How our schools are robbing students of the joy of reading
THE attitude and approach to reading and teaching literature expressed by teacher Christopher Bantick (''Sex with a child is not the stuff of the school curriculum'', on this page last Thursday) are the product of sadly misguided and counterproductive practices in our secondary schools.
For more than two decades, books for study at years 7-10 have largely been selected on the basis of what issues they provide for intensive examination. Books are often rejected for study on grounds of suitability, supposedly offensive language and ''adult themes''. This reductive practice has meant that students are not directed and encouraged to consider works of literature as art or as a way to examine the human condition.
When selecting books for these levels, teachers look at a novel or play in terms of what it might say, for example, about indigenous issues or Aboriginality; or about family relationships, or poverty, or friendship or mateship or war or the effects of technology, or a specific period or event in history.
And if a book can yield several issues, so much the better, because the study of this one ''text'' often needs to provide fodder for up to a whole term's work. This ''work'' will generally include a number of writing tasks, many or all of which may be non-literary and peripheral to the work the author imagined and wrote.
Unfortunately the act of reading is seldom considered ''work'' and neither are thinking and discussion.
Way back in the '80s I had a particularly difficult year 8 class. It included students who did not come from a home where books or reading were promoted, others who were angry and disturbed about their lot in life and yet others who were keen, able and wanting to get on with learning.
My way of responding to this rowdy, motley lot was to read aloud to them session after session (Alan Marshall's I Can Jump Puddles engaged the students so deeply we went to visit him in his house in Eltham - a wonderful experience for all of us). We did talk about the book and did a minimal amount of writing.
Eventually I was able to get all these students to read silently (I read too) for extended periods after taking them to the library and helping them to choose a book they might enjoy. Some teachers, who glanced through the glass doors, used to make snide remarks about what an easy ride I had with these students as we were ''only reading''.
These attitudes and expectations of what constitutes learning, what books are for, how we determine suitability and how we can engage students trickle upwards to years 11 and 12, as do notions of what we can (or can't) expect of certain students. So we end up depriving young people of the very books that, with good teaching can, as another teacher, Josh Parker, wrote in these pages on Saturday, provide ''a means of forging a more complex understanding of what it means to be human''.
With the relentless focus on ''issues'' what goes missing is the focus on the book as literature; its ideas, characters and above all language and an understanding of points of view: the author's and the characters'. In Love in the Time of Cholera, does Gabriel Garcia Marquez approve of the uncle's vile treatment of his niece? What is the reader meant to make of this?
Around 1990 there was a furore about Gillian Rubinstein's multi-award winning Young Adult book, Beyond the Labyrinth. The fuss was about one word. An out-of-control, aggressive angry adult yells at some kids and uses the f-word. It was a parent who first complained and the ''case'' went all the way to the South Australian Parliament. Is this the sort of book and language we want our young people to read etc etc.
No amount of argument and explanation of context or authorial intent would convince those so outraged. In the book, the children who were berated were shocked and it was very clear they and the author strongly disapproved of this language and behaviour. The many young readers who loved the book and understood exactly what was going on were bemused and even dismayed that their intelligence and sophistication as readers were so underestimated.
By mining and scouring books for issues and focusing on matters of suitability rather than substance, we in fact fail to teach young people how to read and what reading is for and the ways literature can enlighten, inspire and above all give pleasure.
No wonder so many students are turned off reading, see books as mere textbooks to master, say they hated the books they had to study at school and even vow never to read another work of fiction.
Of course, inspiring and thoughtful teachers can - and do - achieve the exact opposite.
Agnes Nieuwenhuizen, a former English, French and English as a Second Language teacher, was the founding manager of the Centre for Youth Literature at the State Library of Victoria until her retirement in 2005. Her most recent book is Right Book Right Time: 500 Great Reads for Teenagers.