Monthly Archives: August 2008

I recently visited my city’s public museum, a well known collection of natural and cultural artifacts. Having not been to the museum very often since my youth, this was my first time looking at the museum as a teacher. And I found two things of interest to my English-teaching self: one specific object and one broad realization.

First, the artifact.

This is a writing desk and quill from the Lewis and Clark expedition. The quote on the inserted sign is from a letter written to Meriwether Lewis from Thomas Jefferson before the journey. It reads: “Your observations are to be taken with great pains and accuracy; to be entered distinctly and intelligibly, for others as well as yourself…” Isn’t it interesting that Lewis and Clark’s most important “assignment” required some of the same essential features that we still require in writing? Thoughtfulness, accuracy, clarity, and mindfulness of one’s audience as well as one’s own feelings and goals: I don’t think I could ask for a much better general set of writing guidelines!

And the realization…

As I strolled the museum, I found so many things that felt new and intriguing, from the spectacular dinosaur skeletons to the subtler, small things, like the antiquated silverware pictured above. It reminded me that observation and reflection are a huge part of thinking in a literary way. It is so important to have an open mind when approaching tasks like creative writing or taking alternative viewpoints in a discussion on literature. And part of that mind-opening process is being able to step back and think about the world, the people in it, and the countless strange, amazing things that surround us. Exploration is an underrated concept, I think, in our society today. We should be able to walk about and discover things every once in a while. Natural and cultural wonders are part of our textual universe. When you look at things in this light, is much easier to see how science, sociology, and history overlap with this (practically subjectless) subject we call English. I mean, aside from the hardware skills of reading, writing, interpretation, and discussion, “English” is really about EVERYTHING, about our world. And we need to explore our environment to understand it–both philosophically and physically. English isn’t found in the classroom. It’s found everywhere. And I found it at the museum.

So, what was accomplished here?

1. A re-affirmation of my theory that the universe is a text, and we English scholars are obligated to explore, interpret, and create what we can.

2. Every subject, even science, can lead to an English lesson. *Evil laugh of satisfaction*

3. Career goal: Come up with a field trip (such as a trip to the museum) that will allow both time for exploration and education. Kids will want to have a free for all, obviously, but maybe that’s part of living that’s intergral to the process of literary creation and interpretation. I want to harness the inherent passion for discovery and learning that every child has, and use it to aid learning. There is so much energy in young people–why waste effort squelching it when it can be developed and employed?

The beauty of language and ideas is everywhere… we just have to look closely.

I just wanted to spread the word about a fantastic organization: Teaching Tolerance. This group, founded in 1991, provides free educational materials that help teach practical approaches to a social justice curriculum. Their mission statement sums up their cause: “We are dedicated to reducing prejudice, improving intergroup relations and supporting equitable school experiences for our nation’s children. To us, tolerance is an ethic.” For all teachers, and for all students, this is a great step forward.

Teaching Tolerance has an amazing breadth of resources that any educator would benefit from exploring. Why not start with their bi-annual publication? (The image above is the cover plate from a recent issue.) Or, even better, their comprehensive website. Just click HERE to go to the section for educators.

Nowhere else have I seen an organization that pairs such amazing ideals with such useful real-life applications. Bravo.

It’s funny—people refer to high school students as “children.” Developmentally, yes, I suppose that’s what they are. But really, it’s not so simple. High school students of today have many adult concerns. They have jobs. They have serious relationships. They have sex lives. They encounter drugs, alcohol, and violence. They live in a confusing world where depression, eating disorders, and suicide are at a peak. They risk high stakes failures and successes. They live in a high pressure world where they are expected to simultaneously fill the roles of a sophisticated adult and a sheltered juvenile. It’s not all sunshine and lollipops. High school is not a more advanced version of the younger grades. It’s more like the real world. It’s a dark place. And, (apologies for the morbidity) the real world can be a dark world.

It’s no wonder, then, that today’s young adult literature reflects this. Take a title I read recently for the high school crowd: Looking for Alaska by John Green. Mind you, this is a fantastic book. It’s written with wit and beauty, wired with suspense and movement. I ask you to consider the content, though. The main characters, all 16-17 years old have realistically portrayed encounters with the following:
*unprotected sex
*persistent drug usage
*resisting authority
*heavy cigarette smoking
*moral ambiguity
*low self-esteem
*the fact that sometimes answers, closure, and comfort never come

All right. The point of this list is not to point out how shocking Alaska is. Rather, it’s to give a concrete example of what is going on inside most young adult lit today. Reading for young adults is filled with darkness, sorrow, and harsh reality. Of course, there are the bright spots as well. And the writing in this genre just gets better and better. But is the weight of the content getting too heavy? Sometimes I wonder if literature pushes us closer to the darker side than we really need to go. The question here really is this: Regarding adolescent reading material, how dark is too dark? There are two sides to my thoughts on the matter.

Point 1. Literature should not present a watered down version of life. If literature is indeed a pathway to truth, is it not more powerful, more genuine if it portrays the human condition in an honest way? I mean, if there is suffering in life, it doesn’t pay to give young adults literature that presents an overly-sunshiny vision—one that they know is false and therefore somewhat “fluffy” and pointless. If we want to motivate people to read, reading has to be alive, and that takes full disclosure about the world around us.

There should be a point. There should be some pain. There should be the chance to travel to the deepest, darkest recesses of what it means to be human. Evil, darkness, fear, loss: these things are what we least understand, but words can help us to explore these shadowy corners of our psyche. Reading can help us turn serious things around in our minds, contemplate them, discuss them, and hopefully understand them a little more. Part of me wants to believe that realism in literature helps ground us and prepare us for the hard times that are unavoidable in our individual lives and larger communities. Students are affected by the problems of the world, so why not offer them reading material that addresses the realities of those problems?

Point 2. On the other hand, there are times when the dark aspects of life become oppressive. You have a bad day at work, then have a spat with a friend over something meaningless. Then, you turn on the news, jump online, or check out a newspaper headline, only to find updates on war, economic hardship, scandal, and violence. Then, you start wondering why the heck we’re all here, anyway. It can get, well… demoralizing. After all that, who really wants to curl up with The Bluest Eye or The Grapes of Wrath? I know that last winter, when I was feeling pretty harrowed just by everyday life, my assignment to read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking nearly put me over the edge. Books do make us feel. And that includes making us feel pretty bad.

This makes me think of my students—is it fair of me to expect them to endure a semester of depressing (and powerful and brilliant) reading on top of whatever hardships they already have to bear just from their daily lives? Without a doubt, these kids already know the world is dark. So why hammer the point home to an extreme degree? Literature can also serve to inspire and humor our lives, and this purpose is surely important. Seeing the potential for light despite the darkness is perhaps the most important thing we can learn from art. That’s one of the eternal underlying themes of more literature across cultural traditions—that light and dark will always be locked in combat, but that light can still win out. Well, postmodern literature may not allow us that comfortable vision, but I think that we need to keep it alive for the sake of all of our sanities, especially that of our youth. If we want them to inherit and lead a peaceful, harmonious world, we have to start by helping them believe that such a world is possible.

Verdict: There’s no need to water down the world for young adults. They know what’s going on. But we have to feed them a literary diet that includes hope and humor every once in a while.

“There is nothing so pitiful as a young cynic because he has gone straight from knowing nothing to believing nothing.” –Maya Angelou

We can’t have that.