Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Taking Duddy to the Mat

I was at a barbecue the other day, and somehow got into a conversation with a mathematician about Shakespeare. This guy was definitely no dummy, but he said that he found reading Shakespeare in high school English to be a very discouraging experience – that being thrown a text in language that was 400 years old was alienating, and felt like he was being asked to run before he could walk.

Then, I was talking to my folks last night, and mentioned that I was reading “The Favourite Game” by Leonard Cohen, which I had grabbed off of mom’s shelf a few years ago. I told them that I was glad I hadn’t tried to read it in high school or university when I loved Cohen’s poetry, but had no understanding of Montreal or Jewish culture, which both feature prominently in the book. It would have been like my first attempt at “The Edible Woman,” when I was so far removed from the context that I was just bored, and had to wait another 6 years or so to give it another try and understand why mom loved it when she was in her 20s.

This line of conversation led naturally to Mordecai Richler. I, like most kids in Ontario, read the Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz in high school, and I didn’t get it. I didn’t touch Richler again for over 10 years, until I picked up Barney’s Version, which I quite enjoyed. I commented to the folks that maybe it didn’t make sense to teach Duddy to a bunch of high school kids in Bruce County – I probably read more than any other student in my class, and I still found the book completely uninspiring.

And what about Shakespeare? I am a firm believer that Shakespeare’s work has universal themes that we can all relate to, and that he really was a master of word-play. But I didn’t learn these things from high school English class. Dare I say I learned them despite high school English class? I learned to appreciate Shakespeare from good film and live adaptations – Baz Lurhman’s Romeo and Juliet, lively Midsummer Night’s Dream in Shakespeare in the Park, and through literature and acting classes taken in university (and because I was a freak-child who got her mother to read Shakespeare to her when she was 8).

Mom countered my suggestion that Duddy should be shelved with the proposition that if kids didn’t get exposed to Richler (and Shakespeare, I assume) in high school, many of them would never get exposed to it. Most kids weren’t going to grow up like me to do a degree in English literature and continue to read as a major form of entertainment throughout their lives.

So here's the issue that these conversations have left me pondering – is it worth exposing high school students to good literature that isn’t going to speak to them if it will turn them off of reading altogether? Is it more important to ensure that everyone is exposed to a certain number of classics, both Canadian and otherwise, or should the schools strive first and foremost to engender a love of books as a place where we can explore truths and philosophies, and learn about the world around us, even if some of those books seem more "pop"? I think this strikes on some pretty deep issues of what education is for – is it for making sure we all come out of school with universal exposure to a number of texts, facts, etc., or is it there to make us think, and to give us the tools to continue to think throughout our lives? Or, is it somewhere in between?

And a final question – if you buy into my proposition that Duddy should be shelved, what books are good for high school English? And does Shakespeare get to stay just because he’s special, or should his ubiquitousness in the classroom be examined as well?


Simone said...

1. Maybe we need to start reading more earlier in school just for enjoyment. I think it's sometimes the analysis that gets you down in highschool english. I remember, as someone who liked reading and generally liked the books too (but not duddy or death of a salesman) that I didn't like searching for the deeper meanings, couldn't we just enjoy the story. - there's a difference between teaching for loving reading and teaching for other values like, critical thinking, etc. etc.
2. Shakespeare can come alive with the right teacher. maybe watching it is a good way to introduce. they are plays, maybe they were meant to be watched and not read to get the meaning from good actors. I still can quote the shakespeare we acted out in grade 10. others I don't really remember.
3. look for themes that are more related to where teenagers are at.
just a few thoughts off the top of my head.

el Maggie said...

Nay by my troth - my sister hath slain Duddy! See, I remember the scene you acted out in grade 10 too . . .

I agree that Shakespeare should be put on its feet. One of my profs in undergrad told me that plays should never be acted out b/c they bastardized the text. Aside from ignoring the fact that every time we read a book, we bring out own experiences and mental pictures to it - I thought that was ridiculous. We were recently at 12th Night Shakespeare in the Park, and it was brilliant. I think that banning the BBC productions, with their straight Elizabethian costuming (in which all the men look the same, and the play within a play in a Midsummer Night's Dream ISN'T FUNNY) . . . would be a good first step to bringing Shakespeare alive for teenagers.

As for the themes. I don't know if getting rid of the analysis is the way to go, but I think that looking for more relevant themes might be a good start. Death of a Salesman, for example, is all about stagnation and decay - kinda repugnant to teenagers who have their lives ahead of them. As for Duddy, I remember that the big theme was Jewish people wanting to own land. Maybe if they had put that into some of its historical or sociological context, it would have been more interesting (then again, I am the girl who spent 4 years of an English degree putting texts into their historical or sociological context - so maybe that's just my personal preference.

As for books that might be good - anything distopian, Dracula and Frankenstein (we did them in university, lots of stuff to talk about). I wonder if they could teach something like Unless by Carol Shields. Or maybe that's too old for teenagers.

Simone said...

It's funny eh, when you think about it, English should be the best subject in school. you don't have to memorize something and you get to read stories. why is it that it's dreaded by so many. and why is it that as a teenager so many people don't think that learning to write properly is important. It's propbably more important than ever in our "wired" world, to be able to express oneself clearly in writing!

el Maggie said...

If only English class could be like book club. And if only you would realize as a teenager what skills you will actually need in your life.

senatorsmith said...

I can completely relate to the mathematician. Although I do not recall feeling discouraged reading Shakespeare, I definitely felt disconnected.

However, after attending a performance of a Midsummer Night’s Dream at the NAC, I had a completely different appreciation and understanding of Shakespeare.

I did feel like I was being asked to run before I could walk when my father gave me the task of reading
Dostoevsky's "Crime & Punishment" in my early teens. I think it turned me off reading the classics.

I remember reading "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz" in High School, but like other Shakespeare works, I remember little. Likely because I was more concerned about sports & socializing.

I agree that if kids are not exposed to Richler and Shakespeare in high school, most of them would never get exposed to it.

I believe the education system must expose high school students to good literature that isn’t going to speak to them, even if it turns them off of reading altogether.

Why? Because the seed has been planted. From that seed, many good things can grow.

My post secondary education had very little elective courses. I was part of the inaugural Police Foundations program. It is a program that transfers the responsibilities of teaching theories that were taught in Police College to Community Colleges.

I thrived. I loved it. I was a minority. I was in my late twenties, in a program full of teens. 250+ started the program.
Less than 50 graduated.
I really enjoyed learning about First Nations People. Most people resented it. I also took courses in Politics and Public Administration.
I loved them all. But I was in the minority.

I am much more compassionate and understanding about First Nations people. The course was compulsory.
I am a much better person for it.

The high school education system introduced me to Edgar Allan Poe... now I love Battlestar Galactica! :P

'Is it worth exposing high school students to good literature that isn’t going to speak to them if it will turn them off of reading altogether?'

In my opinion, despite my ADHD, the short answer is yes.

el Maggie said...

So Smith (and by the way, welcome to the conversation!) casts a vote for taking our medicine and learning to like it. The comments about mandatory courses on minority perspectives are a good parallel - in law school we also learned about aborigional, as well as other marginilized perspectives, and there were definitely people who resented it. But, I think it is good that every lawyer who went through the Ontario Bar knows there are issues around matrimonial property on reserves, even if they never practice family law for first nations people.

I was thinking more about Simone's comments that maybe it's not the content, but the way it's taught. If I could offer my humble suggestion to the Ontario Ministry of Education . . . (ha ha) I think that journaling should be encouraged in English clases. Some of the best classes I've had at all levels of education were ones where we had to regularly journal. Usually, we weren't marked on the content of our entries - but on the fact that we had put some thought into whatever text we were interacting with, and responded to it. I know that this kind of exercise would be more work for teachers, but it would get kids writing, and thinking about what they're reading - maybe discovering the themes for themselves with the help of some well-directed questions, rather than having them packaged and fed to them.

I know it's cheezy in some ways, but I love the movie Freedom Writers, where the teacher brings the Diary of Anne Frank to her ghetto students, and they realize that literature can meet them where they're at.