canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


Teachers Who Kill Their Pets

Whom can we hold responsible for this dying interest in literature? Can we pin this one on politicians or priests or even hockey moms? Iím going to go out on a limb here and say that the most despicable, sinister and best-disguised villains of all in this literature quagmire are The English Teachers. Thatís right, Iím incriminating myself in this homicide trial.

by Dean Serravalle

I remember walking into our school library one day to see a number of special needs students and the leader of the pack, our librarian, tearing apart old books and filling recycling bins with pages. The books were beginning to "smell," she explained, while some were on the verge of developing "mould." Like books didnít have enough to worry about in a competitive entertainment sales market, I thought to myself, they were now potential health hazards.

In the classroom, there are similar aversions to the book, and more specifically, the act of reading, which requires patience, a seat, and the most prized of resources these days Ė time. Every week our school runs a D.E.A.R program, which means "Drop Everything and Read." For thirty minutes in the middle of the day, students and teachers are to drop everything that they are doing, sit down and read. The literature options are open, from newspapers to novels to magazines and poetry. However, what seemed like a good idea on paper has produced disappointing results in practice. After ten minutes or so, there is a lot of fidgeting, multiple requests to visit the bathroom, or the philosophical question intended to raise enough discussion to make all of the twenty minutes pass - "Whatís good to read?" Unfortunately, this question comes as readily from teachers as it does students.

So what is the blockage, which seems to be producing a sad case of literature indigestion not curable by any literacy intolerant capsule?

Cite any statistic you like. Or blame any competitive, predatory communication forces lurking in the technological shadows. Letís face it, there are many time sucking and attention deficit producing distractions these days, from television, msn, myspace, ipods, video games, internet surfing, text messaging, blogging, and the old cellular telephone, to my all time favourite scapegoat - the media. What you will discover after youíve found enough fingers to point is the same conclusion this young English teacher has arrived at recently when contemplating the state of reading fiction as it applies to our youth. What is absent is an inspired and genuine love for reading.

But where does this genuine love for reading come from, some may ask, and how can we harvest it for future generations so that volumes and volumes of books are spared the "mould" and "smelly" guillotine treatment? Are we to hold the parents, an easy target, responsible and account a lack of supervised silence at home the necessary ingredient for a young reader to escape into another world only possible by opening a book?

In my classes alone, and I donít mean to generalize for other teachers, whom Iím sure will argue that "their students are different" or that "their students are motivated and inspired," the concept of reading is received with a groan and a sick murmur. The implication of doing it alone, which reading more often than not requires, is a nightmare. Unless, and I do stress, unless, Harry Potter is mentioned and even then the movies are quoted more than the literature.

As for taste and literary aspirations there are few readers, whom Iíve taught in the past ten years, who are familiar with the world of literature itself. The royalty of Nobel Prize winning laureates like J.M. Coetzee or Nadine Gordimar, or the nobility of Canadian Booker Prize winners like Ondaatje and Martel are lost on this generation of readers, not to mention the middle class contingent of short story writers and poets. Good, or "literary" literature is often regarded as lacking in entertainment value and too difficult a test of patience. Also, students voluntarily exclude themselves from the world of literature thinking "fiction" is less relevant than "non-fiction" in todayís world, requiring a time commitment that lends itself to very little practical reward, like a scholarship. The very act of reading itself implies that you are a "loner" who prefers not to socialize, while it labels you a "browner" in the classroom if you admit to such an addiction.

So, weíre at the point in the article where we have to blame someone. Isnít that the motive of every opinion article? But whom can we hold responsible for this dying interest in literature? Can we pin this one on politicians or priests or even hockey moms? Iím going to go out on a limb here and say that the most despicable, sinister and best-disguised villains of all in this literature quagmire are The English Teachers. Thatís right, Iím incriminating myself in this homicide trial, although as a published writer Iíve rebelled against our current curriculum enough to warrant dismissal if not accusations of a higher dose of hypocrisy. But Iíll say it again, the reason why our students are not developing a sincere love of literature is because their English Teacher hasnít got the balls to introduce them to something other than "The Sniper" (which is one of my favourite short stories by the way, when I was seven), or "A Cap For Steve" (once again, one of my favourites as well as one of my fellow colleagueís favourites except heís pushing retirement.) All you have to do is walk into an English classroom, open up a textbook and see why our students are not being inspired. The stories selected in these pathetic "anthologies" are often overly didactic, clichť theme based stories that serve only to remind our students year after year that fiction must have died if the only stories selected for their anthologies are dated twenty years beyond their births, and some beyond their parentsí births. To use an analogy I give my students when they complain about not having "anything good" to read, letís compare fiction to music. Do we solely listen to Sinatra, Presley, and The Beatles, or has the state of music actually evolved in the last fifty some odd years?

So why, as educators who are trying to inspire our young-uns to value literacy, do we stuff Morley Callagan porridge down their throats, or prairie stories that introduce them to dust winds and "The Painted Door" (once again, one of my favourites when I had pimples and liked The Hardy Boys), or better yet, how about a native story about totem poles. In our valiant attempt to maintain our Canadian identity in literature, we are rather insincerely presenting our next generation with anthems instead of stories. And what they hand us back is a regurgitated form of castor oil that usually looks like vomit on a page often formalized in "discussion question assignments", "alternative ending assignments", "independent studies (frequently plagiarized)", or "writing warm-ups."

What our education system doesnít seem to value in the art of fiction, and most especially short fiction, is the "art" part of it, or itís "craft." This "craft" is historically controversial in nature and content, not to mention experimental in technique and context. Not all Canadians are born on a farm, or co-habit with a great uncle in a Cape Breton shack. Not all Canadians live on the Prairie, or experience the "immigration story." Our land is diverse not only in culture, but also in sub-cultures Ė a popular premise for the majority of short stories published in literary journals these days. These sub-cultures are often exploited in short stories to reveal the complex nature of the human condition as it perseveres through a tumultuous urban/suburban era of overused clichť and recycled notions of identity. Where else will these students find originality if it isnít through the most advanced technological force of all - the idea. Short fiction, poetry, and longer fiction for that matter document "change" in ideas, lifestyle, and imagination more than any false computer demigod. So why then are we pumping them with the old stuff, when we should teach them the beautiful concept of classical influence with the new stuff?

A fellow teacher once told me that I should focus instead on ways to "measure" poems and stories with an evaluation "rubric"(for those of you not familiar with this secular language, this is an evaluation tool that assesses thinking, knowledge, communication, and application separately). I told her that a good story or a good poem cannot be measured by a rigid grading system, or even a test for that matter, because the soul of good writing is good reading. Poems and stories need to be experienced, sought out, and introduced to our studentsí changing perceptions of the present. They need to find these stories relevant to their sheltered lives and most importantly, to their insecure futures. Only then will they take ownership of the art of their day and only then will they seek to improve upon it with their own ideas.

Every year my Writerís Craft class holds an annual Poetry Reading. Each writer is allotted three minutes to read a selection of his or her original work. We invite some classes, while others gravitate toward the dark theatre on their own. A single spotlight illuminates the lopsided stool on stage and the writers often recite their pieces with nervous voices and quivering sheets of paper in their hands. I stand at the back of the theatre and I marvel at the experience. In this setting, it is absolutely quiet. The students listen to their peers without the least amount of ridicule or bravado. They sit in their seats for an hour, poem after poem, reader after reader, and they leave more often than not impressed with what they call "their favourites." I poll my classes afterwards for a general opinion and almost always, someone finds something different to like in the presentation. They often say things like, "why canít we study poems like that in class," or "those stories were funny." Perhaps they know more about language than we give them credit for, and maybe, just maybe, if we give them room to breathe, they can find their way home to the classics if they come to realize that movies like Scarface have their similarities to The Great Gatsby in the same way that Justin Timberlake emulates Michael Jackson. Or perhaps weíve become like those cynics who believe that every story has already been told. If thatís the case, take out a piece of chalk and prepare yourself for the definition part of the lesson Ė Iím sure Iíll fall asleep and dream of something better.

Dean Serravalle is a secondary school English Teacher and a writer who has published internationally in such journals as Event, The Dalhousie Review, Lichen, The Arabesques Review, The Del Sol Review, In Posse Review, The Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal, Zygote, Versal, and Urban Graffiti. He is currently marketing a collection of his short stories called AFTER THE LAST DANCE and working on a novel. 

 

 

 

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