While still in college, studying to be an English teacher, I had returned to my old high school to observe and get some field experience–a requirement of the education program. My 12th grade English teacher had allowed me to come into her classroom to watch and teach. She had been at it for a long while; nearing retirement, she had decades of experience enduring brats like myself. I loved her—still do—and in my own preparation to be an English teacher, I valued her advice and mentorship. Near the end of the semester and my required hours, she gave me one of her own maxims of teaching: “Don’t teach your favorite books or poems.”
I was fairly certain at the time that I disagreed with her. I believe (want to believe) most teachers get into education because they want to inspire kids—English teachers especially. Most of us have done a substantial amount of reading; we have been touched and transformed by books and we want to pass that on; we teach what we know and what moves us. Of course there is the “canon” to consider, and we often teach works that have not necessarily affected us but, nevertheless, are recognized as crucial to the curriculum and literary history; however, our favorites (a few, at least) do make it into the syllabus. But after years of teaching, hours upon hours of faculty meetings, professional development and teachers’ conferences, my old teacher’s advice is still the most memorable I’ve received. It has become a paradox in my own education philosophy: I still try to reject it out of principle but often—especially after completing a difficult lesson or unit—find myself relenting to and acknowledging my old teacher’s wisdom. I’ve seen the relevance of her advice most clearly in my attempts to teach John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.
I’ve read many books. Most I’ve enjoyed, and some have played a role in defining my character and world-view. And a small few in the latter category have knocked me on my ass. The Grapes of Wrath is one of those. I was deeply moved by the story of the Joads—their journey and struggle. I was affected by the themes of social justice and injustice. I was convinced that my students should read this book. The Grapes of Wrath won the Pulitzer, National Book Award, and was integral in Steinbeck’s receiving the Nobel Prize for Fiction. It also provides a vivid and realistic portrayal of the American Great Depression. It’s beautifully written—poetry at times. It’s got everything—a literary multivitamin—and I was going to cram it down their throats (because it’s good for ya, dammit).
I’m not a veteran teacher, but I’ve been at it long enough to see some of what I do through the lens of reality. Being a content-teacher (English, History, Science, etc.) means having to eventually come to terms with this tragedy: the vast majority of students you teach will not give the slightest damn about the subject you love and in which you have invested so much time and education. In my classroom, this takes the form of regularly hearing how much my students hate to read. By this, of course, they mean anything that could even vaguely resemble a book or poem; they do actually love to read: social networking feeds, texts, memes, snapchat captions, Tumblr. This is of course a generalization; I’ve encountered students (very few) who have even read a good deal more than I have. But mostly they do hate it, and though I haven’t let their disgust with the written word beat me, I have accepted it. I still make them read, and I still try to inspire—create life-long readers. I still try to help my students find something that will move them and make them ask the hard questions. However, I have given up on The Grapes of Wrath. Hearing something you love being ridiculed daily for nearly a month–how it’s so “awful/boring” (“It’s ruining my life!”)–takes a special kind of resilience and stoicism.
This resistance has forced me to examine my philosophies and rationale as an English teacher–from where they arise and their possible validity or invalidity. I never studied The Grapes of Wrath in school. I read it because of the recommendation of a friend. I moved at my pace. There were even times when I put it down to return to it a week or two later. I wasn’t forced to read anywhere from two to five chapters a night; write reading journal entries or essays; respond to literary analysis, short-answer questions; take reading quizzes; or to be accountable in any way. I read the book on my terms.
My philosophy is changing. My students need choice. They need books to which they can relate. They need books that will pull them in, hold them, and then make them think and ask hard questions. My relationship with The Grapes of Wrath is a personal one and it doesn’t need to be my students’ experience as well. I need–want–for them to experience the love and transformative power of books. But they don’t need to be my books.