Mindy Keller-Kyriakides


Fort Pierce, FL

Interests: Classroom management,...

  • Posted 5 Years ago
  • 2.9k

Cynical Teens and the Literature we Feed Them

I suppose I have to preface this whole thing by saying I don't want to eliminate the use of powerful literature. I do support the teaching of works from Faulkner, Cisneros, Orwell, Walker,and many others. I'm not talking about historical selections either, by the way. We have to teach history and all the ickiness that comes with it.

However, I'm sure you'll agree that most literature selections for high-schoolers (9-12th grade) are profoundly negative. They deal with negative themes, such as revenge, racism, anger, war, genocide, injustice, abandonment. Most include murders, suicides, abuse of authority/power. 

Our non-fiction selections center around individuals usually in dire circumstances, who overcome those circumstances (maybe). Those circumstances generally being war, poverty, abuse, illness, and more. Even poetry selections tend to be negative. Consider these lines from Jarrell's "Death of a Ball Turret Gunner":

               When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Our lesson for the day? Imagery. Apparently, as our teacher said, we were not "getting it". So, she assigned this one from our textbook. For the student to get the imagery, here, he/she has to visualize someone shot to death in WWII ball turret to the extent that the body is a mash of bloody pulp. (I mention this particular poem because it traumatized me for months after reading it.)

I have to think that today's battle-weary gamer would shrug this off with ease.   Callousness is another potential issue with the negative themes and story-lines. The impact is minimal.  Murder? Pshaw, just another news story, game, movie.

Somewhere after middle school, the literary tide turns to the darker side human life. One of the arguments for the selections promoted in a recent discussion I encountered was that students need to see the non-examples in an effort to get them to understand negative consequences or to create "What if" scenarios.  For example, what if so and so character had chosen to do something else (as opposed to murdering, bullying, abusing, etc.). What might be a better way to handle this situation?

Of course, literature can be used this way, but I have to wonder why we can't provide them with an example of someone doing the right thing or a positive example. I have to presume this has to do with the cynicism of teens. They simply don't see people doing the right thing very often, do they?  They see adults in their lives self-medicating with alcohol, drugs. They see abuse, whether physical or verbal. They see authority figures doing the wrong thing. 

They see the core of the darkness all the time. They live it.
Is the emphasis on negative themes truly helping them consider potentially negative outcomes? Or would they be better served by our providing them (at least once in a unit) with a positive text? Granted, we can only teach To Kill a Mockingbird (effectively) one time, and it is a middle-school selection. But surely, there is another Atticus Finch for high schoolers? Would they accept him/her, though, or would they sneer with derisive cynicism because nobody "really" acts this way?

Does the positive message of a text get lost when a good person makes the right choices, but the problem--racism or corruption, for example--remains? What does that say about our ability to tackle the social ills that plague our cultures? If our students feel that the problems are insurmountable, and don't see the impact of small changes or ideas, then they may be less apt to even consider the "What if" scenarios.

Because they might feel that doing the right thing doesn't matter anyway.  If we can, we need to help them see a much larger picture. And we're going to have to have some evidence for it. Literature may be one way to do that.

I'd love for you all to share some of your literary selections that emphasize a positive example or a character making positive choices! Maybe we just need to have a few to consider, specifically for high school.   

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08 Sep 12, 07:33 AM

Hi Mindy.  I too was traumatized by that poem as a student.  I agree 100% with the negative and dark side of humanity we share with high school students. My students often comment on it actually. Recently, we have added comedy to our plays which were previously all tragic in nature. In addition, we also added The Help and Black Like me to To Kill a Mockingbird because they all show someone taking a stand.  I also teach Anthem and my students love it.

A big issue in my district would be what is mandated for students to study or "permitted".  Much of it is dark.  I think finding a hero in the darker texts or doing what you suggest by having students discuss alternatives is a way to handle the literature.  We also do a lot of Socratic Circle discussion which allows students to grapple with the texts through higher order thinking and often the positives to the text surface.  

I think as the teacher it's often my responsibility to point out redeeming factors of humanity in a darker text because they often exist if sought out. 


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16 Sep 12, 06:26 AM

Hi, Michelle! (Sorry for the delay in reply...totally didn't see it!) It's awesome that you're using texts that show taking a stand! The Help is a wonderful novel, indeed. I agree that the mandated texts ARE dark, and in some cases, completely out of date. For example, "Our Town" is just...ergh. Really? I get that the surrealism thing is cool, but unless the students "see" the production and "see' the surrealistic elements, it just doesn't reach them where they are. Further, the use of Socratic thinking is definitely a good thing. I'm so glad you use those! Have you ever read Socrates Cafe? You may find that interesting! We also discuss Socratic thinking/questioning in our book, too. : ) I guess if our non-examplar approach were actually working, I'd be all for the darker texts. However, I don't see that we do much in that arena. What do you think? I mean, does teaching the non-example really do the trick? Or are students more surprised and impacted by someone doing the "right' thing? sigh... Thanks for reading!

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