The Perils of Teaching the Books We Love

Several years ago, I read an opinion piece in English Journal by Rebecca Hayden entitled “Teaching Works We Love: Hazards of the English Classroom.” (You will need to be an NCTE member and possibly an EJ subscriber to access that article, I think.) This piece really resonated with me because I think all teachers, at some point, teach a book they absolutely love only to be crushed by the lukewarm or even hostile reactions of our students. Hayden discusses such an experience with Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Back when I taught American literature, sometimes I would read Hayden’s article to students and explain that the way she felt about Tess was how I felt about The Great Gatsby, and if they could find it in their hearts, I pleaded, I would appreciate it if they could be gentle with me if they didn’t like it.

Now as I prepare to teach Wuthering Heights later this year, I admit I’m worried. I am well aware this book has a certain polarizing effect. My own mother hates it; she tried to read it based on my recommendation, and she could not get into it. I read a post somewhere recently, and I regret I can’t recall where, in which the poster argued that he/she could understand the appeal of the other classics, but not Wuthering Heights. The poster wondered why on earth this book was considered classic and didn’t just die a natural death over time, like so many other forgotten books that are never read and go out of print. And I felt a little bit sick.

I came to Wuthering Heights really late. In fact, I didn’t read it in its entirety until the summer of 2008. I tried to read it when assigned in high school, but I couldn’t keep up with the reading schedule set by my teacher (I am a slow reader), so I gave up. The book sucked me in when Catherine Linton disturbed Mr. Lockwood’s sleep that awful night at Wuthering Heights. It was like Catherine grabbed me and didn’t let go. Over the last year and half, I have developed a sort of unhealthy obsession with the book. I can’t figure it out at all. I don’t like the characters, really. Like is a word one can’t use to describe them. In many cases, they’re horrible people, and it’s hard to dredge up any sympathy for them at all. No, I don’t like them at all. I love them, though. I told my husband that I couldn’t explain how I felt about this book in the same terms: I don’t like it at all, but I love it. In a very real way, I feel like I am presenting my heart to my students with even chances that it will be stepped on. The easy thing to do would be not to teach it, I suppose. Instead, I am going to put myself out there, and before we begin reading, I will say this:

Before we read this book, I need to share a secret with you. I love this book with an unhealthy passion. Harry Potter might be jealous. I’m not sure. The fact is that I think about this book a lot. I Google the title a lot and look at the pictures and articles that result. I watch the movie. And I just can’t tell you why. The characters are horrible people with few redeeming qualities. The book has beautiful descriptions, but I usually respond most to books with characters I like. This book is the lone exception. When you have a work of literature like this that you just love so much, it can be scary to teach it because you might not like it. This book is one of those books that people seem to either really love or really hate. I know that if you don’t like it, it’s not like you’re being personal about it anymore than you are being personal about it when you read an assigned book that you do like. It’s the book you respond to rather than the teacher, although it is my hope that a good teacher makes a book more bearable if you dislike it and even better if you like it. I quote another English teacher when I say, “Like many English teachers, I feel that favorite books are part of my soul, and the question arises, To what degree am I willing to bare that soul to hundreds of adolescents, who may be harboring their own quirks, prejudices, and lightning-quick dismissive judgments?”

You have my permission not to like Wuthering Heights, but I ask you to please be gentle with me, dear readers, because I am handing you my soul when I hand you this novel. Please don’t trample it to death. All I ask is that you keep an open mind. This book might just change your life the way it changed mine.*

*Well expressed portions of this plea were lovingly cribbed from Rebecca Hayden’s article. I just don’t know how to say it better than she did.

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Catching Up: Folger Education

English Journal September 2009I have been trying all week to finish the last English Journal so I can gush about all the Folger goodness, but I haven’t had a chance. Lest I let too much more time slip by, I’ll discuss the articles I have had a chance to read. Mike LoMonico, as usual, is on target with his suggestions for teaching Shakespeare in his editorial. The Shakespeare Set Free series taught me a great deal about how to teach Shakespeare, but participating in the the Folger Teaching Shakespeare Institute in Decatur last year transformed how I approach not just Shakespeare, but everything I do.

I also read my friend Joe Scotese’s editorial about reading Shakespeare’s text as opposed to easy versions with “translations.” Joe’s description of the words as the tools of Shakespeare’s art (Stephen Booth) was beautiful, and I have had the occasion to bring it up twice in the last couple of weeks during teaching. Thanks for the timely imagery, Joe!

I read Peggy O’Brien’s and Robert Young’s discussions of the history of Folger’s work with teachers (and students) and its present and future. I began reading Susan Biondo-Hench’s article “Shakespeare Troupe: An Adventure in Words, Fluid Text, and Comedy.” You might recall that Susan Biondo-Hench wrote the Romeo and Juliet unit in the first volume of Shakespeare Set Free.

Several of my friends have articles in this issue. Chris Shamburg and Cari Craighead collaborated on “Shakespeare, Our Digital Native.” Cari and I were in the same TSI, and Chris and I connected at NCTE and online. I also met Chris Renino, author of the Macbeth unit in SSF and the EJ article “‘Who’s There?': Shakespeare and the Dragon of Autism,” at NCTE last year. Chris and I both have autistic children, and though mine are younger, I am obviously excited to read his article for personal reasons as well as professional ones. Christy Desmet, who wrote “Teaching Shakespeare with YouTube,” and I have a long history together. She teaches at my alma mater, UGA, and we worked together about 12 years ago in an online cohort of new teachers, professors, mentor teachers, and aspiring teachers. Our conversations were so helpful to me as a new teacher. We reconnected at the Folger TSI in Decatur last year.

I really wanted to submit an article for this issue, but I was struggling with new roles as department chair and graduate school student, among other duties. I just didn’t have time to do it. And now I’m kicking myself because I would have loved to have been a part of this issue.

In related news, Folger has a new blog: Making a Scene: Shakespeare in the Classroom. Definitely check it out! I’m really excited about it.

I want to talk about all of these articles and blog posts in more detail when I have a chance, but the weeks have been ticking by, and I didn’t want too much time to elapse before I brought your attention to these resources (if you didn’t know about them already).

In other news, I am not able to go to NCTE this year. I knew it was a long shot because I went last year, and the economy being what it is, well, let’s just say I was fairly sure it wouldn’t happen. I do wish I could go, however, because I really wanted to meet up with some friends (not to mention the learning!). I am planning to go to GCTE and possibly ISTE. ISTE takes place in Denver this year, and school will be out, so it would be a good opportunity for me to visit family in addition to attending my first ever technology education conference, so I would like to try to go.

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