhile enterprise. I aim to show them that Steinbeck and his ilk are worth the effort.
But it’s all for naught. After doing this for a few years you develop a sixth sense about student engagement. I don’t need a standardized test to know the level of my student’s interest and comprehension. It’s very low.
I see the glazed eyes. I notice the fidgeting.
I’m truly astonished when I pause to toss a softball question at a nearby student and she reveals that she hasn’t a clue about the novel’s setting or basic information that I spoon fed them the previous day.
David Coleman, the pater familias of the Common Core Standards, famously said last year that, “"As you grow up in this world, you realize people really don't give a s*** about what you feel or what you think."
His point was that kids today get too much literature in school and not enough information. He’s wrong about that, I think, but I can’t really skewer his argument when I confront the fact that I am not a successful teacher of that same literature.
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