What if everyone in a literature class didn't read the same book? What would happen if, say, during Great Gatsby month, a third of the class read that, a third read Dos Passo's 1919, and a third read Sinclair Lewis's Dodsworth?
What might the class discover? What kinds of discussions would develop?
It's not that I have anything against The Great Gatsby. In fact, I think it might be the best written American novel ever. And there is surely no clearer refutation of the myth of 'The American Dream' ever put on paper.
And this isn't just about fixing terrible teaching. Sure, I read in shocked horror as supposedly "top" high school students misread the novel so badly that a whole New York Times article could be devoted to their complete missing of Fitzgerald's point, '"My green light?” said Jinzhao, who has been studying “Gatsby” in her sophomore English class at the Boston Latin School. “My green light is Harvard.”' (say goodbye to Harvard, Jinzhao). Bad teaching is bad teaching no matter what you read.
But it is about suggesting an alternative to our basic pedagogy. It is about creating student choice. It is about empowering peer teaching. And it is about exposing students to far more literature.
Two of the basic components of Universal Design are student choice, and the empowering a wide range of expertise among students, so that a classroom becomes a community of learners rather than one leader and a roomful of passive receptors.
We can start doing this by allowing alternate learning tools - this students reads the book on paper, that student listens to the audiobook, this other student uses text-to-speech. We can continue by allowing one student to sit in a chair, another to sit on the floor, and a third to stand. And we can even allow one to express their knowledge through writing, another through creating a painting, a third to create a video. And all those things are good, but I do not think we are quite there yet.
Getting there requires distributed knowledge and community cognition. And distributed knowledge and community cognition means we offer truly different paths to the knowledge we hope to share.
So when we teach Gatsby, what are we teaching? We should be teaching language, yes, and the structuring of thought and image. We should also be teaching the role of literature, how fiction shapes what we know. And we should be teaching a social history - what did Fitzgerald capture in Gatsby? What did he challenge? Why did he challenge those things? or my favorite... Would an American high school English teacher have assigned Gatsby to his/her class in 1928? Why or why not?
If we mix a room of students reading the other two books, how might these lessons change? The three writers are all inventive - all rule breakers - but they all break the rules in radically different ways. They are all angry, but they are angry in different ways. They all doubt the basic myths of America, but they attack them in different ways.
Imagine the conversation as students compare the end of Gatsby to the "Body of an American" end of 1919? Where does the Gatsby character come from? Surely not just Princetonian frustration.
Given all these options, I would imagine that students might compare, debate, challenge, doubt, and, in every way be less prone to seeking the "right for school" answer. They might even want to read one of the books they hadn't read - maybe outside of school.
This isn't just an idea for lit classes. Spreading out the research, spreading out the work, letting peers teach peers, seems a way to expand both the knowledge base in the classroom, but also the number of experts in the room, and I think that's always a good idea. The best classes I have been in are those where students carried in significant, relevant outside knowledge, and the "not completely common curriculum" approach might just help you get to that in every class.
Just a thought as you start your summer, and start dreaming about what your classroom will look like next year.
- Ira Socol