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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13 thoughts on “The Perils of Teaching the Books We Love

  1. In twenty years I have never taught my favorite book – The Great Gatsby, for some of the very reasons that you talk about. I don't think I could deal with them not liking it.

  2. Oh, how I relate. For years I kept Lahiri's The Namesake to myself because I couldn't imagine the possibility of someone not loving it as much as I do. I finally caved (thanks to the kindest words possible from a very special former student) and had a wonderful experience teaching the book to AP seniors last fall. I'm SO glad I shared that book with them. Maybe they loved it because I did. Maybe it was a fluke. Maybe next year's group will hate it. But I got to talk about the prose, the characters, the themes for three weeks straight. I was in English teacher heaven each and every day.

  3. I loved "Wuthering Heights" when we read it. I also loved "The Great Gatsby."

    I often read books that I enjoyed, but I have never read my favorite books. My students generally react positively, but they are also a bit younger (middle school).

    In teaching Social Studies, we read "The Jungle," "The Communist Manifesto," "Anthem," "A Brave New World," "Soul on Ice" (that one got me into a bit of trouble), "The Great Gatsby" and "Farenheit 451" as well as excerpts from "The World Is Flat" and "Aristotle's Ethics."

    This was over a two year period, by the way. The biggest barrier I found was not one of interest in the material, but one of time. I would plan to read a section and we'd discuss it and lose sight of our original plan.

    I wonder if the issue is that you teach high school. Many of my students have never read a "real chapter book" so I end up having to model reading by reading parts of it aloud. I find my students have high motivation but a low sense of self-efficacy. They want to read, but believe that they can't.

    I mention all of that to say that you're fortunate to have students who would complain about a work. They could be apathetic or they could be so low that they don't even trust their own ability to read.

    • I think middle schoolers are more like elementary school students in having more enthusiasm for reading. That assumption is purely based on anecdotal experience. When I taught middle school, the kids seemed more into books still. Something happens in high school, though, and it's very bad.

      I have a time issue, too. I am a slow reader, so I empathize with students who just can't keep up with the pace of required reading even if their heart is in it, but at the same time, you have to keep moving.

      You're right about my students. Of course, I teach in a private school, and along with that you have students who simply have more opportunities, and they are pretty good readers. They don't have any issues with self-efficacy. Now some of them don't like reading out loud, but they can all read fairly well. However, I have taught students like you describe, and we wound up doing most or all of the reading in class.

  4. My daughter is also a slow reader, especially for texts with written dialect (think Treasure Island or Tom Sawyer).

    So, back before my daughter could drive, we listened to a lot of her assigned reading in the car.

    My post from the day we finished Does Wuthering Heights Deserve Its Reputation? (Dana, don't click the link, you won't be happy…</i).

    That said…. Dana (or others) have you ever taught a book you sincerely dislike? How does the experience compare?

    And, some reflections to listening vs. reading. I'm a fast reader and I thought I would find the process of listening to books a bit boring. Not at all! I found I enjoyed Tom Sawyer (for example) twice as much as an audio version.

    I've rented both the The Iliad and Odyssey and enjoyed them both tremendously.

    When we aren't listening in the car, my daughter reads and listens simoultaneously, which seems to deepen her comprehension.

    John Spencer, I wonder if you are familiar with Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic's "Learning Through Listening" program. I wonder if some of the resources might help your students to access age-appropriate materials that might be a bit too frustrating for their reading-alone level.

    • I can't stand A Separate Peace and had to teach it once (I can't remember why). I think I put on a happy face and tried to do what I usually do. That said, I never teach books I don't like now.

  5. Hi Dana,

    Dana, you know how men can find something in every experience in life related to THE GODFATHER? This is me with CALL OF THE WILD. When Sarah wasn't feeling well the other day and her brothers and I were discussing what was going on I thought of Dave, the dog who wanted to die in the traces, because the couriers would discuss what was wrong with him. When I told Sarah this she was indignant! I was comparing her to Dave? (and not even Buck!)

    When we read the book in class, inevitably someone raises his or hand and says,

    "Buck is just a dog, Mrs. Gordon. Dogs pull sleds. What's the big deal?"

    I have to get to chapter 5 before they admit some liking of the book.

    And, and this is really sick, I want to read every word of every page aloud with the class because I think some of the most beautiful words ever written are in the book. I know most of the book by heart.

    As a matter of fact, if I was in Fahrenheit 451 I would join the book society and be that book. I would also be Fahrenheit 451….sorry to ramble, but you brought up a heartfelt issue with this article…So, like Buck, I think I will go sit before the fire and think of all the good things I have eaten….ha!

    Hope you are doing great, Dana!

    Love,

    Stella

    • Stella! How wonderful to "hear" from you. I have a note from Sarah on my whiteboard I can't bear to erase. She visited recently, and I missed her. I totally understand how you feel about this book.

  6. I, too, can relate. Being a 7th grade teacher, it is almost even more perilous for me. We do not have standard novels to teach (in my district, anyway). Rather, the door is open. Our South Carolina state standards are such that we can teach them to the students using the novel (or story or poem or article, etc.) that we think fits. So I read YA literature voraciously. I always tiptoe around my favorites. I don't know if I'm that brave. I do love the letter that you, channelling some of Hayden's words, used with for teaching Wuthering Heights.

    Your post also reminded me of my first year teaching. It was 7th grade. I found a class set of Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell. I was teaching a group of struggling readers, and I remember reading this book in 5th grade (I didn't tell them that) and absolutely falling in love with it. Two weeks into the novel study, I hated it. The students hated it. I listened to them attentively how they backed up their dislike with evidence from the text. I went back and re-read parts. I came to the realization that the kids were right. Whatever connection I felt to the novel in 5th grade was severed, and saw how students in the 21st century could not fall in love with the book the way I did. (By the way, we stopped reading the book. One lesson I teach young readers is that good readers know when the book is not working them and that it is ok to put a book aside.)

    Debb

  7. Deb,

    I'm not too sure about kids in the 21st century not liking Island of the Blue Dolphins – my daughter (10) completely loves the books – and we listened to it (on audio) together. I wonder if her love of the book – and my admiration for it are related to the way you felt disconnected from it – when your students didn't like it. Maybe there is an Island of Blue Dolphins out there that you can still love and hold dear…

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