Sunday, January 31, 2010

idle musings about high school English

Congrats to Horace for correctly identifying the poem from my last stick-figure lit post: Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn."

I've been enjoying Dr Crazy's and What Now's posts about the high school English curriculum. I have nothing very profound to add to the discussion, especially compared to What Now's firsthand expertise, but it's got me thinking about my own h.s. English experiences.

Three out of four of my high school English teachers were terrific. The fourth one (ninth grade) was fairly awful, for the simple reason that she didn't like books. Seriously. I swear, she described EVERYTHING we read that year as "stupid." Romeo and Juliet, for example, was "a play about two stupid kids who think they're in love when it's really just infatuation, and they die because they won't obey their parents, who know better." (Curiously, this is a moderately accurate description of Shakespeare's source, but I doubt she knew that.) Anyway, she didn't quite manage to ruin Romeo and Juliet for me, or "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (a stupid story about a stupid man who won't face up to reality), but I do think I would have fallen in love with Great Expectations much, much earlier if I had encountered it with almost any other teacher.

My intermediate-school teachers were similarly uninspiring, so I went into tenth-grade English with minimal expectations. It probably wasn't until halfway through the year that I realized I was actually kind of liking the class, and was good at it. The teacher was a middle-aged woman, no nonsense about her, not particularly funny or charismatic -- but she respected the written word, and that mattered. (She was also capable of conveying this respect for Dickens while at the same time pointing out that the female characters in A Tale of Two Cities were basically ciphers; this is probably the closest thing to a feminist perspective that I encountered during my high school years. My last two teachers were men with big voices and big personalities; they, too, were very, very good at what they did, but except for the odd Emily Dickinson poem, women writers weren't on the program. I didn't notice this absence until college.)

Anyway, here's what I remember of our reading list:

Ninth grade: Lord of the Flies, Black Boy, To Kill a Mockingbird, Great Expectations, Of Mice and Men, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," "Barn Burning," Romeo and Juliet; one independent reading book (assigned by the teacher); probably some other works I don't remember. (Looking back on this list, I think some curriculum designer may have been going for a coming-of-age theme? At any rate, it didn't translate; I don't remember our teacher drawing any connections between works in the classroom.)

Tenth grade: As You Like It, Julius Caesar, A Doll's House, A Tale of Two Cities, Cry, The Beloved Country, Night, one group project book (chosen by the group from an approved list; I still bear a grudge against my classmates for picking Silas Marner). I am positive that we must have read a number of other works, but I don't remember what they were.

Eleventh grade (American lit): "Civil Disobedience," Death of a Salesman, The Scarlet Letter, Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, The Old Man and the Sea, Catcher in the Rye, various short stories (an awful lot of which seemed to be by Hemingway), rather a lot of poetry.

Twelfth grade (AP English lit): Huge chunks of the Bible and Edith Hamilton's Mythology (to be completed over the summer); The Oresteia, Oedipus Rex, The Infernal Machine, Antigone, Candide, Hamlet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Absalom, Absalom; a whole boatload of poetry and short stories (of which I think Yukio Mishima's "Patriotism" was the sole non-Western selection). Plus one longer, college-style essay on a play of the student's choosing. (I picked Garcia Lorca's Blood Wedding and fell giddily in love, much to my teacher's delight as well as my own.)

Looking back over this, it seems like a wildly unbalanced list in some ways; in addition to the near-absence of female and nonwhite writers (even canonical ones), there's the peculiar fact that I went away to college with a very good grounding in Shakespeare, a decent knowledge of ancient Greek drama, and absolutely no clue about anything in between. I can't complain; college filled in most of those gaps, and there was nothing to stop my teenage-self from going on an Alice Walker kick in my spare time (which I did). There's relatively little comedy, too; if I were going to make up a reading list of my own, I'd want to throw in some Austen or Chaucer or Wilde to lighten things up.

Also: man, my AP English class was hardcore. And I loved it. In fact, I think that was the year I fell in love with about 90% of everything we read, and surprised myself by loving Faulkner. Partly, I think that was a maturity thing; partly it was the sheer force of the teacher's personality; maybe it was also the fact that we shared a weakness for darkness and blood and family curses.

And also: You know what my eleventh- and twelfth-grade teachers did that really struck a chord with me? They framed classic literature as transgressive. (Which it totally was, most of it, in its day; we got to hear all about those wild and crazy Transcendentalists.) And I already knew, from my own experience, that reading this stuff for pleasure was more than a little countercultural in my massive concrete-block suburban public high school. I learned how to tune out the mandatory pep rallies by reading Greek tragedy. It was awesome. Maybe that's the way to sell books to teenagers.


moria said...

What's surprising me about these conversations is how very uniform high school reading lists are in an ostensibly non-uniform education system. The AP English syllabus will, of course, be dictated in part by the College Board, but wow for every other case.

I am, almost against my will, still in love with my otherwise more or less antagonistic Am Lit teacher for starting with The Tempest, and thus giving me my first exposure to what I learned only later to call postcolonial reading.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Yeah, actually I'd say that the AP classes were the least uniform of the lot, at least at my high school; I know the other teacher who taught it was doing rather different stuff, aside from a few can't-miss texts like Hamlet.

Bardiac said...

What I find sort of depressing is how little change there was between your HS experience and mine, though there's probably a 15 year gap (or, gasp, more).

Your list adds Alice Walker and some classical stuff, and that's about all.

I know diversity was lacking in my education, but I keep hoping that high schools will do better.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Your list adds Alice Walker and some classical stuff, and that's about all.

No, I read Alice Walker on my own, she wasn't assigned in class (which is probably just as well, honestly, because most of the stuff we did read was far better from a literary standpoint).

And I don't actually find the lack of change in these reading lists depressing, actually. I think, in general, it's better for h.s. students to get a solid and consistent grounding in a core set of texts, rather than the school districts constantly changing things up to accommodate the flavor of the month. (Besides, I like most of these books and think they're good choices, overrepresentation of Dead White Guys notwithstanding -- although I do kind of wonder why people keep assigning The Scarlet Letter to high school students.)

undine said...

Interesting post and list, Fretful Porpentine. I'm fascinated by the idea of an English teacher who hates books and calls everything "stupid." She sounds as though she was about 12 years old with a bad attitude.

What Now? said...

Just FYI, the AP Lit reading lists are actually not dictated at all by the College Board; I think that the only expectation is to teach "good literature" (which is to say, canonical in a fairly broad definition of that term) so that students will have great examples to draw on in their essays, but otherwise a teacher is totally free to assign what she or he wants. (Same with AP Language, I'm happy to say, so I'll have total freedom in the class I'm putting together.)

FP, your list looks a lot like the curriculum I teach in, although there's less ancient Greek drama and more writing by women and by people of color.