Glorifying Indifference to Literature

by Guest Blogger
August 30th, 2009

by Diana Senechal

The New York Times story on the “reading workshop” method glorifies indifference toward literature. Its hero is a teacher who saw the light: who used to love to teach To Kill a Mockingbird but by the end of the story was sending her class sets of that and other books to the storage room. No more would she tell her students what to read. Not after attending that seminar led by Nancie Atwell.

And an interesting little fact: the teacher disliked the literature she read in school as a child. No wonder she gave up the teaching of it so willingly.

This so-called movement is led by people who don’t love literature enough to defend it, and who don’t care about history enough to find out that their revolution is nothing revolutionary. It glorifies a certain indifference.

The movement writes off the literature itself. It writes off the teachers who teach it well and inspire their students to love it. It writes off the possibility that literature will affect students’ entire lives and stay in their minds, in ways that teen novels cannot do. Proponents say, “Look, the kids are reading; this is working!” They do not stop to think that reading 20 pages a day is not the same as grappling with literature. The chicken coop is not a palace. (Oops–no one teaches Dostoevsky anymore.)

I taught Sophocles’ Antigone (among many other works of literature) to my eighth grade ESL students. We had heated debates in class. Students wrote thoughtful essays. I thought, “How much more they will understand when they read it in high school!” Then I realized they probably wouldn’t read it in high school. They would probably never have it assigned to them again.

A former Core Knowledge teacher in New York City, Diana Senechal is currently writing a book in New Haven, Connecticut.


  1. I’m going to argue against the grain on this one… Much of the literature I was introduced to in high school had a negative effective on my interest in literature. I remember hating (among others) “The Pearl” in 8th Jr. High, and “A Passage to India” in high school — I think I was just too young for a lot of it.

    The other problem with my jr. high school and high school literature classes was that the seemed to focus entirely on literary form (symbolism, themes…) and very little on historical context, or even the message of the book. My college course on Victorian novels stuck with me more — and inspired me to read more — because it focused a lot more on what the books we read were saying, and the intellectual themes of the 19th century, than on the literary devices they used.

    Comment by Rachel — August 30, 2009 @ 11:42 am

  2. What I don’t understand is why this article presents reader’s workshop as an all or nothing approach. I’ve used a reader’s workshop method while teaching a novel or short story at the same time. Kid have time to read on their own, but there is also time to teach a piece of literature to the whole class. This article also makes it sound like this teacher is completely winging this approach — little frustrating to read.

    Comment by Stephanie — August 30, 2009 @ 11:53 am

  3. Stephanie’s point is the salient one. Clearly, we want students who both love to read AND who know and can grapple with great works of literature. To suggest it has to be one or the other is yet another irritating false dichotomy in a long line of irritating false dichotomies.

    I’m also struck by our willingness to make literature such an object of derision and no one objects. If we did this to math or science (it’s boring! You decide what you want to learn! We just want you to have a lifelong love of math and science!) the outcry would be massive–and justifiable. But English teachers are actually encouraging the dumbing down of their own discipline. We truly risk becoming a nation of morons.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — August 30, 2009 @ 12:33 pm

  4. Unfortunately, it is being done not only to science, but to math and history, and there is no public outcry. I see one of the big culprits as the ed schools. They have been the intellectual stepchildren of colleges for multiple decades and the cultural revolution of the 60s has accelerated the decline by entrenching the anti-establishment left in their faculties and staffs. Serious scholarship and intellectual rigor are not valued and the incoming students/outgoing teachers reflect this. “Creativity”, self-absorption, group work, projects and the unending evils of Western Civilization are much more highly valued.

    Comment by momof4 — August 30, 2009 @ 2:16 pm

  5. I can’t remember the name of the street, but it divides the ed school from the rest of the Columbia University campus. It was in the early 60s that I remember hearing it described as the widest street in the world.

    Comment by Anonymous — August 30, 2009 @ 2:19 pm

  6. Exactly, Robert. This simple quote from the article is salient:

    “Many schools in fact take that combination approach, dictating some titles while letting students select others.”

    I do this in my classroom. I have selected a few high-quality, important texts that we read together in a variety of different ways–partner reads, read-alouds, etc.–and also ask my students to read books of their own choosing for pleasure on a daily basis. Why we can’t seem to have a hybrid approach, emphasizing the importance of the enduring classics while also inviting students to read for pleasure and get a sense of what they personally enjoy, is beyond me.

    Much of “ed reform” seems to be all about taking a hard line, in most subjects, not about exposing teachers to a variety of methods and allowing them to create a method that works for them and their students. Hybridization, as genetics shows us, generally produces hardier offspring.

    Comment by Miss Eyre — August 30, 2009 @ 2:26 pm

  7. I think Miss Eyre has it exactly right. I don’t think education makes progress when disagreements become “wars” built around straw men.

    Mostly, I think the Times article is silly, in the way much of it’s education reporting is silly — looking, even more than professional educators do, for the new, new thing that will “revolutionize” education.

    Comment by Rachel — August 30, 2009 @ 3:03 pm

  8. The teacher didn’t like Huckleberry Finn when she was in school. She didn’t like Huck Finn!? We’re not talking Ethan Frome here.

    Many, many schools have a free reading period each day when students are supposed to read books of their own choosing. I see no problem with letting students do some free reading for class as well as some assigned reading. But why does it have to be all individual choice?

    When my daughter was in sixth grade, the teacher told students to read a book of their own choice. I’d told her my daughter read voraciously, but I didn’t think she was challenging herself. So she told Allison to read Wuthering Heights as her “free” choice. Because the teacher had told her to read it, Allison got past the first chapter. On her own, she would have quit. She got hooked and loved the rest of the book. (Personally, I think the motto is: In a society in which divorce is impossible and married women have no rights, be very careful who you marry. Don’t settle for the neighborhood bully or wimp just because he’s handy.)

    Comment by Joanne Jacobs — August 30, 2009 @ 5:45 pm

  9. Choice reading does lose some of the “magic” of whole-class discussion, but we teachers also know that not all students participate in discussions. For those students, I think Choice Reading (SSR in my class) could be a boon. I still love it more as a helper for students with a “refusal-level” interest in reading then a year-long program. I also think the English classes need to be teaching more logic and nonfiction, and I’m not sure “choice reading” gets us where we need to be as a literacy tool by itself.

    I recently blogged on this:

    Comment by JasonP / InnerEd — August 30, 2009 @ 6:08 pm

  10. At least the New York Times agrees with me……

    No sooner do I publish my post on reading problems and doing sustained silent reading then the New York Times has an article about a teacher doing the same thing.  I certainly didn’t invent it; I
    A sample classroom SSR ("sustained silent rea…

    Trackback by Inner Education for Inward Educators — August 30, 2009 @ 6:09 pm

  11. The inmates are running the asylum. Just placate the poor little kids who are being tortured by school. (Perhaps they need a job, like in generations past, to appreciate the opportunity to learn.)

    Your analysis of teachers who aren’t passionate about literature reminds me of the current MATH debacle. Most math educators and administrators in education, today, did not enjoy math as students (hence, they majored in education instead of engineering, accounting, business, etc.) therefore, we have non-math people teaching a subject they always hated. Or worse, writing textbooks or selecting textbooks for a subject they always hated.

    Comment by Mom in Georgia — August 30, 2009 @ 7:22 pm

  12. When you study literature in class, you get it in your ear. Certain passages have stayed with me since high school because of the way we read and discussed them in class. It is like learning music. You develop a sense of the rhythm of languages, the nuances, the hidden meanings, the juxtapositions, the emphases.

    I taught my students lots of poetry, and I had them memorize it as well as discuss it. They read poems by Shakespeare, Shelley, Blake, Yeats, Poe, Frost, Dickinson, Thomas, Bishop, and others. They were thrilled when they could recite a Shakespeare sonnet.

    One girl, who had been in the country for under three years, wrote some poems that still give me shivers when I read them. She was obviously influenced by the Blake and Poe we read (as well as the villanelles by Thomas and Bishop), but the voice is her own.

    Would she have written these if we had not devoted time to poetry in class? I have no way of knowing, but I suspect it helped to have not just the words, but the sounds, the repetition, the close study.

    We enacted some poems; we had a wonderful time with Blake’s “Poison Tree.” When teaching elementary school, I had my second grade students enact Christina Rossetti’s “Who Has Seen the Wind”? and choreograph Yeats’ “Cat and the Moon.” These activities helped the students learn and understand the poems; by the time we were done, we had probably gone through the poem about 10 times, and it was anything but boring!

    Of course there were some kids who didn’t like the poetry. But others surprised even themselves. One eighth grade girl who had been distracted all year was mesmerized by Yeats’ “Song of Wandering Aengus.” “Miss, I really like this poem,” she said. “I really, really like it.” (I know I have told this story before here, but it is one of my favorites.) I used to make my bare beginner ESL students memorize the last two lines, “The silver apples of the moon, / The golden apples of the sun.” And the intermediate and advanced students could do much more with it.

    It is people who don’t (or didn’t) like literature who suggest we abandon the teaching of it. Why not instead make literature curricula and instruction stronger? Why not make way for those who long to teach and learn it? Yes, students should also read books on their own, but there is so much that can be done in class that the students might never do alone and can stay with them their whole lives. Why keep this from them?

    Comment by Diana Senechal — August 31, 2009 @ 8:54 am

  13. Amen, Diana!

    Comment by Ben F — August 31, 2009 @ 9:32 am

  14. I can’t remember a time before I could read. I apparently taught myself when I was 3 and have been devouring books ever since. Whenever someone asks about my hobbies, I always list reading as #1. Indifferent toward literature is something I am definitely NOT.

    By far, the absolute best English class I took in high school was an elective called “Reading for College”. I met with a teacher once every 7 school days to discuss what I was reading and to pick which book I wanted to read next. The teacher made suggestions of titles she thought I might like, and I often did choose one of them. But if there was something else I really wanted to read, she would permit me so long as it was quality literature. The other days I got to spend doing independent reading in the library. Then at the end of the term, I had to turn in a college-type essay comparing two of the books I had read. It was awesome & I wish ALL of my English classes had been like that.

    The titles I read as part of this elective were at least as educational as the ones assigned in my core English courses. I don’t remember all of them, but I do remember especially liking Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago and Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — August 31, 2009 @ 12:54 pm

  15. In high school, we read books that were abhored by the class and loved by the class. Not everyone is going to love everything. Besides symbolism and form, we were able to discuss historical relevance and make modern day comparisons. One of my favorite practices, was when the teacher assigned us to be in the shoes of a character. Favorites among myself and my classmates were The Outsiders, To Kill A Mockingbird, and Fences by August Wilson. The one that I really remembered boring us to tears was 1984 and The Red Pony. (Especially The Red Pony.) Sheakespeare was always a hard one to tackle, though. I don’t think it was taught with any passion but only because it was on the curriculum. I do remember, though, we loved the drama of MacBeth and had heated arguments over his decisions.

    Comment by brooklynshoebabe — August 31, 2009 @ 2:35 pm

  16. As a librarian, I’m split. On the one hand, some of our classics are powerful, relevant and beautifully written and should be read. On the other hand, I’m behind any program that encourages children to read and develop a love of reading. I’m just concerned that students will not leave their comfort zone. I remember seeing a poster somewhere and stated something like “Want to discover a new world? Open a book!” There’s got to be a middle ground.

    Comment by brooklynshoebabe — August 31, 2009 @ 2:40 pm

  17. But if kids develop a love of reading junk, what’s the point? That’s like encouraging people who cook with nothing but Hamburger Helper and Cream of Mushroom soup by pretending they’re Julia Child.

    Comment by Bart — August 31, 2009 @ 3:21 pm

  18. Some of the silliest arguments come from the far ends of the spectrum. In reading the article, I noticed that both of the teachers profiled were highly engaged in encouraging students to move beyond what they already knew–out of their comfort zones. The first teacher profiled was using the “free choice” reading alongside whole class teaching about poetry. It seems as though there are many possible variations. I wouldn’t characterize someone who didn’t enjoy Huck Finn in class as a literature hater. Personally, I have never loved Wuthering Heights–although it was not ruined by an English teacher. I just couldn’t get my head around Heathcliff’s lifelong bitterness. My forays into literature have included both the things I picked up on my own (I read The Scarlet Letter because it was on my older brother’s bookshelf–an assigned reading–and because I heard it was “racy”). I slogged through Moby Dick because it was the only novel required at the high school level when my family moved from city to town.

    I cannot say that I received, universally, the magic that Diana seems to associate with literature taught in a classroom. Nor did my free-ranging choices evade what might legitimately be known as “literature.”

    My only fear associated with the use of free-choice is that it will, like so many valuable strategies (I even shrink from using such a devalued word as strategies) before it, be poorly applied by someone who glanced at the article and got excited about replacing teaching with a bookshelf and a bunch of bean bag chairs.

    Comment by Margo/Mom — August 31, 2009 @ 3:57 pm

  19. <<< My only fear associated with the use of free-choice is that it poorly applied by someone who glanced at the article and got excited about replacing teaching with a bookshelf and a bunch of bean bag chairs.

    See? That's exactly what's wrong! Bookshelves? Beanbag chairs??? Everyone knows that's not how you teach reading! Kids will NEVER learn to read unless they're on a rug! ;-)


    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — August 31, 2009 @ 4:05 pm

  20. See? That’s exactly what’s wrong! Bookshelves? Beanbag chairs??? Everyone knows that’s not how you teach reading! Kids will NEVER learn to read unless they’re on a rug! ;-)

    Tee hee.

    Comment by Margo/Mom — August 31, 2009 @ 4:13 pm

  21. The point is that large numbers of students are not learning to read well and are dropping out of school. You could teach the most sublime lessons ever, but a dropped out student won’t be there for those lessons. As I understand it, the main reason for letting children choose what they read is to encourage them to read to improve their reading skills. If choice leads to improved reading skills for our weakest readers then I don’t see how people can complain about it.

    Comment by Anonymous — September 1, 2009 @ 11:12 pm

  22. I disagree with the writer of this topic. The reading workshop doesn’t “get rid” of great literature. On the contrary – it opens up more opportunity for students to read a larger body of literature. People who teach novel units only seem to me more narrowing down of literature than reading workshop that is the model taught by Columbia University led by Lucy Calkins. It is very narrow to think there is only a handful of “great” literature. Students should have more choice. Reading workshop doesn’t mean a free for all – students choose texts from a body of texts provided by teachers. If they are studying historical fiction – the students choose a piece of historical fiction that fits them as readers. This article is way off base and not much research was done to support it.

    Comment by RSearcy — September 20, 2009 @ 5:06 pm

  23. RSearcy,

    You may disagree with me, but it is clear you have a fundamentally different understanding of what the study of literature entails.

    The genre says little about a literary work. To teach literature, to learn about literature, you need to delve into it. There are correspondences within a genre, within a time period, within all sorts of other categories. But you only get to those as a result of studying individual works of literature closely.

    As for historical fiction, wouldn’t you want to take some time to study the history on which the work is based? wouldn’t you want to look at how the work interprets, departs from, or builds on the history? Why on earth would you give a generic lesson on historical fiction and then send children off to read different examples of it? The examples may differ as much as a Shakespeare sonnet differs from a Beckett play.

    A good literature class shows students more in a work of literature than they saw before. Then they carry that knowledge into other books they read–both the knowledge of the particular work and the knowledge that there is more to find and understand.

    Diana Senechal

    Comment by Diana Senechal — September 20, 2009 @ 5:47 pm

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