Friday, May 16, 2008

So Many Books



It has been a nebulous time, these last two weeks.

My students are finishing up their Advanced Placement exams and I am planning next year. Meanwhile, the school community prepares for Sunday’s open house and festival which includes Aram Saroyan’s visit and book signing.

Usually, teachers and students function like Pavlov’s dog during an ordinary school day. The bell rings, and we move. The entire day is organized around bells. But this week, the bells are often irrelevant. They ring, signifying the end or beginning of a class, but there are still students in the hallways. Students and teachers rehearse programs and performances; artists paint banners and posters on the floor in classrooms and hallways; janitors hang banners and bunting around the quad and playground. In short, it is chaos, a cacophony of busy work and artistic endeavor, occurring during the time of year when everyone, teacher and student alike, struggles to maintain focus. Final exams begin in fifteen days.

One of my many tasks this week is determining what books I will teach next fall. I have spent more time than usual on this process this year. I feel more and more that my students do not read enough, and therefore I need to bolster the text lists in my classes. However, I also feel they do not read carefully enough, nor deep enough, and therefore I have spent this year feeling like we are rushing through material. I keep hearing my mentor teacher’s voice from all those years ago: “ We teach children, not curriculum.”

How do we best serve our students? How do we get them to read broadly while also digging into the books and reading with depth and critical thinking?

So I have spent the week cutting down the text lists for each class to the bare minimum, thinking that I would dig more deeply into the works I teach. More close reading. More intensity. More background. More projects that reveal the nuances of text and writing.

Then I read an AP article, or examine a released exam, and realize by cutting the list, I am limiting my students’ experience with a variety of texts. So I start adding books back to the list. I go crazy, adding this book or that book, things I taught last year, or five years ago.

I also think about themes. I like organizing my reading lists for courses by theme. For the seniors, I am thinking of picking books that illustrate the philosophical questions of good and evil. Heart of Darkness. Crime and Punishment. Yeats’ “The Second Coming.” Dante’s Inferno. For sophomores, I think of Existentialism and Eastern philosophy—Siddhartha, The Stranger. And since they purchase a separate writing and grammar text, I would like to devote a semester to that book alone. Research writing—they should do a major paper. Or, I could assign several shorter assignments that cover a variety of research techniques. Juniors hate Huckleberry Finn, yet it is on every major course list from the state and the College Board. Who does not read Huckleberry Finn in high school? The same group loves The Catcher In The Rye, yet I find the language dated, and I wonder at the value of the book. Are there others that might serve the same purpose and offer a richer experience? Why do they respond so well to Salinger’s writing? There must be something there.

I come to the conclusion that to lessen the number of texts is to cut the blood flow, so to speak. I need to push hard through the books. I cannot let the current trends in our American society to read less discourage me from making my students read more. As hard as it is this year with all the distractions, I must carve out the time next year to make my students read broadly and deeply.

In all of this, I must admit, there is the flutter in the stomach, the excitement. Yes, I get butterflies thinking about the teaching, the assignments, the work. I love this. I think about reading these books for the first time when I was in school, and the smells, the tastes, the intensity come flooding back. I start thinking about how I can recreate this experience for my students. How can I get them to feel the things I felt in ninth grade, tenth grade, senior year, when I read 1984, Romeo and Juliet, Something Wicked This Way Comes.

I have already decided that this summer I need to refresh my notes and materials. I will work through each text, even the ones I have taught a hundred times, and re-prepare to teach them once again. I will research new websites, new articles, new project possibilities, new directions. I do this every few years. Freshness is important when you are a classroom teacher. I cannot wait to reread the books, to spend the summer weeks rethinking the writers I love, the books I cherish.

Meanwhile, I must finish this year. We have Monday off since we must spend Sunday on campus at the open house. Tuesday begins the final fifteen days of 2007-2008. I must still finish teaching Fahrenheit 451, To Kill A Mockingbird, A Separate Peace, The Bell Jar. I need to write some final exams, finalize the Summer Reading List, distribute the final draft of my text list for 2008-2009. Final, finalize, finish. But the work of a teacher is never finished. There are always more books to read, more learning to absorb, more thinking to do.

Summer is a time of fireworks and picnics, swimming and playing, of youth and beauty. I will be the one on the blanket with his back against the tree, face buried in a book, dreaming of autumn and so many books.