Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Problem with the Way We Teach Reading: "Dead Frogging" The Great Gatsby

One day I was walking to soccer practice with one of my Advanced Placement English Literature students who was also a crafty left-sided player on the soccer team. His name was Martin, and he had come from Switzerland. I think that gave him a kind of maturity in American eyes because he always seemed so calm, so above the fray, so, well--Swiss. And, for precisely that reason, he was a great person to approach, as young teachers often do, to get feedback on how a class was going--and to fish for compliments. It is something I find myself rarely doing now, but back when I first started there was nothing quite like the affirmation of a student like Martin to make you feel like you knew what you were doing. And that is precisely what I found myself surreptitiously doing with Martin as we walked to practice together.

We had just finished reading The Great Gatsby, and when I say read, I mean every phrase and every word and every syntactical construction. It was, after all, A.P. literature, and I was determined to have mined every piece of secondary literature on the novel, and to have read Fitzgerald biographies and letters. In short, I was prepared to spend over a month going page by page over what Fitzgerald had called his "masterpiece."

So, as we walked, I fished.

"So, Martin, I thought we really had some amazing stuff come out today in class."

"Definitely. Some really good connections."

Not enough. That was it? Really good connections? I needed more....

"I was impressed that we got the reference to the fresh green breast of the new world on the last page, and saw that it was a reverse of Myrtle's breast flapping after the accident. Fitzgerald's editor, Maxwell Perkins, told Fitzgerald he thought he should take that out because it was racy, but Fitzgerald said no, it was essential."

"Yeah, that was pretty cool to see how he worked that in as a symbol."

This was not exactly the feeling I wanted from what had been a two month minute analysis.

"So, what do think about the novel in the end?"

A long pause as we get ready to enter the gym and head to different locker rooms.

"I guess I sort of feel like I do about my frog in A.P. Bio. I mean, I can tell you anything about the pieces of that frog. I have spent days dissecting that thing; I know everything there is to know about frogs, I think. But then I looked down at it the other day when we were done and I thought-- it was just a dead frog."

What ensued was yet another of my dark nights of the soul. Oh my god, I thought, I have "dead-frogged" The Great Gatsby.

But how had that happened? I was just doing the great literary-critical read of a book that rewards that kind of reading perhaps more than any other book I know. And wouldn't that, by the way, guarantee a "5" on the A.P. test?

Wasn't that what I was supposed to be doing? be continued.....

1 comment:

  1. What a fine story - I'll go back to class on Monday aiming to keep The Iliad alive, even as its characters lay waste to each other.

    This year, with the hope of keeping narrative alive, I've been assigning my froshfolk short narrative pieces triggered by themes in The Odyssey - e.g. describe a time when you were forced by circumstances or another person to grow up. I hope they'll be better story-tellers by year's end.