Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The art of teaching

Every English teacher knows the story:

You try to discuss a novel, try to point out some possible symbols, try to get the kids to create meaning out of what's there. Soon enough, skeptical faces stare back, and finally a brave soul says, "Yeah right! How do you know the author meant that?"

"Well, I don't know he meant exactly that," you say, "but he definitely meant something. I mean, do you think that scene--or those words--are there by accident?"

"It's possible," the skeptical student says. "Why do you insist that everything has some hidden meaning? Can't things just be what they are?"

"Of course they can," you say. "And they are what they are. But the beauty of literature is that there's more to it. Literature is an art."

Anyway, if you're an English teacher you know the story. And if you've ever been a student in an English class, you know the story from the other end. In fact, you probably hate reading because of the damn analyzing you were forced to do.

My eleventh graders have been grumbling about this stuff for the past few days. The grumbling almost turned to shouting when I handed back a multiple-choice test on Parts 1 and 2 of Ian McEwan's Atonement.

Writing multiple-choice questions about literature is hard enough. Defending the questions and answers against the skeptics is almost impossible.

But today I think I made a breakthrough.

"OK, I'm working on my multiple-choice-question writing," I announced at the start of class. "Take out scratch paper and answer two questions. They're based on a New Yorker article about McEwan. You'll read the article next week, but today I want to see what you think."

This was a brilliant tactical move. I highly recommend it. The New Yorker article is brilliant, because it's not just about the author; it's about the writing process. The reporter follows McEwan as he works on his new novel.

"Question 1," I said. This was an oral test. "How long do you think McEwan worked on Part 2 of Atonement? Was it A. several hours, B. several days, C. several weeks, or D. several months?"

The kids scribbled their choices.

"Question 2. About how many words does McEwan write on a good day? Remember that he is a professional writer, and he has nothing else to do all day but write. So, is it A. 500, B. 1,000, C. 2,000, or D. 5,000?"

I asked to see a show of hands. What did they think? Mostly B. or C. for both questions. Maybe kids are conditioned to answer B. or C. when they don't know an answer.

"OK, thanks for playing. You'll find out the answers next week when we read the article," I said. This was met with groans. "What, you want to know right now?" They did. "Fine."

And so I pulled out a copy of the article and read the answer to question 1: "When McEwan was writing Atonement, he struggled for months with the Dunkirk section." And the answer to question 2: "For McEwan, a single 'dream of absorption' often yields just a few details worth fondling. Several hundred words is a good day."

"So," I said, "the answers are D. and A." Only one student had both answers correct, a girl who talked to me about McEwan after school on Monday. "Now," I said, "who can tell me why I had you try to answer these two questions?"

A kid got it right on the first try: "Because we always argue when you say that writers spend a lot of time on their novels, and that everything's in there for a reason."

"Exactly!" I said.

"Yeah, but," a skeptic said, "is this true for every writer? Or just about McEwan?"

"Well," I said, "every writer is different. Some struggle for weeks on just one sentence, trying to make it perfect. But whatever the case is, you need to believe me when I say that writing is an art."

No comments: