Those of us in the education world understand that all it takes is a good hook to pull in an audience. So it was that I sat with bated breath in anticipation at the AMLE conference for the session entitled “Let Them Read Trash: The Power of Marginalized Texts to Promote Imagination, Satisfaction and Social Action.” I had no idea that Jeffrey Wilhelm was an accomplished English professor at Boise State University, nor did I know he was an accomplished author of books including Engaging Readers and Writers With Inquiry, You Gotta Be the Book, and Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys. What I did know was that this was a provocative title, and I was curious about the premise.
The session did not disappoint. I found Wilhelm to be a gifted speaker with a compelling message, all backed up by research, his experience with his own eighth grade class, and statements from his students about their experience. Early in the session Wilhelm asked attendees to rank the following reasons for reading literature:
___ 1. To help young people explore their own feelings about literature
___ 2. To help young people explore their own feelings and understandings about their personal experiences
___ 3. To introduce students to great literary treasures
___ 4. To introduce students to other cultures, especially those distant from their experience
___ 5. To provide a meaningful context for learning to read
___ 6. To develop students’ aesthetic sensibilities
___ 7. To develop critical thinking and writing skills
___ 8. To learn to “read the world” from a critical perspective
___ 9. To discuss and come to deeper understandings of timeless themes such as love, loss, identity, heroism, etc.
___ 10. To create an opportunity to discuss contemporary issues
___ 11. To help students think for themselves, and to create their own philosophies of life and living
___ 12. To help students to “live through” experiences that are distant from them in time, place and experience, therefore widening and deepening their experience.
___ 13. Other?:
After that excercise, Wilhelm contended that unless #3 was a high priority, it did not matter whether teachers used the classics as a vehicle vs. any other literature that students would read. He went on to claim that many students who are gamers in their free time speak of game characters in much the same way as one might discuss literary characters. (This seems like quite a stretch to me, and seems contrary to the goal of getting kids to read, but I do see how games could be used to discuss contemporary issues, etc.)
The discussion reminded me of my own guilty pleasures (or in Willhelm’s jargon, my own meaningful trash): an episode of Two and a Half Men. In the episode, Jake, the slacker son who both dislikes and is not good at school, is supposed to be doing a book report on Lord of the Flies. His father not only can’t get Jake to read the book, he can’t even bring him to read the Cliff’s Notes. At the same time, Jake’s Uncle Charlie is writing the theme song to one of Jake’s favorite graphic novels, Oshikuru – Demon Samurai. He gives Charlie a stinging critique of his jingle: “Did you even read the comic? It’s about a teenage boy in a futuristic society, who’s possessed by the tortured soul of a feudal Japanese warrior condemned to walk the earth fighting the evil that he once embodied. He lives in dark world. He battles the spirits of the damned. Your theme doesn’t capture the mood at all. It just blows.” Jake and his critique would be easy to dismiss as the rantings of a fictional character, except I have heard kids talk like this — deeply, and emotionally –on a number of occasions about things that they care about. And I have frequently seen those same kids frustrated about the “stupid book” that they “have to read” in class. It is obvious that Jake is willing to apply the same skills required to analyze high-brow literature, he just doesn’t want to do so with The Lord of the Flies. At some point the question becomes: Which is more important, applying the skills of analysis, or reading that particular book?
To me, the whole point is that we need a way to set the hook. Whether that is finding a way to make classics appealingly and meaningfully relatable to our students, or allowing them to develop important skills and conceive critical thoughts through different vehicles, is really immaterial. Regardless, we must bring the horse to the water AND make him drink. I can’t imagine not reading Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, et al, and yet it seems that a balance can be struck allowing choice and multiple genres to be part of the menu. Then, in the immortal words of Charlie Sheen, we’ll all be “Winning!”
So, I’m curious…which of Wilhelm’s 13 reasons for teaching literature is your number one? Can reading trash accomplish the same thing, or is this idea headed for the sanitation station?