According to a variety of sources and international reports, American students are falling increasingly behind their international counterpoints with respect to education in the fields of math, science, and reading/writing (rhetoric). Why is there such a disparity between children growing up in different countries? Can this be attributed to each nation’s implemented school system? Or even the modern generation’s increasingly prevalent fascination with gleaning a large amount of information in the shortest allotment of time?
Having recently graduated from high school and with college looming right around the corner, I’ve had some time to reflect on the positive and negative aspects of the portrayal and presentation of literature in the American school system. To date, I’ve taken a total of 13 English courses with an equivalent number of teachers and instruction styles, and I’m astonished by how greatly my experiences in each of these classes differed.
From kindergarten, reading has been an integral component of our education – we learned to recite our ABCs and sound out words, as well as eagerly awaiting daily story time, which entailed sitting in a circle around the teacher as he/she read aloud and displayed each picture. As we’ve grown older, reading assimilated a more daunting connotation as we were inevitably forced to scour textbooks, study for tests, and complete research projects.
Throughout elementary and middle school, with the exception of eighth grade, I received very few reading assignments, and those that were allotted were often very simple and well below my reading level. I was very quickly bored by these assignments and consequently began to form a negative association with them. While I ultimately grew to despise summer reading and school-assigned books, I began to develop a love of reading outside of school. This dichotomy was very strange growing up, and in retrospect, I wish I could have enjoyed both aspects of reading (for pleasure, as well as for school). Instead, the distinction that I had established between the two steadily increased as I grew older.
In eighth grade and high school, the majority of homework and in-class assignments in my literature classes was busywork, which further solidified my mindset. While I found the books themselves to be more interesting, I dreaded the assignments attached to them. This was also the period when I began to discover that, according to my teachers, there was only one “right” way to analyze a character, scene, or theme. If someone’s personal thoughts did not directly correspond with those of the instructor’s, the voiced interpretation was automatically “incorrect.” I found this narrow mindset extremely frustrating, particularly when tests and essays were graded with the same approach.
Most recently, however, I was enrolled in AP English Literature and Composition, and this course taught me to approach reading and writing for academic purposes from a different perspective entirely. Rather than teaching directly from a teacher’s manual of a textbook or from some online source of notes, my teacher refrained from voicing her own opinions or attempting to guide the class discussions in any particular direction. She would occasionally interject clarifying comments or answer any thematic or contextual questions, but she emphasized the importance of the students contributing to the conversation. By listening to each of the key points that others had identified within a given work, my classmates and I learned to analyze book from a variety of perspectives. There was never a “correct” answer or approach to a given scenario, and no one’s observations were deemed wrong or misguided. The instructor of the course taught me to love reading and writing in a classroom environment again, and I’m so grateful for this and all of the other experiences with which I walked away.