Monday, June 1, 2009

Gatekeeper facts

I'm not much one for Gatekeeper literature. I mean, I guess I think everyone should read The Odyssey. Some Shakespeare. "Sonny's Blues." Frankenstein is kind of a must-read for me, as is A Lesson Before Dying. But I would have a hard time making a list without feeling pretty judgmental about it. There are just too many great books in the world, and too many variables about what a student will connect with. I think a big part of it is the teacher making the text work for the student, so I think teachers should have a lot of freedom with the texts they choose (though not the transferable skills).

However, despite my non-love for gatekeeper literature, there are two things that I have come up in my years of teaching that I think every educated person should know. These two things are facts from books I teach year after year, and I love the moment when the kids say, "Really? I always thought...". They are as follows:

1) Knowing that "Wherefore art thou Romeo?" does not mean "Where are you, Romeo?", but, rather, is asking, as I like to translate, why he gotta be named Romeo?

2) Knowing that Frankenstein is not the name of the monster, but, rather, the name of the doctor. The fact that the creature does not have a name is actually a pretty important part of the novel.

I'm being only half-serious here, but I do tell my students that knowing these two things is a sign that you're educated. And, again in just half-seriousness, if the kid leaves my classroom and didn't get these two things, it makes me sad.

#1 was on the final exam. Out of about 60 kids who took the final today, 6 kids missed that question. However, I was happy to note that of those 6 kids, 5 rarely come or never listen to me or do any work. So, that means that coming to school and listening to me actually does something. I don't know what happened to that 6th kid. She's just kind of flaky.


Jackie said...

Cultural literacy is one of the reasons to teach "gatekeeper" literature, I think. It's one of the reasons I actually enjoy teaching the Bible as literature-- there are so many references and allusions to it in most of Western art/literature/civilization, that it can help unlock so many other texts.

Teach Baltimore said...

The question with cultural literacy is always, whose culture? Who gets to choose? And, I agree with you - it does seem like there are some texts that just should be taught. But whenever I really examine which texts those should be, I think about why I chose them and what it says about me and how I was taught.

I got through high school without ever reading The Scarlet Letter, Huckleberry Finn or Romeo and Juliet. My American Literature teacher chose lots of Willa Cather and short stories by lots of staple American writers, and the only Shakespeare we had was MacBeth.

It's an interesting dilemma and I'm always sort of revising my view about it.

Jackie said...

See for me, trained in American Studies, I would argue that Scarlet Letter and Huck Finn both have something to tell us about American history, same way Beloved does, same way Sonny's Blues does. I think they're very helpful in understanding who we are as a country and why we've developed the way we have. I see your point about "whose culture?" but I also think that doesn't negate the value of the enterprise. For example, I think reading Huck Finn before you read Beloved helps you appreciate even more the cultural shifts from one historical moment to the next, and why Beloved was such a game-changing way to write about enslaved peoples, and what Toni Morrison was reacting to when she built that great masterpiece.

And I know what you mean about how we're taught-- I only read Romeo and Juliet in high school, had to wait for college to read more Shakespeare, and a lot of what I consider as key American texts I read on my own, not in school.