I suppose I have to preface this whole thing by saying I don't want to eliminate the use of powerful literature. I do support the teaching of works from Faulkner, Cisneros, Orwell, Walker,and many others. I'm not talking about historical selections either, by the way. We have to teach history and all the ickiness that comes with it.
However, I'm sure you'll agree that most literature selections for high-schoolers (9-12th grade) are profoundly negative. They deal with negative themes, such as revenge, racism, anger, war, genocide, injustice, abandonment. Most include murders, suicides, abuse of authority/power.
Our non-fiction selections center around individuals usually in dire circumstances, who overcome those circumstances (maybe). Those circumstances generally being war, poverty, abuse, illness, and more. Even poetry selections tend to be negative. Consider these lines from Jarrell's "Death of a Ball Turret Gunner":
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
Our lesson for the day? Imagery. Apparently, as our teacher said, we were not "getting it". So, she assigned this one from our textbook. For the student to get the imagery, here, he/she has to visualize someone shot to death in WWII ball turret to the extent that the body is a mash of bloody pulp. (I mention this particular poem because it traumatized me for months after reading it.)
I have to think that today's battle-weary gamer would shrug this off with ease. Callousness is another potential issue with the negative themes and story-lines. The impact is minimal. Murder? Pshaw, just another news story, game, movie.
Somewhere after middle school, the literary tide turns to the darker side human life. One of the arguments for the selections promoted in a recent discussion I encountered was that students need to see the non-examples in an effort to get them to understand negative consequences or to create "What if" scenarios. For example, what if so and so character had chosen to do something else (as opposed to murdering, bullying, abusing, etc.). What might be a better way to handle this situation?
Of course, literature can be used this way, but I have to wonder why we can't provide them with an example of someone doing the right thing or a positive example. I have to presume this has to do with the cynicism of teens. They simply don't see people doing the right thing very often, do they? They see adults in their lives self-medicating with alcohol, drugs. They see abuse, whether physical or verbal. They see authority figures doing the wrong thing.
They see the core of the darkness all the time. They live it.
Is the emphasis on negative themes truly helping them consider potentially negative outcomes? Or would they be better served by our providing them (at least once in a unit) with a positive text? Granted, we can only teach To Kill a Mockingbird (effectively) one time, and it is a middle-school selection. But surely, there is another Atticus Finch for high schoolers? Would they accept him/her, though, or would they sneer with derisive cynicism because nobody "really" acts this way?
Does the positive message of a text get lost when a good person makes the right choices, but the problem--racism or corruption, for example--remains? What does that say about our ability to tackle the social ills that plague our cultures? If our students feel that the problems are insurmountable, and don't see the impact of small changes or ideas, then they may be less apt to even consider the "What if" scenarios.
Because they might feel that doing the right thing doesn't matter anyway. If we can, we need to help them see a much larger picture. And we're going to have to have some evidence for it. Literature may be one way to do that.
I'd love for you all to share some of your literary selections that emphasize a positive example or a character making positive choices! Maybe we just need to have a few to consider, specifically for high school.
Mindy and some of her former students recently published Transparent Teaching of Adolescents, a discussion of effective teaching strategies for high school. Join the conversation!