Thursday, December 06, 2012

High school English for me was "grammar and literature"; Common Core standards could gut reading fiction in high school

I remember my first day of school in tenth grade, at Washington-Lee High School, in 1958, fourth period, in English class, in a hot third floor classroom, musty with the aroma of “good books”, and a fairly good-looking ex-football player as a teacher, Mr. Davis.

English class then rotated between “grammar and literature”.  The first major piece of literature we read was Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”.  I wish I could remember the test questions (generally short answer or short essay); we had to know “the eight parts of the theater” including the “proscenium doors”.  I think there were exam questions about the motives (and ironies thereof) in the characters like Antony and Brutus, and I won’t get into that now.  It was hard to study for these tests.  (When subbing, I remember that a student teacher started out by talking about the cobbler.)  Later, as a novel, we would read George Elliot’s (pseudonymous) “Silas Marner” and I do remember that Silas had to get off his high moral horse when the little girl Eppie appeared.  (That was on the test, and Dr. Phil would be pleased today.)  And we would read some short stories, which we had to know “in detail”.

In “junior English” we would get a lot of Hawthorne (“The Scarlet Letter” and “The House  of Seven Gables” and Poe.  The female spinster teacher actually liked horror.  I would write a handwritten term paper on James Fenimore Cooper’s treatment of women, and have to read “The Deerslayer” (I remember the suspenseful early passages about the ark across the forest lake) and “The Last of the Mohicans” (Daniel Day-Lewis not at his best).  In fact, “The Pathfinder” was one of the first films I ever saw.  I also read “The Spy” which I remember being tedious (it wasn’t like 007).  I’d have to take the bus to the District of Columbia public library downtown (where the Convention Center is now) to find everything.   We also read “Tom Sawyer”. In history, we read some literary non-fiction for in-class book reports, including JFK’s “Profiles in Courage”, and the teacher grades us on whether he “learned anything new” from the book report.   I think I read Lloyd C. Douglas’s “The Robe” that year. 

Another English teacher was sponsor of the chess club.  He also taught junior English, and said "I teach appreciation of literature".  His tests looked harder than the ones I had.  

In senior English, we had two fall term papers (one had to be on a Shakespeare play, and I chose Hamlet, and the other could be on anything – I wrote about composer Mahler and his influence on Schoenberg and Berg).  In class, we read both Macbeth and King Lear.  We read Thomas Hardy’s “The Return of the Native” in class, and had to read one other Hardy novel (“The Mayor of Casterbridge”).  For book reports, I also remember reading H. G. Wells’s philosophical “Meanwhile” (with its discussions of stoics and epicureans), Dickens's "A Tale of Two Cities" and Nevil Shute’s “In the Wet”.  (Authors from the British Commonwealth were OK.)  The teacher (a Mr. :D.E." Gibbs) always said that "English literature is the better literature." 

In French we read Victor Hugo and "Les Miserables" and also read one of the Dumas sequels to "Three Musketeers" (I think it was "The Iron in the Iron Mask").  Some time in high school I also read Thomas B. Costain's "The Moneyman" and loved it.

I can’t find the (Junior) Cooper term paper anywhere (I think it might be in the attic), but I did find notes for a government class (senior) term paper comparing US and USSR science education – twenty months before the Cuban Missile Crisis and only a few months before the Berlin Wall crisis.  

We would read “Huckleberry Finn” in freshman English in college (at GWU in my case), before writing the term paper, the point of the course.  I remember a bizarre passage about an old urban legend that (white) men with hairy arms and chests would get rich (link). Maybe that would make a good Millionaire Question of the Day.

Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" was all too new (but pertinent) when I was in high school, but I wonder what English teachers would have thought of "The Fountainhead" or her other books.  Critics, remember, had been hard on her at first.  

There’s controversy now, as the Common Core State Standards in Englsh would replace a lot of fiction assignments with “information-rich non-fiction”.  I think my first “Do Ask Do Tell” book fits into that category!  The Washington Post has a front page story  (“Common core sparks war over words”) on the matter by Lyndsey Layton on Monday, December 3, 2012, here.  

When I subbed, most students had to read Elie Wiesel’s “Night”  (abridged) and Golding’s “The Lord of the Flies”.  A chum had read that my senior year in high school (it’s English).  Another favorite (especially of mine) is Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird".   Teachers would give daily “reading quizzes”, which could be rather detailed (like "video worksheets" on films), on the assigned chapters.  Making up a reading quiz is a good way for a novelist to check all the loose ends in a novel manuscript.  I got the hang of it.  

I remember another chum in college days who once said (at a summer job), “What we need is to go back to the classics.”  

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