Civilization, barbarians and reading in school

No, this isn’t a blog about the Muslim barbarians trying to destroy civilization with their car bombs. Not really. Or, is it? Hmm …

Did I mention that I’ll have a class of advanced placement kids this fall? It’s a reading enrichment class. Western Heights in on the block schedule, so each class is 85 minutes long. Last year, there was a 45-minute period after school when students could come in for tutoring. It was completely voluntary, and almost completely unused. This year they’re doing away with tutorial and building in 45-minute remediation and enrichment classes somewhere in the middle of the day. This short class will last all year. So, yes, I’ll have this one group of students for the entire school year. Did I already say they are kids who like to read? Students who like to read. I could get addicted to that.

Anyhoo, I’ve been giving some thought to what I’ll do with that class. It’s completely up to me to come up with the curriculum. Of course, I’m a limited to the books we have on hand or shorter works I can get for free online and make enough copies of, but that isn’t a huge impediment. I’m thinking of starting out with a look at civilization vs. wildness in literature. I figured we’d read Jack London’s The Call of the Wild followed by Robert E. Howard’s Beyond the Black River and then Stephen Crane’s “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky.” I need something else that takes a view opposite of London and Howard, something that says civilization is not a horrible thing. Even the Crane story leads us to believe that civilization is not natural to men (he says women impose it on the dudes). Any suggestions?

Once we have some of that literature under our belts we can look at history and current events and decide if civilization is doomed to fail, if the Muslim barbarian horde will sack the U.S. the way the Germanic barbarians did Rome. Personally, I think it’s inevitable, especially when the center is corrupted. I wouldn’t necessarily compare Bush to the last Roman emperors, but I would compare our society and many politicians to the way things were in Rome just before it fell.

Am I off topic here? Sorry. I’m just excited over the prospect of kids who are willing to read and think critically.

I suppose I’ve sounded pretty down on my job the past few weeks. I’m not, really. Yeah, summer school has mostly sucked. Most of the kids I’ve had are unmotivated and hate to read. Most have been discipline problems. But, they’ve taught me something, and hardened me and, I think, will make me better.

But also, there’s a girl I had in class last semester who is in summer school, though not in my class. She comes to visit me every morning while most students are eating breakfast. She didn’t like to read the assignments in my Foundations of English I class. However, she told me last week that she was about halfway through the copy of Deborah LeBlanc’s A House Divided (Deb donated copies to the class). Well, this student has an interest in real paranormal happenings, so I finally gave her a copy of Possessed by Thomas B. Allen. This is the true story that inspired William Peter Blatty to write The Exorcist. The next day this girl told me she was on chapter 11 of that book. I was so proud of her. Maybe someday I can get her to take the “Sorry, don’t read” statement off her MySpace page and replace it with “I love reading!” Maybe.

I’ve learned from this, too. Instead of telling the students what to read, I need to give them more freedom to choose what they read. Then, of course, I have to give them class time to read … so that I can make them read. And they’ll have to write a report so I can see if they’re comprehending what they read.

Lots of students are interested in “true” paranormal cases, so I should probably focus on building up my classroom library with more books like that. I am willing to take donations, by the way.

6 responses to “Civilization, barbarians and reading in school”

  1. Have you considered showing them any of the graphic novel formats of some of the classics? I know Marvel has started the “Classics Illustrated” line again, and there are several others out there. The other big company I’ve seen is Graphic Classics (, which has a lot of titles.

    1. I haven’t tried those, though I did let a couple read my Beowulf graphic novel. A lot of them read the anime stuff, so it might be a good way to sneak in some classic lit.

  2. In some ways, Fahrenheit 451 is pro-civilization, or at least pro-knowledge/learning, as opposed to the instinct/atavism at the heart of CotW. A lot of the SF of the ’40s and ’50s (Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke) is very much on the side of civilization and human achievement as well.

    1. True. I was kind of shying away from the SF since I teach a class on the genre, too, and expect a lot of crossover. Still, I could give them a list of books we won’t read in that class and have them pick one to read. Thanks!

  3. reading
    Hey Steve,
    You should probably also have some option for them to read related books for extra credit. The whole Muslim question reminded me of the book I read a few months ago called “Three Cups of Tea” – it is very long, very topical non-fiction about a guy who is building schools in Afghanistan. Not everyone would want to read it, but it is definitely interesting.
    Are you going to have them do book reports that they share with the class? I have mixed feelings about that. Teen angst is a strong thing to deal with, but in observing Anna and her requirements, I’ve always wondered why teachers didn’t use more of a floating schedule with book reports. Say 3 are due before Christmas break. If someone gets theirs finished by Sept. 15, they get X bonus points. If it is turned in by Oct. 1 – full credit and after that, points deducted for being late. Then the oral report part could be given at any point within a few days of them turning in the written portion. (I’ve just always thought that is it a lot more interesting to listen to a couple of book reports a day than to hear nothing but book reports for a solid class time)
    It would also spread out when you would be grading them. I’m sure a lot of kids would still wait for the very last minute to turn them in, but if even a few took advantage and turned them in early, it would lighten the load.

    1. Re: reading
      Typically, I let them read any Accelerated Reader book for extra credit; if the AR test is worth 10 points, they get that much extra credit for passing.
      Yes to the book reports. The hope is that the report will make others want to read the book, too. I like the staggered idea. It sucks having to read a bunch of final projects the last week of so.

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