My English 3 class just finished dealing with The Scarlet Letter, ready to begin reading The Crucible. My English 4 class finished reading Oedipus the King a while ago, just read The Metamorphosis, with Hamlet calmly waiting his turn standing next to the turkey. This is only to say that, in both sections of English I am teaching right now, we are reading narrative stories and plays. I noticed something about my approach to these two different types of literature that is probably true about most English teachers’ approach to these two different types of literature.
When reading a play for class, English teachers tend to keep most, if not all, of the reading of that literature in class. Students will read parts aloud and emotional readings will be encouraged. On occasion, sections of the literature will be “read” multiple times, with one read being just for meaning in the form of students reading while sitting in their seats. Further readings taking place with different groups performing scenes for the class or for a group of readers to render dramatic readings in a kind of forum in front of the class. Since plays are typically shorter than novels, more time is spent on understanding the events in the play and class discussion revolves around a collective reading of the text since everyone is at the same spot in the story and there’s no need to summarize to make sure everyone is caught up on the plot.
Novels are typically read outside of class at a rate of 20 pages per night or more. Class discussion is predicated on the idea that all students read what was assigned the previous night, although that is frequently not the case. Teachers acknowledge this disconnect and will likely spend time making sure everyone is at the same place in terms of plot, devoting some chunk of class discussion to the task. While time is certainly spent on understanding the events in the novel, I’d venture to guess that quite often that understanding takes the form of simply catching most of the class up on the events since not everyone read.
Watching the movie of the play (if there is one) is something I’m certainly more likely to do for a play than a novel or short story; I’m sure there are plenty of other teachers just like me, though I’m not really sure of my rationale for that decision.
Why do we take time to read plays almost exclusively in class and expect novels and short stories to be read individually? Is there something about the narrative structure that we expect students to handle much better on their own in novels than plays? If that’s what we think, we have it backwards. The play is easier to read than the novel for most students since the play is free of seemingly superfluous information like setting, internal monologue, and exposition. Character development takes place through the discussions that character has, not through the author writing about how that character feels and why. The play is a streamlined version of the story, with only the essential component (dialogue) present.
And it’s the dialogue that’s easier for students to understand. While reading The Scarlet Letter, my students reported that chapters with heavy dialogue (chapters 4, 10, 14, etc.) were much easier to read and understand than chapters that were solid exposition (chapters 2, 11, 13, etc.). Students regularly need help through the extra stuff to make sense of the story. Elements of storytelling like foreshadowing, omniscient narration, authorial intrusion, social commentary, expository character development, all of those things that we English teachers love about literature and the things that M.H. Abrams has seemingly devoted his publishing life to, are the very things many students have a difficult time grasping. Yet we set them adrift each day to suffer those chapters alone for homework, prefectly content in keeping the reading of a play in the classroom.
It struck me today that the novels and short stories are the things to be read almost exclusively in class, with plays left to individual reading outside of class. I don’t know that I can make that happen immediately, that I can give over that much time, or that this is even the correct way of going about it. Something just hit me as odd today that the more cognitively demanding text is the novel and that’s something that most students experience alone. The less cognitively demanding text, the play, tends to be a group experience. I’d bet that my The Scarlet Letter unit would have gone much better if I had more involvement in what they read, how much they read, and when they stopped to reflect.
I’m thinking to my The Crucible unit and considering leaving 10 pages of the play to be read for homework. The next day starts with a basic check quiz to facilitate summarizing the previous night’s reading and to give incentive to those who need it. After that, we carry on reading aloud for the day. I could easily get through my goal of an act per week and still have time for valuable class discussion if class time was freed up from reading aloud.
Maybe it’s the short stories I should allow time for reading of in class. What do you think? Do you find that you make these same decisions to read plays aloud in class and to leave novels and short stories to be read at home?