Last spring I had the pleasure of teaching Toni Morrison’s Beloved to a class of juniors and seniors at my high school. I had read Beloved for a literature class in college but this was my first time teaching it. We spent just over three weeks on the book; I read it slowly and carefully and found it to be one of the best novels I have ever read. I hadn’t had such a strong reaction to the novel the first time I read it, though, and I began to wonder why. In fact, as I began reading the last part of the novel I realized I had no idea what was going to happen. It was a bizarre experience reading a book with my own notes in the margins, underlined words, etc. and having no recollection of reading it before. When I reflected on why I didn’t remember the ending, the answer was easy: In college I had been required to read the entire book in five days. We had to “move on” quickly to other works; we had a great deal to “cover.” And as a result I had only a surface knowledge and memory of the novel. Most disturbingly, what I now take to be the main point of the novel — that slavery was so awful that a woman might kill her child in order to save her from it — never really took hold of my emotions during my first reading.
How many of us have had the same experience — knowing we’ve read something but having no recollection of it, no emotional attachment to it, aside from the most basic plot or whether we liked it or not? Universities are notorious for cruising through material in the name of making the course “challenging” or “rigorous.” Depth of any kind is lost through a mind-numbing, stressful game of staying on top of the material. There is usually never any time to process anything, to take anything in emotionally, because you are too busy catching up. Most of us consider courses like this “difficult” and college professors like it that way. Who, after all, wants to be thought of as “easy”?
To say this is a “disturbing trend” would be inaccurate; the “more is better” approach has been around a long, long time — it is the sacred cow of American Education — and its tenets trickle down from the highest, most competitive university programs (Law School, for instance) to our public schools. What is disturbing is that this notion seems to be rarely challenged: even in our most “progressive” Schools of Education, the work is piled on to an incredible height to support the teacher’s own philosophy while the most basic of all educational philosophies — how course material is presented — is deeply entrenched in an old-fashioned, senseless notion that the more material covered, the more knowledge gained.
After my experience with Beloved last spring, I decided to talk with some of my students about their experiences with classes they felt were too fast and too shallow. What I found were insights that teachers at any level could learn from. Some students, of course, resented any homework being required of them (“Teachers heap on the work like they don’t think we have a life outside of school,” one student said) but the more reflective students were able to make a distinction between teachers who flew through material on a surface level and teachers who really delved into the material so it would become meaningful.
“I could keep up with the work on a surface level,” Megan, a senior, said of her freshman U.S. History class, “but there was never any time to think about it. I didn’t remember anything.”
Another student, John, had a similar opinion of his U.S. History class at his former school, one of Madison, Wisconsin’s larger high schools. He described a class where the sole mode of instruction was copying notes off an overhead projector. “We were never asked anything,” he said. “You came in, sat down, took notes or watched a movie, and left.” The notes were all factual — names and dates that were then memorized and regurgitated for a multiple-choice test that would then be scored by a machine. “You could ask questions, but only if they weren’t opinion questions,” he added. “There was never time to argue or discuss. He liked to say ‘back to the notes’.”
I took John’s comments to be so extreme and foreign to my understanding of what history is that I pressed him on his memory. Wasn’t he maybe exaggerating just a little because it was a bad experience for him? He defended his comments as true, and then told me another requirement even more absurd. Throughout the year, evidently, the students were required to keep a notebook of names of famous Americans. By the end of the year, John had page after page of names
with one sentence highlighting who they were. Assuming John could remember all these people, he’d make a great partner in a game of Trivial Pursuit.
John’s teacher would no doubt agree with the educational philosophy E.D. Hirsch put forth in his book Cultural Literacy, a best seller in the late ‘80s. According to Hirsch, American students need to have a broad knowledge of important people, places, dates, and events so that if they are at a family reunion, say, or a cocktail party and someone mentions the word “Cezanne,” they can think to themselves, “Oh, yeah, he painted landscapes and bowls of fruit,” and the gist of the conversation won’t be lost to them. The wrong-headedness of Hirsch, of course, is that there is usually no depth at all to this long list (he fully admits this and says that’s okay), while the political controversy involves the question of whose important people are worth remembering.
As a high school teacher, I myself have been in situations where something must be cut out or reduced in the interest of time; central to curriculum planning, after all, is the question of what to keep and what to cut out. When I am able to get to something I wasn’t sure we’d have time for, I feel a sense of accomplishment. But too often I feel teachers are overly proud of the amount of work they teach. Carrie, another student I talked to, told me a story of her English teacher handing out a 20-page packet summarizing Homer’s The Odyssey instead of reading the original text. Perhaps this teacher thought Homer too difficult for his students, or that it would take too long, or he simply believed, as Hirsch does, that students only need to have a basic cursory knowledge of the text. The result, whatever the reason, is that the richness of the literature was lost to Carrie, while she remembered little or nothing of the plot either. But at least the teacher was able to add it to his list of things “covered” that year!
I know of another English teacher who brags about teaching ten novels a year to her tenth graders. Well, this may or may not be a laudable achievement. What does she do with these books? Do the students read them to know the plot, take fact-oriented multiple-choice chapter tests, see the movie, and then move on? Or is there some depth to the reading: are the students asked to make connections to their own lives and community; are they asked to reflect on the social issues the book raises and their positions on them; are they asked to critique the writer’s style or look at writing as an art; are they ever even asked if they liked the book? These questions open up a text to students, help them to process it and remember it — if not the plot of the book itself then the important social or political ideas that the book illuminates.
WHAT’S THE HURRY?
I believe there are several barriers standing in the way of teachers slowing down in order to teach with depth over surface knowledge, “quality over quantity.” One obvious barrier is that our society simply doesn’t work that way. We’re a fast-paced culture where images and information are flung at us at an incredible pace. “Successful” people work long hours with little rest and little vacation. Asking teachers to slow down and take a breath in their instruction is asking them to go against the grain of our culture.
Another barrier is the need to “document” or “justify” what has been taught. We teachers, holding precarious positions in the public’s eye anyway, either consciously or unconsciously feel a need to defend our courses. It is much easier to defend a course’s worth by listing what was covered (ten novels in a year, for example) than to try to describe the depth of discussions the students entered into while departing from the text on a particular day.
A third barrier is a different kind of fear — the fear of teachers to set aside the canned lecture or worksheet of the day for better things that could happen. I, of course, do not advocate “winging it” every day, but amazing things happen when your only plan for fifty minutes is to discuss a subject or two relating to a book. I’m guessing that most teachers, however, would shake in fear at the notion. (“Depart from the overhead projector? What would I do?”) I know of English and social studies teachers who are truly afraid of discussing anything — it might get messy; it might get “out of control.” Or they may even be incapable: In my first year of teaching, I got to know an English teacher so shy she could hardly look you in the eye when she talked to you, and when she did her voice was so soft you had to lean into her to catch what she was saying. This particular teacher, a very nice person I grew to like, spent her class hours having students work on chapter summary worksheets (“What was the color of Jack’s hat?”), or watching movies. To expect a person like this to engage students in an in-depth conversation about a moral or political issue, or even their notion of a novel’s worth, is to expect something she would be incapable of because of her personality. And yet, isn’t this what teachers of any subject, especially the humanities, should be required to do?
One last barrier is how we view our students. The popular notion of teenagers is that they are lazy, mean-spirited, and always bored, always wanting to be entertained. Well, some are of course, but so are quite a few adults I know. Part of the reason why teachers feel a need to “cover” so much, I think, is that we believe if we don’t teach it to them they won’t ever learn it. They certainly won’t go out and learn it on their own, we think cynically. And so we turn them into vessels that need to be filled up, instead of individuals who are capable of discovering things on their own if inspired to do so. This is sort of like the old parable about the difference between giving a man a fish and teaching him how to fish. If we can inspire kids to want to discover things on their own (admittedly, not an easy task) then we’re making them lifelong learners; we’re opening their minds. This doesn’t need to be taught to kids, but it does need to be nurtured instead of killed.
This is not just pie-in-the-sky idealism: I see it happen every year. When students are given choices in their learning (being able to choose one of several books to read, for instance) and they are asked what they believe about something (being able to write a journal entry, for instance, on what they thought of the ending of the book they read), they slowly become invested in their own learning. First, of course, they look at you like you’re crazy. “You mean I can actually choose what book I want to read?” they might say. “What’s the catch?” Somewhere along the line, though, they’ll discover that they are doing things for themselves instead of only trying to get a good grade on a test. When instruction is carried out, then, with respect for students as natural learners, we teachers can let go of the notion that it’s up to us to fill them up or it just won’t happen. This in turn can help us slow down a little.
IS SCHOOL ENJOYABLE?
Many of my students hate school but still enjoy learning. I teach at an alternative school for students who have either been unsuccessful (as defined by grades) at their large neighborhood high schools, or in some cases have received good grades but hate school anyway for a variety of reasons. Many of my students have described the stress they experienced in their old schools to the point of just wanting to give up. They hated being totally inundated by information they didn’t value and they hated the fast pace of everything — rushing through the halls to class, rushing to eat their lunch, rushing to take notes, rushing to catch the bus home. They give up or drop out, and then they come to Shabazz where some of them (not all, of course; we don’t work miracles) grow to discover the pleasures of learning again — some for the first time since they were very little kids.
We need to remember that school should be fun. It’s innate to enjoy learning, but somewhere schools have become places many students hate. These students don’t equate school with learning; they equate it with stress. We need to get away from barraging our students with trivia and ask ourselves what is the best way for a student to become a learner. We need to slow down, breathe, give our students a little credit, ask them what they’re thinking, and then sit back and watch what happens.