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Skeptics Accuse Students of Buttering Up the Teacher

Several readers are skeptical of a high school teacher’s report that her students listed among their 12 favorite books such mid-century classics as “The Great Gatsby,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Animal Farm,” “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “1984.”

Christine Baron, an English teacher at Fountain Valley High School, had also named “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Hamlet,” “Huckleberry Finn,” “Death of a Salesman,” “Of Mice and Men,” “Gone With the Wind” and “The Scarlet Letter” as among those her students called “most impressive.”

I noted that I had read all but “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Gone With the Wind” in my youth, and that I was delighted that young people were still reading them.

Several readers suggested that the books were assigned reading, and that the students were merely buttering up their teacher by listing them as among their favorites.

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The absence of any “popular books,” says R. J. Halbert, “could mean that students are reading only the books they are forced to. This does not imply any student preference for older ‘classic’ books, only the absence of competition.”

Kordyan Lewandowski Ph.D. and Jaime R. Rios, paralegal supervisor, say they were so “amazed” by my column that they were moved to write their first letter to an editor. “We have always asked, ‘Who cares what an editor thinks?’ (Who even supposes that an editor does think?) Mr. Smith, however, cannot be allowed to pass unchastised.

“College-bound students are as adept at ‘sucking up’ as other students. Any student taking a quiz is going to give the response that the (sic) thinks teacher wants.” (Was that the supposed to be she or they ? Of course they , being plural, does not agree in number with the singular noun student or verb thinks , but maybe they used it to avoid a sexist he or the awkward he or she .)

“College-bound students have never read anything that wasn’t assigned, so of course assigned texts will be ‘most impressive’ to them. That’s the only thing they know, and anything can be top of a list composed only of itself.” (Let’s try to ignore “a list composed only of itself.”)

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They go on: “A teacher who can’t recognize this is unfit for her present position. A newspaper writer or editor who can’t tell the teacher to be less naive is fit for nothing but his present positions.” (Evidently they used positions there because they were talking about both writers and editors. But of course I’m only a writer, and have only one position. Looks like another number problem.)

And what can you make of this sentence: “As a former high school teacher and graduates of California high schools, it is obvious to us that this list proves one (or both) of our theories.”

(That’s the kind of grammar one sinks into when two sign the same letter.)

I always wonder about letters signed by two people. Does one write the letter and the other merely sign it? Or do they take turns writing alternate paragraphs? Or does one tell the other what to write?

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By the way, Baron says several of the books on her students’ lists were assigned reading, but they were told that they could list any books they had read.

Lewandowski and Rios sound a bit too cynical to me in asserting that “college-bound students have never read anything that wasn’t assigned.” As I have said, I read 10 of the 12 books, and the only one assigned, believe it or not, was “The Scarlet Letter.”

Don McKenzie does not doubt that the students read the books, but wonders why they were all fiction. “How could you be delighted by a choice of books that included not one nonfiction tome? Entertaining yourself by reading novels is preferable to watching ‘sex and violence’ on TV, to be sure, but does not show much intellectual curiosity about the nature of the universe.”

Baron is an English teacher, not a history teacher. I assume the students were assigned to read history in their history classes. Anyway, novels teach us more about life in other times than history books.

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Tom Wood of Santa Monica writes that he taught history for 30 years in Santa Monica schools and that one book he required his students to read was “All Quiet on the Western Front.”

“If you had read my students’ remarks about this book, you wouldn’t have been surprised at seeing it on Ms. Baron’s list. ‘Best book I’ve ever read.’ ‘If there were more books like that I would read all the time.’ Never had a negative reaction.”

Jim Kline of Lakewood suggests teachers assign more contemporary books such as “Catch 22,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Slaughterhouse Five,” “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” or “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.”

“Come on,” he says, “a 17-year-old who prefers Hamlet’s Angst to Sissy Hankshaw’s thumbs? Get real?”

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I don’t know who Sissy Hankshaw is, but I’m going to find out.


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