by Julie Dodd
JEA Mentor Committee co-chair

The positive of making a trip to the dentist this past week was being able to catch a portion of The Diane Rehm Show as I drove to the appointment.

Rehm and her guests — Meredith Goldsmith (professor of English, Ursinus College; vice president, The Edith Wharton Society), Lisa Page (president, PEN/Faulkner Foundation) and John Pfordrescher (professor of English, Georgetown University) — had just wrapped up a conversation about “Ethan Frome” and Edith Wharton’s strategies in writing that novel.

What I heard was the discussion by Rehm, her guests and the audience as the conversation moved from this one classic to the idea of teaching difficult material to middle school and high school students.

Here are the key issues from that discussion:

#1 – Students are up to the task of taking on difficult literature.

The discussion defined “difficult” in two ways. The reading itself is difficult — understanding a different culture or time period, understanding the vocabulary, and understanding issues that may not have been a part of the students’ lives yet. The other meaning of difficult was the idea that great literature doesn’t always have a “they lived happily ever after” type ending.

Several who called in (or sent a message via Facebook or email) were adults who recounted their own experience in taking on difficult literature as high school students and enjoying the sense of accomplishment from working through that literature. Several others were parents who talked about the value of that challenging reading for their children. “The Red Badge of Courage,” “Macbeth” and “Oedipus” were some of the titles mentioned. Students can work through in literature some of the real challenges of life, such as unhappy relationships, death of loved ones, and being trapped in unfair life situations.

#2 – If students don’t read difficult literature in high school, they may never read it.

Another theme was that middle school and high school students may not fully appreciate a great piece of literature because they haven’t had enough life experiences. But the consensus in the discussion was that for many students high school is the time to whet their appetite for challenging reading. For some students, if they don’t read great literature as high school students, they’ll never be exposed to it again.

#3 – The teacher plays a critical role in the commitment students have — and the success — in reading challenging literature.

Several of the callers spoke with great enthusiasm about a teacher they had or that their child had who really made the subject come alive. They were motivated to read the text as homework to be prepared for the next day’s discussion. The teacher challenged the class to write their own endings for a novel.

#4 – Working through challenging literature — and, by implication, other challenging learning — is more rewarding and accomplishes more learning than being “given drills in details that are for tests.”

I can only hope that legislators and administrators in state departments of education who play a major role in determining student assessment at state and national levels were listening to The Diane Rehm Show, too.

I did go online to read the transcript for the rest of the show. You can do that, too, or you can listen to the audio of the show.

What experience have you had in teaching difficult literature or teaching a challenging journalistic issue?