What I Want My Students to Know…”Gatsby” and “Modern Family”

I have been on Twitter for about six months now. The reason I love it is because I receive so much information which is relevant to me and my classroom; I truly believe it has made me a better teacher. But one thing I’ve noticed is the amount of tweets which gently remind teachers of what we are supposed to be doing in our classroom. Anything from we need to stop ‘making’ kids read books in which they are not interested to we need to embrace each student’s uniqueness and center our curriculum around their interests. Got it. Understood. I do all of those things and have a very good success rate in doing so. On the other hand, I do not feel high school students necessarily have enough life experience to understand everything they need to know in order to gain a culturally literate education on their own.  I’m not saying I am all-knowing in this area as well, but in my 41 years I have learned a thing or two about culture and literature which I can pass onto my students.  And in gaining cultural literacy, does this not necessitate teachers in a classroom facilitating and guiding students to reach outside their comfort zones and to learn something which they may not have taken the time to learn on their own? Yes, I believe students should take ownership of their learning and yes, I believe they should have some input on what they are learning.  However, if we allow students to completely dictate what they will learn, are we not essentially downplaying our roles as teachers as well as our importance in the classroom?

This all came about after I watched a short video this morning with the disclaimer, “All high school English teachers need to watch this”.  So I did as I was told, being a dutiful high school English teacher.  The entire video consisted of interviews of high school students confessing to the camera how they have never read a book assigned in English class, and instead relied on class discussions and SparkNotes to get the basic idea of the book in order to write the required essay at the end.  Sad, but not completely unknown.  I’ve known this happens for years, however, here is my philosophy regarding this phenomenon:  Not all kids do not read the books and I can tell who has not, so I will not stop assigning classic literature which does not “appeal” to high school students.  I will not change my philosophy just because some do not read.  The students on the video seemed, in my eyes, a bit bashful about admitting such a travesty.  However, the part that irritated me was the underlying message (from assumingly well-meaning educators) that the kids are not reading because the teacher is “making” them read books they do not like.  If we would just let them read books they want to read, this whole problem would be solved.  No, problem not solved.  Cultural literacy is necessary as a basis of understanding for all subjects; without it, there is a notable hole in a student’s knowledge.  To quote E.D. Hirsch, proponent for cultural literacy in education, “We have ignored cultural literacy in thinking about education. We ignore the air we breathe until it is thin or foul. Cultural literacy is the oxygen of social intercourse.”  It’s what binds us together as a society and is the reason why I “make” my kids read “The Great Gatsby” and “Of Mice and Men“.  I feel I need to expose the kids to literature they would never have read otherwise; it is my job as their teacher.

But to channel the inner Kelly Gallagher in me, I do allow choice in the classroom as well.  Balance is good.  I incorporate the SSR philosophy on Fridays – the students are able to bring in any book of choice to read in class for the period.  I have stopped feeling as if I need to attach assignments to this reading; instead I want them to feel as if they are reading in an authentic environment.  When I read a book at home, no one gives me a quiz on it nor makes me create a poster about a character nor write an essay about the plotline.  No, I believe they should read for the sheer pleasure of reading – that is what makes lifelong readers, I’m convinced.  If they do not like a book, I tell them to pitch it and find something else, since that is what I do as a reader.  This is my balance and I tell my students that I expect them to read what I would like them to read and in turn, I will let them read what they want to read.  Sometimes I even read books which they suggest to me; it’s a compromise and so far it has worked really well.  I also explain to them my philosophy of wanting them to have a solid literary base so they will understand references to these books in society and they respond well to that.  An example of a student noticing literary references occurred in my room a few weeks ago and went like this:

 Student:  Mrs. Polen, do you watch “Modern Family“?

 Me:  Yes, I love it!

 Student:  Did you see last night when Jay asked Manny if he was trying to be Gatsby because Manny was dressed like Gatsby to go golfing?  That was hysterical and I got it!

 Me:  Yep!  I’m so glad your mean English teacher tortured you and made you read “Gatsby”.

To get off my soapbox, I end with a few things I would like my students to know:

1.  Do not take the easy way out of assignments.  It will always come back to haunt you.  Karma is a butt-kicker!

2.  I really do not sit up at night dreaming up ways to make your life miserable by “making” you read books you do not “want” to read.  I do it because I want you to be well-educated when you walk out of my room at the end of the year.  I do it because I do not want you sitting in a college class two years from now wishing your English teacher had “made” you read some classic literature so you feel you are on an even playing field with the rest of the students in your class.  I do it because I want you to have a solid cultural base so you “get it” when you watch “Modern Family” and they reference “Gatsby”.

3.  Soak in all you can while in high school.  You are receiving a free education.  There are people who are dying to go to school and cannot for socio-economic or governmental reasons.  Sorry to sound like a mother (or my mother), but it’s so true.  Right now, this is your job to learn as much as you can so you can be a responsible citizen later in life.  We have enough people who are not, so do not bow to societal pressure to just “get by” while in school. Please.

4.  I will always work with you when you are reading tough literature.  But here’s the deal – I will not do the work for you.  You need to put in some effort as well and at least try.  I give big kudos just for trying and none for not trying!  You know what I love?  When students challenge themselves and do something they never thought they could do.  That is so cool and makes me love my job.

I think I will ask my students to read this post since we are now blogging in class and responding to each other’s posts.  I’m curious to hear their responses and I think it will generate some great class discussions.  Bet they can’t find any information for that discussion on “SparkNotes”…