The Return of Weekend Wonderings

Here on Sunday night I revive my Weekend Wonderings. (I meant to do this yesterday morning but I was away from my computer.)

Over at Tea Cozy, Liz B. provides this quote from Ken Tucker’s review of the Beowulf DVD:

“Zemeckis says in a making-of that this film has ‘nothing to do with the Beowulf you were forced to read in junior high – it’s all about eating, drinking, killing, and fornicating.’ To which I can only respond, Oh, you poor, deluded baby boomer: Bob, do you think young people in 2008 have an Old English epic poem on the syllabus? American literacy is lucky if junior high schoolers get a stray Hemingway short story into their diet of crappy young-adult novels.”

This led me to a couple questions, which I shall catalogue for you now.

1. Where do the uninitiated get their ideas about what kids are reading, in or out of school? It’s true that I haven’t been in middle school for about 14 years, but when I was, we read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I’m fairly certain the curriculum hasn’t changed much. We read Beowulf in high school – not in its entirety, but in excerpts in World Literature. I think students who had British Literature in 12th Grade (instead of AP Literature, which is what I had) might have read it more. I know that my current students are still reading classics – Hamlet in 12th Grade, and others. (The North Carolina English Language Arts Curriculum Resources suggest texts like Romeo and Juliet, The Canterbury Tales, and the Scottish play.)

2. What is the relationship between a child’s desire to read and the amount of freedom she has to choose her reading material? In my 7th Grade year, our Language Arts teacher allowed us to read anything we wanted, so long as we were reading and then writing about our reading. Thus, my 7th Grade literature consisted of Piers Anthony, Michael Crichton, and Tanith Lee. If students are fed a steady diet of books that, while classic and worth reading, are old and seem irrelevant to them, is it any wonder that they don’t want to read more? I think a more sensible approach would be to alternate required texts with choice – but still requiring students to provide responses to their reading. I am glad to have read Hard Times, but I wouldn’t want to read Dickens exclusively.

Answers, anyone?

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  1. 1. Great question — that the EW writer thinks both that Beowulf ever was a Jr High text as well as that “crappy” ya novels are being taught. I imagine that, despite the EW person being a journalist himself, he reads the inaccurate and “oh noes gossip girls” articles found in the NYT and Wall Street Journal; which we bloggers know are full of bad or incomplete info, but which those “real” newspapers report as news.
    2. Ah, the desire to read; but is that the aim of English classes? Being a reader, I would love to say that English class is to develop a love of reading. But I think there are other reasons for English and lit class; and if it’s a love of reading, (almost) anything goes. For the record, I like the idea of mixing up required reading; or including individual choice book reports. I believe that no one book, ya or classic, will be loved by all kids, but if you have a range during the year, eventually each kid will like one of the required texts. I also think there is value for people to have had exposure to certain classics/ canon of literature; the question, to me, is when should that take place? And how should it be taught?

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