Dissecting Books?

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Recently a friend shared this article on Facebook: Top Schools Think 7th and 8th Graders Should Be Able to Read These Books.

The list is a pretty good one. There are a couple of books I’d teach earlier There are several books I’d hope my kids have encountered in a children’s version before middle school so as to give them better framework scaffolding of the who/what/when/how/why so that they can focus on grappling with the language rather than basic comprehension of the story. But the list itself is one I’d normally have just glanced at and moved on. What made me pause long enough to think thee was something here worth writing about were various comments in the subsequent discussion on Facebook, which revealed about what people think literature is for and made me want once again to dig a little deeper into the pedagogical question of how and why we teach literature in the first place. I’ve written about this before, thinking about book clubs, in What the Book Really Means and in A Child Takes What He Needs. But it’s a topic I never get tired of pondering, so here are some more thoughts.

“The one thing I am convinced of is this: if you try to force a kid to read something before they are ready the only thing you will teach them is to hate reading. “

There’s a kernel of truth in this one, of course. Forcing kids to read is a recipe for disaster. But there are so many other possible dynamics. One that is so often overlooked and neglected is the wonderful magic of reading aloud. Yes, even to middle school kids.

One of the tenets of Charlotte Mason’s approach (here in my own words) is that children are capable of reading before they are capable of decoding. That is, if you read to them they are often capable of understanding quite rich and complex works that they wouldn’t be able to read on their own. The mental action of comprehending a text and grappling with it is separate from that of reading the words on the page. So we often underestimate what kids are able to take in because we ditch the read alouds too soon and only feed them what they are capable of reading to themselves.

So while it is possible, as Sally Thomas pointed out, to try to read a book that a child isn’t ready for, it seems less likely than to make them read a book that they aren’t ready for. And one thing I note about most of the books on this list is that they make wonderful read alouds.

“Reading is one thing; comprehension is another. That list looks more like it belongs to St John’s than a middle school.”

What kind of comprehension does a child have to have to appreciate a great work of literature? My kids (ages 3, 5, 7, 8, and 10) love watching Shakespeare plays. I don’t know how much they comprehend, obviously 10 year old Bella gets quite a bit more than 3 year old Lucy, but the 3 year old is the one clamoring most loudly for Merry Wives of Windsor when it’s time to pick a video to watch. The younger ones mostly like the funny bits. Falstaff hiding in the washing basket, Dogberry and his watchmen, etc. But the primary advantage I see at starting them this young is that their main impression of Shakespeare is that it’s funny and entertaining on a rainy day. My ten year old picks up my big Riverside edition of the plays and tries to read them for fun. Honestly, I don’t really care all that much about comprehension, I’m aiming for entertainment and exposure and making a good first impression. What I dread most is my kids being the teens who hate Shakespeare. I think the best way to avoid that is to convince them that Shakespeare is fun before anyone else can convince them that Shakespeare is hard and boring.

I’ve written extensively about our process in other blog posts. We started off by reading simplified storybook versions of the plays and then when they knew the plot and characters we watched a performance. And we’ve done storybook versions of The Iliad and The Odyssey and The Aeneid and Beowulf and even some of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. I have read them some excerpts from both Heany’s and Tolkien’s translations of Beowulf and the children found them quite entertaining. I don’t expect them to write essays about this literature or to discuss it in depth, but to encounter it at an age-appropriate level and to enjoy it for what appeals to them now.

Of course literary classics like Shakespeare and Homer and Chaucer are not their exclusive diet. We read picture books and novels and poetry and science books and catechisms and all sorts of things, but I don’t sell my kids short and assume they can’t possibly appreciate a work of literature just because they cannot fully understand all of its depth and nuance. Heck, I’m still barely scratching the surface of what Dante and Shakespeare and Homer are getting at. These are not books to be read once and then checked off a list but to be encountered again and again.

When I was an undergraduate studying abroad my literature professor, Dr Sweet, had his kids with him and I remember being on a bus in Greece and one cherubic child asked one of my classmates to draw him a picture of the Cyclops. It made a great impression on me that where the previous year I was writing essays on The Odyssey, these kids just thought it was a great story and it filled their imagination. I’m pretty sure in Homer’s day the kids liked the stories too.

Children are like little sponges, they take in what they can, a whole lot goes over their heads, but if they’re fed a varied and rich diet their appetite grows and they learn to go deeper and deeper into the old familiar works and to see them with new eyes. Especially if they grow in an environment where books are discussed and cherished. 

And this approach doesn’t have to be exclusive to homeschoolers, school teachers can embrace it as well. It’s a different way of teaching and learning whereby the point of reading literature isn’t to answer questions on a test but to enter into a conversation and thereby become a citizen of the world, to become more fully human. None of us can take it all in on the first read, we all need to return again and again to the fonts of the classics. Early and frequent exposure to grand ideas, rich language, and complex emotions that are beyond his grasp can, if the teacher’s expectations are appropriate, instead of instilling a hatred for literature can lead a child to a lifelong love affair with learning.

“But will there be any comprehension at that age? Try teaching the Miller’s Tale (eg) to middle schoolers.”

I have a couple of thoughts about this question. I’m not actually sure what the commenter’s objection is, since he doesn’t specify. Is it that the Miller’s Tale is too racy, too much sexual innuendo? Or is it that kids find Chaucer too dull? I suspect it’s the former so I’ll deal with that first.

My first thought is about appropriateness. I’m not sure that The Miller’s Tale is the story I’d choose to present to middle schoolers. Ok, yes, it’s one of Chaucer’s funniest and the kind of humor might well appeal to middle school boys (and girls too, yes, but let’s face it boys are the ones most likely to be laughing at fart jokes). But their parents might not be best pleased at the sexual license that the story revels in. So yeah, maybe read Chaucer, but only selected stories if you think this one is a bit too racy? Though I bet if you read this one to the kids would not think Chaucer was boring.

Second, I think the wording of this objection is quite telling. Perhaps the problem is in the pedagogical approach. Maybe it’s “teaching” Chaucer that’s the problem. When we approach literature as a subject to be taught, I think we’re selling short both the literature and our students. Literature teaches us, we don’t teach it. We read it, we enjoy it, we let it shape us. We question it, we puzzle about it, we argue and discuss it when we aren’t sure how to read it. But literature is not math. There are no right and wrong answers, there are only good readings of the text and misreadings that seem to lose sight of the text itself. There should perhaps be more questions than answers when we read, but most of all it should be fun.

“Of course exposure to classics early has its advantages, but teaching and discussing these books is another ballgame. Can a 12 year old dissect and comprehend the themes they see in these books? “

and

Would they be ready to discuss them via essay or in-class conversations?”

I’m not sure that dissecting books is a really good pedagogical goal to begin with, so maybe we need to back up and think about why we read literature in the first place? I’ve already considered this in my previous answers, but I really really want to push back against this notion that books should be read in the classroom primarily to provide fodder for dissection and discussion. As if the dissection and comprehension were the goals instead of tools to be wielded by a careful reader.

And why should we be worrying at 12 year-olds to identify themes and comprehend and dissect them? Those are perhaps tasks for the college seminar, but not really appropriate for middle school classrooms. Stop treating literature as if it were a diseased patient that needs to be poked and prodded and probed to death!

Kids can read a book and appreciate it on different levels, so I think we really need to ditch this idea of comprehension. Is it a waste to show my three year old Merry Wives of Windsor because she doesn’t comprehend all the themes? What about the 10 year-old? Shouldn’t we focus instead on the fact that they enjoy it and think about how we can help more kids enjoy Shakespeare? It seems to me that enjoyment should come well before any discussion of themes. Like years and years before. Why must we try to measure and quantify a child’s understanding? Why can’t we simply allow her to encounter the play on her own terms?

My vision for how to read these books with kids is to read them and then leave them alone. Or sure, talk about whatever strikes the kids, even have a Socratic-type conversation with them. It may or may not lead to well written essays or to abstract discussions about themes, but if it doesn’t I wouldn’t say that the book failed but that perhaps the pedagogical goals had been misplaced and that in fact the book might have succeeded in a different, better, way. If you think that’s a middle schooler being unable to write an essay about a book is a failure, maybe the expectations of how and why to read the book were askew to begin with? What is the purpose of reading great literature? To have abstract discussions about it or to encounter other minds, other ideas, other emotions and places and people and values and to begin to have a broader vision of the world, a more human vision and greater empathy? Do middle schoolers really need to write essays about the books they read? I’m unconvinced that they do.

And should we dumb down what children read to make sure they will be able to have something to say, to give them only food that is easy to digest? Should we pre-chew it for them to make sure they don’t choke? Why are we treating children like infants?

“But… If the point of this is being able to comprehend and learn a moral value, a nuanced position in life…. Then these might not always be the best stories to tell. They are my favorites, but the world keeps moving on. There’s other more compelling choices for young minds these days.”

If the point of this is…. I’m sure there are people who think the point of reading literature is to learn moral values and nuance, but i’m not one of them. Sure, great works of literature do have moral lessons to teach us and they often teach us to read with nuance, to see nuance in the world. But is that really why we read Shakespeare and Homer and Dante and Virgil and Beowulf, etc? Literature does much more than merely teach us moral values. If the goal were just to teach moral lessons then any book which had a good moral lesson would do.

I guess this really becomes an argument for the canon, for Great Books, for some works being worthy of preserving and passing on. Why do we read them? In part because they put us in touch with people from other times and other places. The world has moved on, says our commenter. But that was equally true in the 1700s. Why read Homer and Virgil, the world had moved on? Why were these books kept through the middle ages and through the Renaissance? Why have educated people through the ages kept coming back to them, discussing them, using them as jumping off points for the creation of new literature?

The world has moved on, so you say. If that’s true, all the more reason to look back, to understand the past, to grapple with our history, where have we come from and where are we going? But is it true? By reading these books we begin to be able to ask ourselves whether it really has moved on. Are people really so different? Is Odysseus really so alien? How do we know unless we confront him, question him, sail with him to Ithaka? Who are you to so blithely throw away our heritage as so much rubbish? The world has moved on, there are many more compelling choices! What chronological snobbery!

In closing, I shall add that there were many voices in the conversation that spoke up for these books and questioned, as I did, the dissecting of literature. One commenter who always stands out as a voice of reason is the poet Sally Thomas, who said sagely: “I think expecting that they *should be able to* read all those books, and that they *should* read all those books in 7th or 8th grade, are two different things. That’s a lot of meaty books. You’d have to read pretty quickly, ergo pretty superficially, actually to read them all in two years of middle school — if we’re being all literal about this. That is, I would not look at that list and go, “Welp, there’s my middle-school reading list, right there.” What I have been inclined to do is not be all that surprised when an 11yo gets down Paradise Lost from the shelf because the book looks pretty, and reads it, and proceeds to tell me about it, the way she would have told me about any good story at that age. Nobody had ever told her she shouldn’t read it . . .”

By the time my kids hit middle school they will already have encountered many of these works. I love literature and I don’t understand why we should hold kids back from encounters with the greats, just so long as we don’t let them suffer from the illusion that having read them once they have now sucked all the juice out of them and need never open them again. For me the primary reason to read these great books is that, as Sally Thomas says, they are good stories. And I plan to never let my kids be told that they shouldn’t read them.

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