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Reading as hero-making

I’ve just finished reading Carol Jago’s With Rigor For All, a defense of teaching the classics. When Jago’s talking about classics, she’s not referring to To Kill a Mockingbird. No, she’s thinking Beowulf.

I appreciated her argument, and despite her strong tone and criticism of young adult fiction, Jago would likely agree with Kelly Gallagher’s hybrid approach, where part of the curriculum is independent reading and the other direct instruction.

My favorite part of the book was Jago’s insistence that teaching literature allows students to “have a vicarious experience of the human condition far greater than any of them could ever acquire on the basis of luck and firsthand encounters” (7). Besides offering students a wider perspective, reading classics introduces students to heroes to emulate in their own lives.

Jago writes that she teaches so that students can become heroes themselves. Through reading, as Anna Quindlen notes, students learn who they are, who they want to be, what they aspire to, and what they dare to dream (149). The possible problem with bad young adult literature is that the main characters spend their time just dealing with their problems rather than prevailing, conquering, vanquishing.

As I reflect on my teaching first semester, I am happy that my students have read so much, but I would like bigger ideas to enter the classroom discourse. My focus on process rather than content has left too many students asking about purpose. What exactly are we doing here, and why?

I’ve been thinking about how to expand my teaching second semester, and in addition to introducing novel study, I will encourage my students to think about the heroes in their books. To do that, students may have to read outside their genre. Donalyn Miller requires her students to read a variety of genres. I’m not sure I’ll make that kind of requirement this year, but I will emphasize the importance of reading a variety of genres.

After all, if I stick to my genre, I will meet only one kind of hero. What I gain in depth I lose in breadth. Genre is one place where “less is more” may not be true.

Please share your brilliant insights!