Shutting Down Class Discussion

Dana Huff Teaching

I know I said I would talk about tools on Wednesdays, but something came up. A student left a comment on my book blog post “Do You Hate Holden Caulfield?” It seems he had a rather negative (or I should say perceived it was negative) experience. If I understand his comment correctly, he felt silenced in the class discussion because he did not agree with his teacher’s opinion, and he had previously seen his teacher shut one of his peers down for voicing a contrary opinion.

Obviously I was not a member of the class, and I don’t know what was said. I told the student that what I thought had happened was the teacher really enjoys this book and wants students to enjoy it, too. It can be hard when students don’t love the books we love. But we shouldn’t dismiss opinions because they are different from our own. Students do not have the learning and the background with our subjects that we have, and they can make judgments based on much less information than we have. I think it’s our job to challenge students to explain why they make those judgments rather than attacking them for being “wrong.” I think they learn better from us if they feel listened to. I want to emphasize that I don’t know what happened in that classroom, but it sounded to me as if the student was describing a classroom in which he didn’t feel free to share his own conclusions. What he asked me was whether it was OK or right to hate Holden. I gave him my permission, for whatever it’s worth, and I shared my own journey with that character.

I will never forget sharing in an English Education assignment that I didn’t particularly like T.S. Eliot. I guess I hit a nerve because my professor treated me to an embarrassing public lecture on why I was wrong. I still don’t particularly like Eliot, but I understand his importance, and when he comes up in my curriculum, I teach my students to appreciate his work. But all that lecture did is make me dislike Eliot more, and it’s not poor Eliot’s fault.

So how can we share books we love with students and give them permission NOT to love them? How can we challenge them to justify their judgments? I think you should start by being honest with your students about your feelings for a book. They are surprisingly gentle (or at least, my own students have been—your mileage may vary considerably). I think the last message we want to send our students, however uninformed or incorrect we feel they may be, is that their opinions really don’t matter.

3 thoughts on “Shutting Down Class Discussion”

  1. I know that this isn't the subject of your post … but as an English teacher, I dislike seeing the word "hate" used so casually, especially regarding a person, even a fictional one. It's a very strong word and yet it's also become rather vague. "How Annoying Is Holden Caulfield?" might be a better question.

    Maybe Iago or Darth Maul are worthy of hate. Holden Caulfield … not.

  2. Good point, above. I also think students need to feel free to dislike the classics. This has to be for valid reasons, of course, not because they're “boring”. Kids need that freedom, but they also need to understand that intellectual laziness is not a string argument.

    I love Shakespeare but could do without constantly hearing about “Hamlet” all the time. Enough of this guy, already!

    I'm also not a big fan of the predictably depressing early twentieth century American novels. With certain exceptions, it seems like they share the same theme: “Life sucks; then you die.” Thanks guys! I needed to hear that again, and again, and again.


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