I loved teaching English for decades — whether grammar, usage, writing, logic, or literature. Over those years I watched things like diagramming fall in and out of vogue. Writing sentences and paragraphs morphed into teaching the Writing Process, to group brainstorming, making idea blocks, and Venn diagrams.
Yet, my biggest concern lies with the choices of reading material now being offered to students. I’ve lived through books like Huck Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird being banned from and then reinstated to school reading lists. A former student, aspiring to major in English, endured a mid-90s college course titled Women Writers of the Caribbean. Puzzled, I asked her what published book she had used. “None. Each poem was zeroxed.” Remember that such courses are now 20 years further on the continuum of what I refer to as agenda over education.
Snarky sarcasm, obscenities and profanities now spew forth from younger children; they have had years of not just poor television, but a decline in literature.
For nine years, Maryland Humanities has sponsored a large book club of sorts, One Maryland One Book. This year’s selection, All American Boys, concerns me as an educator, grandmother and citizen of a country increasingly polarized by extremes. The more tv shows and books rehash stories of hate, and litter their limited vocabulary dialogue with incoherent utterances, the more people go to their respective corners in frustration and anger. Slowly, like plaque building up on our teeth, we begin to take on distasteful attitudes.
Please understand that I’m not an ostrich with its head buried in the sand about pain or injustice. I taught in inner city Little Rock in the late 60s. I also contracted polio five years before the Salk vaccine; I have been the last one picked for many games, the one who fell and got stepped on in the school’s Halloween parade through town.
What are parents to do about literature choices? They can’t afford to be ostriches about their children’s education. First, make every effort to read with your elementary-age children. Ask questions about what you’ve read together. Make age-appropriate connections with your child’s experiences.
But what happens at middle and high school? The books get much longer! If you cannot read the whole book, at least read reviews written by people who have read them. Enlist friends and grandparents to read them and give their input. The Internet makes this task much easier today. Engage your children by asking them about the ideas in the book. “What do you think the author was trying to accomplish? Is the conflict exaggerated? Do you have any personal experience with the situations the book presents? Can you read me one powerfully written sentence? Why did you choose that one? Would you be comfortable reading me a selection from the book due to content or language? Are you being assigned too many books like this? If so, why do you think so?”