Why all the literature in English class?

No, really.

I’m not trying to be cute. (I had to give up that dream a long time ago.)

I’m honestly trying to figure out why so many educators and parents value literature–specifically old novels by dead white guys–over all other forms of communication.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand why people love novels. I was the girl in high school reading Melville, Bronte, Hugo, Hawthorne, Hemingway, and Dickens for fun.

But I’m also the girl who chose to explore the connection between “The Devil and Tom Walker” by Washington Irving and “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” by the Charlie Daniels Band.

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And instead of being another kid reciting a Frost poem, I chose to memorize Milo Hamilton’s 1974 radio call of Hank Aaron breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record coupled with an excerpt from Dave Anderson’s write-up in the New York Times (as portrayed in Ken Burn’s documentary, Baseball).

I have multiple grievances with my own high school education, but I am forever grateful that I had a teacher who encouraged my expansive definition of American literature.

Rereading it twenty years later, I still think Anderson’s piece is beautiful.

In the decades to come, the memory of the scene might blur. But the memory of the sound will remain with everyone who was here. Not the sound of the cheers, or the sound of Henry Aaron saying, “I’m thankful to God it’s all, over,” but the sound of Henry Aaron’s bat when it hit the baseball tonight. . . . At home plate, surrounded by an ovation that came down around him as if it were a waterfall of appreciation, he was met by his teammates who attempted to lift him onto their shoulders. But he slipped off into the arms of his father, Herbert Sr., and his mother, Estella . . .

“I never knew,” Aaron would say later, “that my mother could hug so tight.”

 

But my former teacher was not the norm (in many ways, actually).

I’ve been confronted too many times by intelligent professionals who say things like,

Graphic novels aren’t as deep as novels.

And,

Students should be reading more full-length texts.

And,

Students need to know the classics so they can understand the cultural allusions.

I agree that life is richer when you get the jokes and understand how artists play off of each other’s work. It’s good to know stuff.

I just don’t think that literature contains all the stuff there is to know.

And I also believe it’s valuable to understand the power and conventions of clickbait, and speeches, and advertisements, and tweets, and hard news, and op-eds, and political cartoons, and podcasts, and . . . and I’m not even getting into more explicitly entertaining texts like songs, films, TV, and video games.

Our school claims to be standards-based, and the AERO ELA framework has forty-two standards. That’s forty-two explicit things that English teachers are charged with teaching.

Do you know how many of those standards have to do with literature?

Ten.

The other thirty-two fall under the headings of reading information texts, writing, speaking and listening, and language foundations.

In many ways, I would love to wake up and simply teach my favorite books every day.

But I have thirty-two other standards to teach, and neglecting them would be selfish and irresponsible.

So forgive me for being dense, but when I see that the standards under “Reading Literature” make up less than 24% of what we’re supposed to be covering, I wonder why literature seems to make up more than 75% of what goes on in many classrooms.

Because even when students are reading informational texts, writing, speaking or listening, most of these activities revolve around literature. Students read reviews of the literature or contextual information to help them better understand the literature. And then they speak about the literature. And write about the literature.

And that’s not all bad. I just question whether that’s all there is to it.

Our riveting AERO Framework claims that literacy includes the

use of oral and written language to make sense of the world and to communicate, problem solve, and participate in decision-making. The foundation for these literacy skills is language and an understanding of how language works (12).

The document goes on to explain how globalization and technology have changed the definition of literacy.

AERO

In 2008, The National Council of Teachers of English defined 21st century literacy skills as:

  • Developing proficiency with the tools of technology
  • Building relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally
  • Designing and sharing information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes
  • Managing, analyzing, and synthesizing multiple streams of simultaneous information
  • Creating, critiquing, analyzing, and evaluating multi-media texts
  • Attending to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments (12-13).

So this is why my syllabus isn’t stuffed with all the same novels my students’ parents and grandparents read when they were in high school. And this is why my book list might be a little shorter than some other classes’.

Don’t worry: my students and I are still reading literature.

But we’re also busy reading the rest of the world.

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