This semester I’m tutoring a high school student in English language arts and geometry while she’s on temporary sick leave. After finishing up with geometry today, which we do using an online curriculum, I took out and leafed through the English text I’d been given by the high school. Saw the unit goals, literary terms to know, ways in which the student was expected to closely read the short stories conveniently printed therein and analyze for tone, characterization, dramatic elements, allusion, point of view, and so on. Bad memories. I confessed to her my view that the least important part of growing in literacy is the formal, analytical, gradable stuff that was therein. Told her that if for some reason her school shut down for a year, she would still grow as a writer by reading, reading, reading good literature, and writing what she wanted to write, just keeping on, practicing what she felt were the best styles and gleaning vocabulary and knowledge along the way. Told her though I loved to read and write myself, that was due to my upbringing, not my formal education, because for the most part I’d hated English class, except for the parts where we memorized Shakespeare or I was told I had written something unique and would I share it. So as a teacher, I wanted to make sure I didn’t create or reinforce a distaste for reading good literature, or even studying it, by over analysis.
I told her about the time I’d been about her age and was hanging out with my dad at Uncle Calvin’s fishing camp, and that big, burly backwoods river guide’s eyes became moist as he and my father recited the poetry they’d memorized in their youth. I told her how I wanted to pass that on, and how my kids would have that look of quiet delight when they recited a Kipling or Frost poem.
And so, I assigned her some small formal analysis activities, and gave her a book of poems so she could choose one to memorize. I promised to bring some books from my library for her to try (and ask her school teacher if there was a course reading list), and encouraged her to get some audiobooks to do her crafts by. I said some things, we’ll analyze, and you’ll work at learning the terminology for intelligent conversation about literature. But other times, I’ll just ask you what you thought of a book, and you can practice talk from your heart about books, making personal connections. I told her I wasn’t sure why the teacher had said the class was skipping the short story writing assignment, but that we might do some such writing anyway.
The assignment she was working on when I met with her first was an argumentative essay about the value of a college education. She was to read three articles provided by her textbook, which had been published, I pointed out, by the College Board, which makes bucks every time it sells a test, grades a test, and submits a student’s test results to a college. Important to get a feel for likely biases in the material, I said. I asked her to interview a few people informally who might have different views on the question, and develop some nuances to her argument, rather than oversimplifying the issue. It was a tall order, as she’s not an avid reader or writer, and hasn’t thought about these things much at her age. But I think she’s up to it.