Love of Stories: Modernism and Education

 
PLOTJon Krause
A good story is a dirty secret that we all share. It’s what makes guilty pleasures so pleasurable, but it’s also what makes them so guilty. A juicy tale reeks of crass commercialism and cheap thrills. We crave such entertainments, but we despise them. Plot makes perverts of us all.

Well, that is a bit melodramatic.  Good storytelling is far from being limited to “crass commercialism and cheap thrills”.  People simply enjoy good storytelling whether or not it’s considered high art by academics.  But it’s no secret, dirty or otherwise.  I do understand the point he is making.  For any ‘intellectually respectable’ person, maybe good storytelling has been somewhat of a dirty secret… but I’ve never considered intellectuals who can’t think for themselves as ‘respectable’.

It’s not easy to put your finger on what exactly is so disgraceful about our attachment to storyline. Sure, it’s something to do with high and low and genres and the canon and such. But what exactly?

Unfortunately, Mr. Grossman only manages a partial answer.  There are some truly great analyes about the relationship between high and low genres, but you’ll have to look elsewhere.  That said, I did appreciate this article.  His pointing out the enjoyment of plot does touch upon something quite significant.  And I agree Modernism represented a pivotal era.  Writers, especially in America, were seeking a distinctive voice.  They didn’t just want to write entertainments but to offer some semblance of reality.   However, what the modernists didn’t realize is that ‘realism’ is just another genre with rules.

I think that not only some of the most popular but some of the best fiction of the last 50 yrs has come out of the genres. Mr. Grossman is correct that many people turn to fiction written for the young (which often equates to genres) for the simple reason that genre writers know how to tell a good story.  At the same time, the most innovative writing has come from genre writers and mainstream writers experimenting with genre.

If you look at recent genre writing, it’s as much about breaking rules as following them. Genre writers are less confined than mainstream realism writers in both what they can write about and how they can write about it. Mr. Grossman points out that modernist writers invoked realism as their ideal, but what they forgot is that imagination is a part of human reality… or, to put it another way, subjectivity isn’t a mere extension of objectivity. Genre writers are more open to the mixing of realism and imagination which is why genre writers often come closer to the reality of genuine human experience.

I’ve found the fantasy genre inspires many authors with a basic love of storytelling.  Fantasy is rooted in the first stories we heard as children.  We read in order to have someone help us imagine something different than our normal experience.  Even so-called realistic fiction portrays people and event outside of our normal experience and helps us understand them.  There is no such thing as purely realstic fiction because imaginaton is always invoked when a story is told.

I think that the freedom allowed by genre fiction gives authors the opportunity to think outside of the box.  When not constrained by the rules of realism, authors can more easily capture the subtle and complex aspects of reality.

 – – –

David Walter Banks for The New York Times

Lorrie McNeill gives her middle school students a wide choice of reading in Jonesboro, Ga. More Photos >

But fans of the reading workshop say that assigning books leaves many children bored or unable to understand the texts. Letting students choose their own books, they say, can help to build a lifelong love of reading.

If a kid learns to hate reading, then trying to teach them difficult texts is rather pointless.

Critics of the approach say that reading as a group generally leads to more meaningful insights, and they question whether teachers can really keep up with a roomful of children reading different books. Even more important, they say, is the loss of a common body of knowledge based on the literary classics — often difficult books that children are unlikely to choose for themselves.

Many kids simply won’t read a book or will just read the cliff notes.  You have to first to encourage them to want to read because you can’t force anyone to anything.  I remember as a kid writing a book report about a book I never read and the teacher even gave me a good grade for it.  I did have some decent English teachers, but I must admit that I had to learn my love of reading on my own.  I’m just glad that no teacher taught me to hate reading. 

Ms. McNeill, an amateur poet whose favorite authors include Barbara Kingsolver and Nick Hornby, wondered if forcing some students through a book had dampened their interest in reading altogether.

Every child (and adult) natualy loves stories.  It takes great effort to destroy that love.  Many adults learned to not enjoy reading fiction and have only regained their enjoyment of reading through books such as the Harry Potter series.

Though research on the academic effects of choice has been limited, some studies have shown that giving students modest options can enhance educational results. In 11 studies conducted with third, fourth and fifth graders over the past 10 years, John T. Guthrie, now a retired professor of literacy at the University of Maryland, found that giving children limited choices from a classroom collection of books on a topic helped improve performance on standardized reading comprehension tests.

This is so obviously true.  Even without the research, it just commonsense that giving kids some choice engages them in the learning process.  Once the kids are engaged, the teacher can then guide that learning process.

Most experts say that teachers do not have to choose between one approach or the other and that they can incorporate the best of both methods: reading some novels as a group while also giving students opportunities to select their own books.

Duh!  This isn’t a new concept.  You have to meet kids where they’re at and go from there.  Also, kids are different… have different past education, have different levels of reading comprehension, have different learning styles.  The goal is to get kids to learn and a teacher should do whatever is necessary to achieve that goal.  Some kids learn best when given more freedom to explore for themselves and some kids learn best when told what to do.  Some kids only need the merest enocouargement and some kids need direct guidance.  Whatever method is necessary, the primary goal is to teach a love of learning and kids are born with a desire to learn.  If a teacher can establish a love of learning (i.e., not destroy the child’s natural curiosity), a kid will carry that with them for the rest of their life.

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