10 June 2009

The Reading List

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


Nina Simon said...

For the grad class I just taught, there was one required book and then several optional books, of which each student had to pick one (or elect another). The students raved about the setup as a break from business as usual, but it seemed obvious to me--why make everyone read the same thing when we can have a richer conversation based on different starting points and expertise?

S. said...

Oh, oh no. That article is a nightmare.

And it is something to think about, especially as I go through college in a program that has everyone read all of the same books across the entire curriculum.

Unknown said...


I always offer choices. I don't see how you can lose.


There is the other side - as at St. John's-Annapolis-Santa Fe. And I think that is an equally brilliant system, though for a more unique group of students, as they suggest.

- Ira Socol

v said...

It doesn't matter if you assign different books, teach historical context, etc. You aren't going to be able to change that Chinese girl's honest reaction. She doesn't care about your opinion of American materialism. Materialism is just fine with her. Have you discussion with her daughter or granddaughter.

Unknown said...

Then the class is a failure V. She can love her materialism but if she is reading she must start to figure out that for the narrator of this novel, the "green light" - and that American myth of re-invention - is fully unattainable. And, if she is going to effectively participate in society she should be wondering why - despite her own beliefs - others, Fitzgerald, Lewis, and Dos Passos among them, came to different conclusions than her own.

If she can not at least take that from this segment of a course, she has gained nothing from reading the book at all. In which case, teacher and student have wasted a lot of time.

I believe the multiple books approach might force this girl to open her eyes a bit. Sure, she can fall for the glamour of Gatsby's life, many do, but how to explain Dos Passos's anger? Lewis's emptiness? Perhaps the collective can pry her mind open more than the single example can.

- Ira Socol

v said...

open her eyes? pry her mind? are you going to be this missionary about every piece of work they read? does it occur to you that she might comes as close to understanding the ideas of all the writers you mentioned as any other student in the room educated in the way you want, but STILL not accept their/your ideas? she is from a culture that has 5000 years pushing materialism. you are not going to make her into your image no matter how much you get her to understand the authors' point of view and all the historical context. literature can only help shape your values if you can emotionally go on a journey with the author. if the emotions are too different, it ain't gonna work. mein kamf is not going to make me a nazi anytime soon. the great gatsby is not going to make someone -raised to in a culture where they literally burn 'ghost money' so that their ancestors can live high on the hog in heaven- see the evils of materialism. so let the students debate their different emotional realities then. it's interesting to realize how others are both similar and different to oneself. so anyway i agree with the multiple expert approach. i like it. just don't be an elitist missionary.

v said...


Unknown said...


I think the goal of secondary and tertiary education is to challenge, to create doubts. I don't care what her opinions are, and I don't want to change them, but I sure hope she'll understand that there are different points of view. And I hope, just from an academic point of view, that she knows that if "Harvard is her green light," it means she will never get to Harvard, or that Harvard would never work for her.

If, on the other hand, she understood why Fitzgerald saw it that way, and could say why Nick was wrong about this, she would have a new kind of power to use in the world. And that's what I would want for her.

No conversion, just her own capabilities within the world she lives in.

- Ira Socol

v said...

narrator said: but I sure hope she'll understand that there are different points of view.

yeah. that's what i mean about debating different emotional realities- core values. if you were to discuss mein kampf with a nazi you would realize that the empathy gene is missing from their psyche. they would realize you were a weak sentimentalist easy to crush, or some such thing. sometimes there literature creates doubt and discovery, sometimes you learn what you really value from it, and how others don't always share those values. that's important to learn. its important to know who both your allies and enemies are.

if i could learn why hitler saw the world the way he did after reading mein kampf, it would help me understand the mind of my enemy. that is useful. that would make me more capable of recognizing a hitler in modern times. so, yes, try to understand the author- get into their heart and brain- and then evaluate if their truths match with what life has shown you. each of us comes to a book with different life experiences, therefore we all won't come to the same conclusions the author did. maybe life experiences with bring us around, maybe because of in born temperament we will never be able to agree with the author's truth. but by all means, i agree we have to do our best to understand another's point of view.

v said...

ps the ivies are crawling with people who are like this chinese girl. most of them will live happy, prestige filled lives having attained their green light.