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Beyond Anthologies

By Linda Christensen

Real teaching is like grass farming, not industrial farming. Teaching is an art and a science. It requires complexity, not simplicity. It requires deep content knowledge, as well as what Pollan calls "local knowledge": knowledge of the students in the classroom and the community. Choreographing the growth of students as readers, writers, and thinkers is every bit as complicated as farming in harmony with the land. "Grass farming with skill involves so many variables, and so much local knowledge, that it is difficult to systematize. As faithful to the logic of biology as a carefully grazed pasture is, it meshes poorly with the logic of industry, which has no use for anything that it cannot bend to its wheels and bottom line, and at least for the time being, it is the logic of industry that rules." At one point, Salatin gets Pollan on the ground to really examine the grass.

Reading that passage made me think of teachers, on the ground, watching students with the same kind of rapt attention. How do we systematize the teaching of literature when every student, every class, every school, every community has its own logic? How do we bend the class to fit the system? What kind of logic demands all teachers read the same story on the same day? Even when I teach the same class two periods in a row, I'm apt to change the lesson slightly.

Teaching literature involves complicated variables: Time of year, student skill level, contemporary issues, local issues, students' lives, as well as the broader goal of teaching students to read the script of their lives against the backdrop of contemporary U.S. society: war, poverty, rampant materialism, and the daily barrage of media-driven escape. I'm thinking that corporate textbook companies aren't that interested in getting my students to scrutinize the world in that kind of way.

When choosing literature, I try to pay attention to students, the conditions of their lives, and the events unfolding in the world in the same kind of way Salatin examines his grass. I pore over student papers; I observe them as they write, read, talk, listen. I ask questions as I watch them in class: Why does Alex sit for so long before writing? Is he thinking or is he stuck? Is this a pattern? Lucy's eyes aren't on the page. She's pretending to read, not reading, just turning the page every once in a while. I know her brother's in prison for sex abuse. Would she read The Color Purple? Would it help her with what's happening at home? Hurricane Katrina is devastating New Orleans: How do I bring that story to class, to get students to read the race and class issues that are unfolding on the nightly news? Who is rescued? Who is turned away? What about the war? What piece of literature will arm them with the right questions when an army recruiter approaches them in the hallway? How can I give them enough background knowledge to ask questions about the President's latest speech? I analyze contemporary local, national, and world issues students need to understand in order to develop real citizens of the world, who know more than how to read and write; who also know how to analyze and talk back.

Joel Salatin says, "It's a foolish culture that entrusts its food supply to simpletons." And I would add, it's a foolish culture that entrusts the education of its children to corporate textbooks that teach students the way that industrial farmers plant corn: "covering a page with the same sentence over and over again."

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