Thursday, February 01, 2007

personal pep talk

“In knowing who you are and writing from it, you will help the world by giving it understanding.” – Natalie Goldberg, Writing down the Bones, p. 241

I’m still convinced that my new book is important to write (despite the fact that my editor didn’t even nibble on the unrequested progress-report bone I threw him in my recent e-mail). And I’m trying hard not to listen to my annoyingly persistent self-editing voice that wants to know if his lack of response is some sort of “sign.”

All I know is that something deep within in me keeps insisting that it’s important to write about why and how to teach literature that deals with difficult—some would say dangerous—issues and questions. So far in my rationale, I’ve been pointing out the difficulty that people everywhere—most visibly, politicians, reality TV contestants, warring spouses, angry adolescents—seem to have with doing this very thing, or at least doing so in a civil fashion.

But on further reflection, as I heed Natalie Goldberg’s advice about knowing who I am, I realize that right now, I’m a 41-year-old woman with an injured back who struggles daily with my own big questions, as I’m guessing we all do, whether we want to admit it or not. Conflict and big questions are an unavoidable part of existence, and at least part of the reason why I read is to confront them vicariously through literary lives. And talking through them with the help of a text, what Parker Palmer refers to as a “third thing,” gives me the distance I temporarily need to sort through conflicts of my own as well as questions posed by living in the larger world.

Why does it matter that we talk these texts through with other people rather than pondering them individually then sliding the book back on the shelf? Listen to what Palmer says in A Hidden Wholeness:

“Whether we know it or not, like it or not, acknowledge it or not, our lives are interconnected in a complex web of causation. My understanding of truth impinges on your life, and yours impinges in mine, so the differences between us matter to both of us.”

Now Palmer’s not writing about literary discussions per se, but I think his claim holds true for them as well. As teachers, we can distance our students and ourselves by underlining the similes and highlighting the metaphors so that it actually becomes a “fourth thing,” but is that really why we read? Aren’t we more interested in the truths those linguistic parallels eventually lead us to? Shouldn’t we be teaching our kids to do all that annotation in the service of asking Why?

Well, I think so. Of course I’m not the only one to argue that we enter literary worlds to exit into our own more clearly or that talking through texts can help us do so. I know I’m evoking those buzz words “relevance” and “authenticity” here. (And I also know the book feels so important because it’s probably tapping my own need to confront conflict and speak my own truth, too.) But I don’t think it’s always (or ever) easy to teach the texts that really matter. (Witness the difference between some of my Methods students’ recent list of texts they’re dying to teach and the ones they actually suggested for their working unit. Let’s just say the second list is mostly canonical.)

So summoning the courage to teach the text in the first place seems an important first step. And dealing with the “hot potato” once you’ve done so seems an important second. And yes, I think this could make a difference in helping our kids learn how to deal productively with difficult issues beyond the classroom. So while I’m not entirely sure why it seems so important to me personally to write this book, I think I have to try.


Louann said...

On a completely different angle of this topic, I wonder if you've read the Christian Science Monitor story about the police outside of Mexico City who "are reading Bertolt Brecht and Raymond Carver and carrying around poetry anthologies, all in an effort to become more 'enlightened'--and thus both less devious and less derided. A thinking cop, the theory goes, is a better cop." The story is that police are participating in book clubs. They're not required, but they can't get promoted without participation.

I'd like to quote every bit of the story so that you could see how the coordinator of the program enacts his vision of what reading literature can do for people. This isn't the same as teaching tough texts, but it supports the reasons we must teach tough texts--those are often the ones with the most power. And there are lots of ways for them to be tough.

Anyway, here's the link:

Rhea said...

Hi Cindy, what a great idea for a book, don't give up on it! I think it is so important for teachers to feel supported and encouraged to explore options, try new things, and make changes in education. Education should be constantly expanding. I was very surprised by the highly canonical list of texts that were chosen by our methods class as well. I have to admit I was disappointed. I had been looking forward to the vote, expecting to be presented with a diverse list of texts I had never read or heard of. I was hoping to read something contemporary, perhaps by a female author...I felt we should have chosen something fresh and different to represent ourselves as being part of a brand new generation of teachers. Your book will be an extremely valuable companion to any teacher with a desire to teach texts that are not on the approved, "safe" book list. I would love to own a copy when it comes out!

JC Clarke said...

I commented about this on the AI "Mother Blog" but I wanted to comment here, too. This is an awesome idea for a book, it fits so well into my whole teaching philosophy. One interesting thing that I've noticed, though, is that so many of the books in the canon are "tough," yet they aren't treated that way by teachers.

Because they're classics and we're a bit removed from them, we tend to miss the controversy in them. One example is how most teachers dumb down Shakespeare, avoiding the serious issues, sexual puns and innuendos, and difficult themes that he develops.

Try dropping a piece of literary criticism that explores the question of Mercutio's sexual preference into a classroom full of fifteen-year-olds. If nothing else, it gets them listening, talking and thinking about Shakespeare.

It's not just tough texts, but also the issue of whether we ignore or cultivate the controversy in the texts that are more "safe" because they're canonized.