Can We Teach Appreciation?

I’m reading To Kill a Mockingbird with my freshmen.  For some of them, it’s going pretty well.  The rest of them, though, are just not that into it, and I’m trying to figure out, five chapters in, how to head those kids off at the Apathy Pass.

The thing is, I remember being a teenager and thinking that everything my English teachers gave me was dumb (I don’t remember if I used the word “lame” when I was a teenager, but that was the general idea I was circling around).  I remember having to read A Separate Peace, for example, and thinking that there was nothing in the novel that touched me; I had no connection to the book and, accordingly, I had no interest in it.  I started reading the novel again last month (I’ve since stopped because I switched that novel in my junior curriculum, but that’s neither here nor there), and I remember being surprised by how much I enjoyed the book as far as I read it.  I don’t know what exactly about me had changed, but clearly something had; I found myself settling nicely into the narrative and really enjoying the ride.

I’m trying to apply that to Mockingbird.  I read it as an adult, though, so I don’t have the same experience of slogging unwillingly through it as a teenager that I did with other novels.  I loved this book from the first chapter – the language delights me, the story unfolds at a perfect pace and pitch, the characters are distinct and delightful, and the payoff is complicated and sublime and gorgeous.  My kids, though, are not seeing it as I do; they’re frustrated by the language, they’re bored with the story, they don’t appreciate the subtlety of the text.

What I’m wondering is this; is it possible to teach someone to appreciate art?  I can MAKE them read it (well, to a point), but can I teach them to LIKE it?  I think that I teach best that which I love – I know that my enthusiasm has a tendency to rub off on certain kids – but I want to know if there’s more to it than just loving something; is there some way of conveying the beauty of a thing to someone through teaching?  Are there things I can deliberately do to help my kids understand and appreciate the beauty of a thing?  What do you think?

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8 Comments

Filed under book geek, concerns, critical thinking, frustrations, I love my job, Learning, Questions, self-analysis, Teaching, The Job

8 responses to “Can We Teach Appreciation?

  1. Zee

    I don’t think you can teach someone to appreciate a novel, but at the same time I know that there were books I didn’t enjoy in high school when I read them but then when we discussed them in class they really came alive for me and I appreciated them a lot more.

  2. Tough question. I don’t know that you could have ever gotten me to appreciate a book in high school. If a teacher assigned it, I automatically didn’t like it.

  3. Patti

    I think you can teach appreciation of the craft that goes into the novel. Just as art appreciation or music appreciation classes don’t assume that students will enjoy art or music, they do assume that a certain level of knowledge about art or music can be attained that can help the viewer or listener appreciate the craft.

    Personally, I didn’t like most of the books I read in high school and I’ve an avid reader. Senior year I had a really excellent teacher who took the time to show us the writing and formatting choices that each author made when creating the work. I can’t say I loved the books (and I never finished Moby Dick), but I could appreciate what the authors were doing and sustain my attention looking for the evidence of their craft. It’s probably the most you can expect from some students.

  4. When I encounter a student who doesn’t like something we’re reading in class, I try to focus on the critical thinking and analyzing skills I want them to obtain. I have them tell me why they don’t like the book but they can’t just say that it’s boring, or it’s “dumb.” They actually have to have a thesis, evidence, and analysis. It often leads to very interesting class discussions of language, structure, genre conventions, etc.

    So, they are learning how to write and think critically about something they don’t like which, I think, is just as important as writing about something they do.

  5. I think we can encourage appreciation. The way I go about it mostly through asking questions that I hope will make my students think in a different way, ponder different aspects of the work than they might consider on their own. I also run a very discussion-heavy classroom, in the hopes that the students will guide each other to appreciate different elements in different works, based simply on their own very different personalities and backgrounds. It’s easier for me in my American Lit class, because we approach it so historically – we talk a lot about the difference between LIKING a particular work and UNDERSTANDING its place in the history of literature. The kids learn to differentiate between enjoying an Ezra Pound poem and appreciating that it completely shifted the way people thought about poetry as an art form, and is therefore significant in its own special way.

    So yes, I think it’s very possible. :)

  6. Well, kids are people too, as the saying goes. We don’t expect all adults to like the same books. Why would we expect young adults to? We can, though, ask them to read it, to appreciate the craft of it and to understand it even if they don’t like it.

    I know a third grader who isn’t getting into reading at school. She told me that her teacher says, “It’s OK, you just haven’t found your connection yet.”

  7. Tony

    Just a quick question. You were reading the book ‘A Separate Peace’ and say you were enjoying it, but stopped reading. If you were enjoying it why was it put aside?
    Even as a youngster I found it hard to not finish a book and have plodded my way thru more than one dud and would find it hard to tear myself away from one I liked.
    Thanks for teaching children, I would if I liked them.

  8. I stopped reading, Tony, because I had too many books going at once. I decided to switch A Separate Peace for Something Wicked This Way Comes with my Juniors, and I put Peace aside until I read it with them. I read books with my students, so I have their stories (and their vocabulary, and the questions I want to ask them) fresh in my mind.

    Unlike you, I decided that life is too short to waste on books that don’t hold me. I plodded my way through a couple of clunkers in the last few years (anything by Tracy Chevalier would serve as an example; I was dumb enough to read two of her books, hoping that they’d grow on me), but after that, I decided that if, by about 1/2 way through, I wasn’t interested enough to keep at it, I’d set it aside. I really want to spend my time loving books, not dragging myself through the duds.

    I always love the children; I never said I always LIKE them, however…..

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