Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Why Teaching Matters--Part 4 (Books)

JENNY BALL, IF YOU EVER READ this post, I’m sorry. I’m sorry, when I had you in eighth grade, that I drilled a hole through your history book.

You have to admit, though—that textbook was boring.

Despite the occasional mishap with drills, I was a typical teacher. I worked hard, but so did most of my peers. Today we hear constantly about standardized testing, the importance of teaching the basics, and all kinds of complicated new tools to measure what teachers do.

Often, in education, it’s impossible to “measure” what matters. Loveland Middle School, where I worked, had a phenomenal band director, Bruce Maegly, and a choir/play director, Shawn Miller, who was excellent. You’d hear Mr. Maegly’s jazz band perform and swear they were high school kids. Mr. Miller’s students were unbelievable in the plays he staged with their help. We had great coaches, too—Mike Rich, who could lead young men and women to success in pretty much any sport, except NASCAR—and Chuck Battle, who set the bar for high when it came to character.

Our art teachers, Bethany Federman and Diane Sullivan, were excellent too.

For thirty years, I taught American history and later did three years of Ancient World History. It was part of the grade in my class to read four books if a student wanted an “A” or a “B” for the year, two for a “C,” one if they wanted to pass with a “D.”

I didn’t assign books though. I don’t think there should be “standardization” where literature is involved.

I wanted students to read works they actually liked. So: if Jason Garnerett wanted to read Lonesome Dove (which he did in two weeks, all 961 pages of it) I didn’t want to stand in his way.

Over the years students in my classes read more than 10,000 books. And I wonder—if we’re going to go to standardized testing—with merit pay based on test scores—how this would all be measured. Take the Holocaust memoir, Night, as one example. It’s short, 116 pages, and sad, and you can’t ask questions on a statewide test about it because not all students would have been exposed to reading it. I only know that hundreds of students in my classes read it and that many were moved to tears.

(I don’t know: Do we measure tears with a bucket?)

Or consider Go Ask Alice, the tale of a teenage girl who fell victim to the allure of drugs. I received this Facebook message from Christina Vogelsang recently, two decades after the young lady passed through my classes:
I love to read, and you got me turned on to a great book called ‘Go Ask Alice’. I believe that book is what kept me from getting into drugs. Loveland has lost several due to drugs, and that book scared the hell out of me! Thank you and Good Job! –You spoke of the book and I remember you had several back behind your desk I do believe?? One thing you did say is that there is no bigger waste of time reading a book you are not interested in. You could not have been more correct! Hahaha! You brought critical thinking to the class room...”

Christina also noted, “Your temper was quite entertaining as well...but then again I wouldn’t want to put up with 30 seventh graders!” I’ll let that line pass.

(I’m sure none of my other students ever saw me mad.)

So: how do we measure what matters? If M. K. Fisher, a serious-minded young lady reads the Civil War novel, Cold Mountain, does that still count as learning? Most experts believe students exposed to great writing learn how to write effectively. And Cold Mountain grips a reader from the first scene and never loosens that grip.

In the first chapter, Inman, a Confederate soldier, lies in a hospital, badly wounded. Doctors do not expect him to survive a wound to the neck, but he does. Occasionally, he wipes the wound with a rag and dips it in a basin near his bed, “until the water...was the color of the comb of a turkey-cock.”
But mainly the wound had wanted to clean itself. Before it started scabbing, it spit out a number of things: a collar button and a piece of wool collar from the shirt he had been wearing when he was hit, a shard of soft grey metal as big as a quarter dollar piece, and, unaccountably, something that closely resembled a peach pit. That last he set on his nightstand and studied for some days. He could never settle his mind on whether it was a part of him or not.

Does it help a star student like Ms. Fisher, to read this work, to see lines like this, where author describes a character so: “He was a sculpture carved in the medium of lard.”

Gone With the Wind was a hit, too, mostly with girls, but I always cautioned readers to beware of latent racism in a finely-crafted story. At one point, Margaret Mitchell insists Master O’Hara was a good master, who only whipped one slave all his life, for failing to rub down his favorite horse after a hard ride.

Wait. What?

The horse rated higher than the man?

There’s learning there, too; and we used to discuss that. Now tell me: How do we measure it on a standardized test?

John Crawford tells a story “not of the insanity of war, but the insanity of men” in The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell, about the War in Iraq. As an infantryman Crawford looks with envy upon the comforts he sees on an Air Force base. “My company, on the other hand, slept where we shit and shit next to where we ate.” That’s a sentiment Sam Watkins, in Co Aytch, a Civil War memoir popular with boys, could have understood.

(Obviously, I needed to require a note of parental permission before students could read some of these books.)

What else did my seventh and eighth graders read? Many enjoyed the classic Puddn'head Wilson by Mark Twain. Others loved Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden. They read Born on the Fourth of July, by Ron Kovacs, a solider paralyzed from the waist down when hit by enemy fire in Vietnam, and a few tackled Native Son by Richard Wright, too. Johnny Got His Gun, the anti-war novel, was surprisingly popular.

Sadly, in my opinion, A Farewell to Arms was not.

To Kill a Mockingbird was—and it would be hard for any teen to read that work and not come away burning with a desire to end injustice.

I LOVED TEACHING AND LOVED BOOKS and felt convincing students to read more was like getting people to go to the gym to get into great intellectual shape. So, I had weak students, who needed help, who read Sounder, and one who finished a biography of General Custer in the eighth grade and told me it was the first book he had ever read. At least one young lady, Martha Hoctor, liked Walden and one young man finished The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, all 1141 pages, for my eighth grade history class.

I gave kids as much latitude as possible. Several read Empire Falls, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a failing New England town. (Typical line: “It was the particular curse of the Whiting men that their wives remained loyal to them out of spite.”) Maus and Maus II, comic book-tellings of the story of the Nazis, as cats, and the Jews, as mice, were immensely popular and again students were exposed to Pulitzer Prize literature.

The Jews are mice and the Nazis are cats in this telling of the Holocaust story.

From where I stood, at the front of a classroom, I thought it was obvious that reading more was the surest and broadest path to intellectual growth. So, yes, I think teaching matters and I’m proud of what I tried to do.

TOO BAD MOST OF OUR EDUCATION EXPERTS never taught and can’t understand this basic truth.

P.S. I’m still reading in retirement.

If I was still working with kids I might recommend the great new novel about the war in Iraq: The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers.

I think seventh and eighth graders might also enjoy The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. A few might also be up for the challenge of reading Becoming Madame Mao by Anchee Min. The latter might help them understand the dangers of unchecked government power.

With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa by E. B. Sledge might be the single best story about combat during World War II that I have ever read.

Finally, I know I could challenge some of my students to read Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes. It’s a novel about the Vietnam War by an author who served in combat and one of the most powerful works of fiction I’ve ever read. In a typical scene, American forces are defending a hill from enemy attack. When they come under heavy fire, Marlantes describes the scene this way: “The wounded [American soldiers] lay along the east side of Matterhorn. The mortar shells walked with fiery feet among them, occasionally stumbling on one, leaving a meat-red footprint.”

Such is the powerful imagery that fills the book; and in a world prior to standardized testing, I’d have loved to recommend Marlantes’ story to all my classes and know the book would have been popular.

It just wouldn’t have been standardized learning.


  1. "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee"--7th grade. Tough read; hard subject. But learning to look at history from a different perspective--from the losing side--that was the game changer!

    Terrie Puckett

  2. "Animal Farm" -- great lesson on how even if you have the best intentions, nothing will change if you don't stand up to corruption or keep informed. Also opened the door to 1984 and the whole dystopian genre. Loved your class.

    Jenny Klein

  3. I read Night in your class. I cried my eyes out. The ending still haunts me.

    Jaquelyn Foote Hamele

  4. I read "The Jungle" by Upton Sinclair because of your class. I was shocked at how gripping and interesting it actually was.

    Lori Chisman Barber

  5. I can't remember the name of the first book that I "read". I know it was about Vietnam and I met with you and thought I was doing a good job BS'ing my way through the story of how we won the war. You let me go through the whole thing and asked me questions that allowed me to dig myself into a deeper hole that I had not read the book. Afterwards, you talked to me about integrity and also about reading something that intetested me. You didn't yell at me or belittle me. You were honest and showed disappointment and THAT is what turned it around for me. I remember working very hard in your class after that incident. To this day I do not pretend to know or try to BS my way through any subject. I have found this to be very helpful in my career. Business partners appreciate an honest "I don't know, but I will research this and get back to you" over a made up incorrect answer that sounds good at the time. Thank you for this lesson. Oh and the book I actually read was Native Son. -Heather Floyd

  6. You suggested I read the "The Feminine Mystique" for extra credit and I was so shocked at the way women were viewed. Then getting mad that not nearly enough had changed since it had been written.

    Joey Caylor Spencer

  7. That was well said John! I get so tired of being overlooked for what I teach. Being a life skills teacher you would think would be important... Not in the world of standardizied testing. Who knew life wasn't important?Kate blanton

  8. Hey there! i was just reading your blog and was actually suprised that you didnt mention me! i read Night in about 6 hours and then moved on to The Holocaust which was near 2000 pages long! i remeber carrying that book around with me, it was sooo heavy! but yea moral of this message is that you were the one who got me hooked on reading and opened my eyes to the different worlds these book portrayed, you sparked my interest in ww2, to this day i still research and look for new books to read about the horrible genocide.. then that leads me to reading and learning about other genocides such as what the armaniens went through. thanks for making me eager to learn Mr. Viall.. you and mr. maegly and mr. ball were such good teachers to me.. mr m helped me strive for my passion, mr. ball made me love to do alebra (yes.. i LOVE alebra) and you opened my eyes and helped me realize there is so much more in this world then what we experience here in loveland. thank you

    Mandy Smith

  9. Dwayne Shelly weighed in with this: Ahhh...where to begin. First I must recall a bearded teacher once telling me that knowledge is not wisdom...wisdom is what you do with that knowledge...but first you must gain knowledge..now how do you expect to gain knowledge Mr. Shelley if you don't open a book? Believe it or not I hear that as if it were uttered yesterday in a classroom filled with young people, paperwads, giggles, and the smell of blind innocense. I cannot count the books articles and papers I have read. I suspect my real education came after graduation from both high school and college. I have a hunger for knowledge that only came after I was able to digest what you told me all those years ago. I also wanted to understand wisdom. I researched Solomon...noted to be one of the wisest men in the world. What made him wise? He looked at ALL sides of an issue...not just both...but all. I tend to read viewpoints on any issue from many sides. I suppose I am rambling. Let me just say Thank you. I suppose after one completes their career, they wonder if they really made a difference. You made a difference Mr. Viall. I have a hunger for knowledge that is insatiable....what remains to be seen is what I do with it.

  10. I really enjoy reading your blog Mr. Viall. Brings back memories, and makes me think. I think my high point of literary awareness might have been 8th grade...how sad. I recall an author you'd spoken of, Bruce Catton. I remember enjoying a couple of his books. My kids were just asking me "what's the next book you are going to read us?" last night (I just finished 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer' a couple of weeks ago). This post gives me ideas. And regarding Bruce Maegly, probably the #1 most influential teacher in my life. Great teacher, great guy. Would love to shake his hand and thank him for inspiring me the way few in my life have.

    Jim Berry

  11. Rats: that should be Dwane, not Dwayne...

    John J. Viall

  12. I loved your class I always loved reading but in your class I learned to analyze reading (even though that is what you are supposed to learn in English I never did because I didn't like the English books) Thank you Mr. Vial for putting up with us kids for your 33 years at Loveland. :)

  13. Todd Baxter, another former student responded:

    “Employ your time in improving yourself by other men's writings so that you shall come easily by what others have labored hard for.”
    ― Socrates