When we read a text with students, we need to quiz them on the content. We can’t read it and skip to analysis without first checking–more than once–that they know the material. Otherwise we must explain and re-explain the basis, becoming more annoyed each time we do that “these kids don’t get it.”
A few years ago, I was observing another teacher teach a year 11 lesson on Of Mice and Men. The class was a mixed ability, though a large percentage of these students represented our nationally underperforming “WBB” cohort. The kids were getting into the lesson, but they were nevertheless hopelessly confused as they tried to analyse an aspect of the novel without the proper background knowledge–or any knowledge, in some cases!
The teacher kept trying to focus attention on analyzing the sole female character in the novel, the unnamed “Curley’s wife”. He told the students there was no other female in the book, and he asked them why they thought “Curley’s wife” didn’t get a name. Now, this is a tough question that assumes a knowledge of the text and context, and because the students knew neither, they couldn’t hope to do justice to this question. They looked at him blankly, until one student spoke up. “Are you sure she’s the only female?” he asked. The teacher nodded. But the kid insisted: “No sir! I’m sure. Slim has a wife as well.”
“Ok son,” the teacher said, smiling knowingly. Slim did not have a wife, and any literature teacher worth his job knows why Steinbeck left him wifeless and gave him a dog instead. “Find the part that discusses Slim’s wife,” he urged.
Class continued as usual. Then the kid raised his hand high, a triumphant look on his spotty face.
“I found it sir!” he said.
The teacher was intrigued. He stopped class: “Ok, what have you found for us?”
“See? Here it is! Slim’s bitch!”
The kid was serious.
We’ve spent so much time pulling our hair out in despair that our students aren’t getting it, but perhaps we’re the ones not getting it; we need to make the knowledge part of our course more important. Otherwise, students will be forever doomed to bastardize the texts we long to help them love.