Guest post by Tess Mueggenborg
Make no mistake about it: I’m a classical canon gal. Always have been, always will be. And when I say “classical,” I also mean “really old” – few things written after 1650 hold much interest for me. Favorite work of literature? Milton’s Paradise Lost. Favorite time period of literature? Early Roman Empire (Ovid & Virgil). Favorite English Lit class from my undergrad days? Greek Tragedy.
But as much as I love the canon – and I’ve had surprising success with teaching the canon in the past – I’m also a pragmatist. I know that what I love isn’t always what’s best for my students, and their learning should take priority over my passions (I know … radical idea, right?). I also acknowledge that the real world in which I live and work is far from my ideal. Would I like to devote all of my class time to discussing Beowulf and Canterbury Tales? Of course. But can I realistically get my students to read and engage with these texts, and develop a passion for them? Not likely. Some, of course, will – and I’m happy to guide them on their own paths of classical literature studies. But I bet (I hope) that those students will wind up as English Majors, and they’ll get their fill of such works in college. I must work with the students I have, not the students I wish I had. And the students I have are awesome: bright, curious, hungry for meaningful learning and wisdom. So this classical pragmatist has started to break her own mold. Here’s how …
I teach a class known as World Experience; it’s for Gifted and Talented sophomore students, and it combines AP World History with literature. The history drives the course – it sets the pace, scope, and sequence for the year. It’s then pretty easy to match up literature with the corresponding time periods. Ancient River Valley civilizations at the start of the year? We read Gilgamesh and Horus the Hawk. Classical civilizations come next – that mean Antigone and a few selections from Metamorphoses. Next up is the Medieval period … and this has always been a struggle. I love Medieval lit, I can read Middle English, and I can wax poetic on the virtues and merits of The Song of Roland and Sir Gawain and the Green Night ad nauseum. And while the students usually enjoy these stories, they don’t usually get much out of this unit in terms of literature. They don’t learn much about author’s craft, they can’t do much literary analysis, and they become so frustrated with the archaic language of the text that most of them give up … and it takes me another six weeks to pull them back into literature. So this year, I’ve scrapped all this, and leapt off a cliff of faith and experimentation. The results have been pleasantly surprising.
Our district head of English Language Arts was kind enough to buy $600 of books for my classroom library. I got to choose every one of them: all award-winners (or by award-winning authors), all world literature, all contemporary, all high-level. No softballs in this classroom library – these are, after all, GT students. Each student got to pick a book (this was a time-consuming and sometimes contentious process, but it certainly got every student interested in the books and invested in their choice). Once a week, they’ve been blogging about their novel, based on someone generic questions posed by me. Some of the questions are just opinion (Do you like this book so far? Why or why not?); some of the questions are analytical (Who is the main protagonist of your novel? What problems do they encounter in the course of the novel? How do you predict they will resolve these problems … or not?); some relate back to the history half of the course (In what ways does your novel relate to the history we’ve studied so far this year?). Some responses have been good. Some have been profound, moving, passionate, and elegant. None have been outright bad, and none have been missing. That’s right: NONE have been missing. Every student has been reading and blogging. Even the student who earned a grade of 9 (yes, a single-digit 9) for the first 9-weeks is reading and blogging about her novel. I’m calling this experiment a success.
To be fair, I should say: this hasn’t been easy, and it hasn’t been without challenges. But they’re good challenges, and not insurmountable. Some students read their novels in a week – and then wanted to borrow another book. YES! Many students didn’t devote enough time to reading their novel, and they’ve fallen behind. But they haven’t given up: they’re still reading. I haven’t had any complaints of “this book is boring,” though I’ve had many complaints of “this book is so sad/depressing/pessimistic/disheartening.” Which has led to some great discussions about the point of literature, analysis of tone, and some hefty doses of maturation (I’m pretty sure the girl who read The Kite Runner in a weekend has been inwardly weeping for two weeks now).
We’re wrapping up this unit, and thus this great experiment. And I think it bears repeating: I’m calling this experiment a success. Enough of a success that I’ll be spending this weekend revamping the next unit (which starts Monday) to include more student choice and incorporate more of these novels, though in a slightly different fashion. Stay tuned.
Am I still a classical canon gal? Heck yes. Always have been, always will be. But my students don’t need to be classical canon fans – they just need to be readers, eager to engage with the world and its complexities. I think they’re well on their way.
“Professor” Tess Mueggenborg teaches English (and anything else with which her students need help) at RL Turner High School. Her academic passions lie in comparative language and literature. The Professor lives in Dallas with her husband, Jeff. Tess’ on Twitter @profmueggenborg