This week I begin teaching The Great Gatsby. Of the American literature novels I teach, it is perhaps my favorite. I confess I have a crush on F. Scott Fitzgerald. I am in love with his way with words, his lavish description. It is perilous to teach something we love.
Rebecca Hayden wrote an article entitled “Teaching Works We Love: Hazards of the English Classroom” for the March 2005 issue of English Journal. Hayden writes of an experience teaching Tess of the D’Urbervilles to a group of students who, well, didn’t exactly share her appreciation for “the novel she credits with turning her into an English teacher” (41). In a pull quote that aptly sums up the gist of the article, Hayden writes,
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?
I think what makes us nervous about teaching works we love is that our students seem to complain about everything they’re required to read, and we just can’t bear to hear that when it’s in reference to our favorite books.
I overheard a conversation between two seniors at our school. They are taking a film class that will serve as their English credit for second semester before they go to Israel (all of our seniors have the opportunity to complete their senior year in Israel). They were actually complaining. Imagine! Watching movies for school… and yet there is still something to complain about! It seems they don’t like the movies — classics such as North By Northwest and On the Waterfront. I know, I know. Sometimes I think there is just no making students happy — unless they have complete choice, I suppose. I’ll bet they’d still complain.
Hayden wonders, near the end of her article, “whether it was worth bringing [her] private self into the classroom” (43). She asks herself, “Why bother?” Indeed.
Last year before I began Gatsby, I actually read this article to my students. I thought about it, and I decided it might be interesting for them to know how I really feel about this book — actually come right out and tell them that when I teach it, I am holding my figurative heart out to them and hoping they don’t rip it to pieces.
Students responded to the vulnerability and the passion. I doubt they enjoyed the book as much as I hoped. But I do think the students learned a larger lesson. I suppose one could say they learned I’m human. Or perhaps it’s just a little about my background — who I am. Or maybe it’s even that books can change lives, and this one changed mine. It might not have changed theirs, but perhaps another one will.
I guess that’s why we bother, and ultimately, why we teach literature. Or anything at all, for that matter.
Work Cited: Hayden, Rebecca. “Teaching Works We Love: Hazards of the English Classroom.” English Journal. 94.4 (March 2005): 41-44.