FRANZ KAFKA wrote that “a book must be the ax for the frozen sea inside us.” I once shared this quotation with a class of seventh graders, and it didn’t seem to require any explanation. Related in Opinion
We’d just finished John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” When we read the end together out loud in class, my toughest boy, a star basketball player, wept a little, and so did I. “Are you crying?” one girl asked, as she crept out of her chair to get a closer look. “I am,” I told her, “and the funny thing is I’ve read it many times.”
But they understood. When George shoots Lennie, the tragedy is that we realize it was always going to happen. In my 14 years of teaching in a New York City public middle school, I’ve taught kids with incarcerated parents, abusive parents, neglectful parents; kids who are parents themselves; kids who are homeless or who live in crowded apartments in violent neighborhoods; kids who grew up in developing countries. They understand, more than I ever will, the novel’s terrible logic — the giving way of dreams to fate.
For the last seven years, I have worked as a reading enrichment teacher, reading classic works of literature with small groups of students from grades six to eight. I originally proposed this idea to my principal after learning that a former stellar student of mine had transferred out of a selective high school — one that often attracts the literary-minded offspring of Manhattan’s elite — into a less competitive setting. The daughter of immigrants, with a father in jail, she perhaps felt uncomfortable with her new classmates. I thought additional “cultural capital” could help students like her fare better in high school, where they would inevitably encounter, perhaps for the first time, peers who came from homes lined with bookshelves, whose parents had earned not G.E.D.’s but Ph.D.’s.
Along with “Of Mice and Men,” my groups read: “Sounder,” “The Red Pony,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Lord of the Flies,” “The Catcher in the Rye,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Macbeth.” The students didn’t always read from the expected perspective. Holden Caulfield was a punk, unfairly dismissive of parents who had given him every advantage. About “The Red Pony,” one student said, “it’s about being a dude, it’s about dudeness.” I had never before seen the parallels between Scarface and Macbeth, nor had I heard Lady Macbeth’s soliloquies read as raps, but both made sense; the interpretations were playful, but serious. Once introduced to Steinbeck’s writing, one boy went on to read “The Grapes of Wrath” and told me repeatedly how amazing it was that “all these people hate each other, and they’re all white.” His historical perspective was broadening, his sense of his own country deepening. Year after year, ex-students visited and told me how prepared they had felt in their freshman year as a result of the classes.
And yet I do not know how to measure those results. As student test scores have become the dominant means of evaluating schools, I have been asked to calculate my reading enrichment program’s impact on those scores. I found that some students made gains of over 100 points on the statewide English Language Arts test, while other students in the same group had flat or negative results. In other words, my students’ test scores did not reliably indicate that reading classic literature added value.
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