What Teaching Literature Isn’t

My middle school English teachers, in emphasizing getting the “correct” interpretation of literature, hurt my ability to appreciate it.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Ismath Maksura

In elementary school, people knew me as “the reader.” I was seldom found without my nose in a book, and certainly never without one in my hand. And, contrary to what you may be thinking, this wasn’t isolating in the slightest. To me, reading wasn’t a way to escape the world; rather, it was a way to explore new ones.

I remember playing the game “Desert Island” in second grade. The game was simple: my peers and I made choices about what we would bring with us to a hypothetical desert island. Most decided on a TV or a pet, but I chose my favorite book—at the time, it was Italo Calvino’s “Italian Folktales. It seemed impossible to be truly stuck anywhere—to be truly deserted—as long as I had Prezzemolina and Tabagnino the Hunchback to keep me company. My friends looked at me strangely as I answered, but I was secure in my love for reading, and the world of discovery it provided me made their odd glances well-worth it.

But now—after a childhood of breezing through books in a matter of hours and being well-acquainted with the local librarians—I can count the number of books I’ve read this past year of my own volition on one hand.

It was a gradual change, but a significant one nonetheless. Growing older has meant reading less and less frequently, and it hurts knowing I’ve lost what was once such a big part of my life. Lately, I’ve been looking back and trying to figure out what caused this shift. The answer, it seems, lies in the weakness of my middle school English classes.

My transition from elementary to middle school was abrupt for many reasons, one of which was how different the teaching methods were. I was used to smaller classes where everyone had a say and everyone’s learning methods were accommodated. Middle school, however, offered neither. At Mark Twain, getting through the curriculum, not learning or enjoying one’s education, was what really mattered. And through later experiences in my other English classes, I have learned this to be dishearteningly—but unequivocally—true.

To do well on tests in my sixth grade English class, I needed to memorize the most minute and insignificant details of the books we read. I distinctly remember losing three points on the written response portion of an exam because I misidentified the object a character had used to hit another character. The rest of my response was correct, and insofar as I could tell, insightful. But when I approached my teacher about my seemingly unfair grade, I remember her shaking her head dismissively, telling me that she took the points off because I “clearly didn’t comprehend the book.”

In seventh grade, we read “The House on Mango Street” by Sandra Cisneros. It is a critically acclaimed book, but at the time, I abhorred it. In every class discussion, someone would explain their interpretation of the book only to be corrected by our teacher. I stopped raising my hand and participating as much as before, because all it did was make me feel foolish when my teacher would smirk and explain all the reasons my thoughts and interpretations of “Mango Street” were wrong.

My middle school English classes thus taught me that reading is about two things: memorization and correctness. Its sole purpose was mere retention of the “right” details. There is only ever one moral or message of the story, and that the teacher must tell you what it is.

Before middle school, I had never even considered the question of whether I was reading “correctly” or had the “right” interpretation of my favorite books. But today, those discussions make it difficult for me to read a book without thinking about it in the frame of “correctness.” And the fear of being wrong has been all-consuming, closing doors to the world of discovery that I once held so dear.

My father—a professor with a Ph.D. in comparative literature who has always taken interest in my English class endeavors—was appalled when I described the way we were being taught. He shares my distaste for my previous English teachers’ approach, instead believing that there is no singular message or correct answer in literature—to him, a work of literature may know more than its author knew, or serve a purpose other than what they intended. As such, it is illogical for any individual, including teachers, to claim possession of the sole “correct” interpretation of a book.

I want to clarify, however, that I am by no means trying to criticize English teachers at large. I’ve simply had the misfortune of having a few teachers whose well-intentioned but inept methods resulted in negative consequences. The three I have had so far in my time at Stuyvesant have been nothing short of incredible. In fact, they have been catalysts for the restoration of my relationship with reading.

It took me only one day to realize that high school English classes would be much different from what I had experienced in middle school. On the first day of my freshman year, my teacher gave the class excerpts of poems and articles to read and discuss. I had resolved to start the year and my high school experience off well, a large part of which involved me participating more frequently. When we moved into a class discussion, I hesitantly rose my hand and began to speak. My teacher met my words with not the smug, dismissive looks that I had grown so accustomed to, but rather a smile and nod of encouragement. As I was speaking, she softly interjected, directing me to “speak to the class.” I realized that I had just been staring at her, trying to read her expression to see whether what I was saying was right or not.

The concept of English classes being about working with others to truly understand and appreciate readings seemed almost foreign. But, over the past one and a half years, thanks to Stuyvesant’s English department, I’ve relearned that this is exactly how literature should be taught. And my positive in-class experiences have prompted me to make conscious efforts to renew my passion for reading. A few days ago, I picked up “The House on Mango Street” for the first time since seventh grade. I only read a few pages, but it was enough to move me to tears.

Books, despite my middle school memories, have always meant home. And, little by little, I’m rediscovering the same magic in reading that I loved when I was younger.