Friday, June 17, 2011

The Test of Literature: Field Notes

"The test of literature is, I suppose, whether we ourselves live more intensely for the reading of it." 
-Elizabeth Drew

As my first year as a high school teacher ends, I find myself in a reflective mood. At the start of the year, I had hoped that when my students met William Shakespeare and William Golding, Homer and Harper Lee, they might consider the proposition that writers have bits of beauty and wisdom to offer us. I still have that hope.

Nearly all my students are reluctant readers. Many of them would rather play a video game or shop at the mall than pick up a book. The challenge for me is to find a way to connect the required literature with their endlessly online, teenaged, suburban lives.

When we read The Iliad, we talked  about the difference between revenge and justice.

When we read Romeo and Juliet we wondered whether the two teenagers are truly in love or if they merely are obsessed with one another.  

I felt a measure of success when they hated Beowulf’s Grendel and got angry at Mayella Ewell’s false accusations in To Kill A Mockingbird. That led to conversations about the justice system.

They were astonished to discover, when reading Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir Night, of how brutal and sadistic a setting the camps were. “Why did Hitler hate Jews so much? “ they asked.

“Why does anyone hate anyone?” I answered.  We talked about the difference between reason and madness.

As my students leave the confines of high school and head off into summer, they will travel to dirt-bike tracks and tanning beds, to family timeshares in Cancun and jobs behind the counter at McDonalds. I hope they remember the time we spent in class, talking about the stories we read. I will never really know for sure, but I hope the books and conversations make a difference. 


  1. Upon entering high school, my daughter struggled to read anything. Now, she reads more than anyone else in the family, including me. Something someone said or did 3 or 4 years ago made a difference. I am grateful to teachers like you who seem to make literature and other subjects more than just another required course.

  2. @Julie: How great to hear a success story! Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment, too. : )

  3. From your snippets here, I'm certain many of those kids will store some of that up inside of them, in their minds, their souls, wherever we store these themes and questions.

  4. I'm a middle school foreign language teacher. Sometimes I think "what could be worse?! these kids are so reluctant to learn another language!" But then it is those times that I find that a student has found their niche in languages (whereas they may have poor grades in other subjects) that makes it all worthwhile :)
    I'm always glad to hear another teacher's success story!

  5. I guarantee you made a difference. You have such passion! And passion is contagious, even when the "bug" lies dormant for a few years... you just never know when it will wake up, all because a wonderful high school teacher said or did something one year in class...