Sixteen Lessons I’ve Learned Teaching Literature

When I was in high school, I asked my English teacher, “What’s the point of English class? How is “reading stories” a subject?” Her answer was lame: we read stories to build our vocabulary and so we have something to write or speak about. This helps prepare us for college.

I wasn’t sure how to articulate the question, and I honestly didn’t know the answer; but English class seemed really out of place, and besides, I was confused how one might “teach” something as personal and subjective as literature. That isn’t to say that every answer is a right answer, or that because there may be multiple ways of receiving a story that any way of receiving a story is valid. It is to say that, as far as I can tell, the only true way to discuss and write about literature and to arrive at a single grade for students, that is perceived as fair, is to test on structural elements, such as literary terms and vocabulary, or to construct detailed writing rubrics, which necessarily narrows the diversity of thought and expression.

This is probably why English classes are gravitating towards nonfiction writing. First, it’s easier to create meaningful and fair assessments using nonfiction text (although some of the same problems exist). Second, there is a gross underestimation as to the purpose of literature. I think most people would say that reading fiction or narrative nonfiction is for entertainment, or to build the kind of vocabulary that better prepares you for the SATs. Those are both true statements, but statements that vastly understates the significance of literature.

Most learning comes from experience, but there are things that we literally can’t, or wouldn’t want to, experience. Stories act as vicarious experience. We can’t go back and experience the 17th century, and most of us don’t have the experience of being a double amputee. This we could roughly categorize as “experiences of the physical realm.” Stories, like art and performance in general, also work as apertures into the nonphysical realm. It’s the closest thing to prayer that you’ll get in a public school. Or, if the idea of prayer makes you feel icky, it’s the closest thing to drawing a personal connection to the collective consciousness of all humanity, and humanity’s place within the physical and nonphysical world, both today and for all of history. Stories are peepholes that allow you to catch a glimpse of divinity. Fiction isn’t “fake.” Stories aren’t “made up.” They get to the root of who we are and the possibilities of what we may be.

It’s also overly simplistic to reduce books to a series of “lessons learned” but I’m going to do it anyway. For one, it’s fun. For another, I’ve learned a lot by “teaching” stories – way more than I ever did reading them, which is a lesson in itself. Enjoy!

How do recent graduates perceive high school – commentary

Here are three conclusions that I have come to based on a survey I gave which aimed to answer the question “How do recent high school graduates perceive high school?” (some caveats, along with the raw data, here):


Respondents’ feelings towards high school are inconsistent.

When asked what the first three words are that come to mind when thinking about high school, 41% of the words were positively connotated (e.g. fun, friends, exciting, informative), 24% were negatively connotated (e.g. boring, isolating, cruel, torture), and 35% had a neutral connotation (e.g. homework, class, rugby, ESL). In terms of this question, as well as viewing the survey as a whole, about a third of respondents gave contradicting answers in their responses. Examples include:


Fun; isolating

Hard; Easy; Fulfilling; Unnecessary

Fun; fear

[What I loved most was] teachers; [the worst thing about school was my] teacher was rude to me


Again, referring to the question that asked what the first three words are that come to mind when thinking about high school, one respondent answered boring, boring, boring; that same person claimed that gym class was the only thing they loved about school. Another respondent, who loved being able to take AP/IB classes and participate in after-school clubs, cited gym class as the thing they most hated about high school. Several people mentioned how unnecessarily long and tedious school is, both in terms of the school day and the full four years, and (I believe related) most valued human relationships and control over the curriculum – even as the second most common thread, it still was only true that 72% of respondents cited friends or teachers as the most valued aspect of their high school experience, and for some of them, those were also their most hated aspect of high school. For example, one respondent cited friends and being social as the aspects of high school that they loved the most, but also resented having to be forced into contact with people: many times you had to be in a group whether or not you fit in as the aspect they hated the most.


Most respondents see more value in human relationships than in curriculum.

Of all the respondents, 72% reported relationships with people (usually friends, sometimes teachers or teachers and friends) as a valuable aspect of high school. One respondent, who described high school as intense, amazing, growth, wrote that she loved:

The opportunity to travel, the chance to make friends from around the world, the people (especially the staff)

although she also admitted:

[What I hated the most about high school was] the ‘culture’ surrounding the things I participated in. When I think about the things I did, it was very inaccessible to many of the students in my high school. A lot of the extracurriculars were expensive, the classes were advertised as elite and for ‘smart kids’. Therefore the representation within these classes was limited. (Mind you, my school was very ‘diverse’)

and two out of three changes she would make are curricular:

First, I would have more practical class options (how to file your taxes, current affairs, math for entrepreneurship etc); Second, I would give more money to the debate program (I think all students should have access to activities that allow them to critically thinking about given subjects and topics from two different perspectives…and clearly articulate this)

Many of the 72% simply wrote friends or teachers as things they loved the most about school. It was fairly typical for respondents to be more critical of the actual school programming, more so than of peer socialization or relationships with teachers:

I didn’t learn practical skills that I could use today. I still don’t really know how to do my taxes.


[I loved] the friendships and relationships I made; [I hated] how unnecessary a lot of [high school is]


A lot of classes that I took were useless to me.


lots of busy work and not much respect for ambition


High school hardly exposed me to any career options, or to what the real world was going to be like. Also, every class lacked substance. I felt like I was taught to memorize and spit back a lot of information, but I was never asked to think about life or values or any other serious conversation. [I hated being] stressed out by things that were really inconsequential.

Respondents generally prefer freedom to choose what to learn and which classes to take, and are happier when they exercise the limited power that they do have over their curriculum.

When asked the question, “Should students have the freedom to decide how to spend their time while in school?”, 78% (n=25) answered yes and 22% (n=7) answered no. Also, respondents who stated or implied that they were in ESL, AP, IB, or explorations programs, which are all classes that have (at least the perception) of student choice, were also more likely to have a favorable view of school, overall (ESL isn’t always “voluntary”, but if you’re responding to this survey in English, my assumption is at some point you wanted to learn English, and would have elected to take ESL classes. I admit this is an inference, not hard data). Many respondents mentioned a lack of curricular choice as a negative aspect of school throughout the survey, not just in the final few questions that directly addressed this topic. 

Below is a fairly representative sample of reasons respondents gave for answering no:

A respondent, who revealed that she is going to school to be a teacher, had concerns about social media addiction:

Knowing students at this point in time, even including myself, we are all attached to our phones, laptops or any other device. By giving students the freedom to decide what they do with their time, I won’t deny that some of them would study, but some other, they would be all day in their phones.

Another respondent was more direct:

You go to school to study not to have a good time.

One respondent admitted (which I found incredibly interesting, in light of the over 5,000 hours one spends in high school):

It really doesn’t matter either way.


A fairly representative sample of respondents who answered yes:

teachers should be there to help students navigate school – not to personally drive them through it. Students are fully capable of driving themselves to answers and revelations; they may just need a little push in the right direction.

One respondent, who wrote that being stuck in class was the aspect of high school that she hated the most, that school didn’t prepare her for a good life, and that every year was the same as the last, also said:

Explorations [an off-campus apprenticeship program] senior year in an architecture firm. I worked on one project the whole year with 3 other students. And two of the employees there were our mentors. We then presented our project to a bunch of professionals at the company who critiqued us. It taught me teamwork, presentations skills, and a bit about what I do and don’t enjoy professionally, and also made for good recommendation letters.

[High school] needs to cater more to individual students and their different abilities and ways of learning. For example, I always had good grades in all my classes. I was always in AP and honors and did well. But I skipped classes a lot because being tied down for four years to the same thing was so boring. If I had more of a choice I think I wouldn’t have done that. Skipping class made me feel like I had more control – and I didn’t care that I skipped because I was still able to get the grades I wanted. Some people learn great by reading a book and listening to a teacher and taking an exam, but some students get bored of sitting still and doing the same thing for four years. There should be an option. I could have learned and passed with flying colors everything I did in high school in two years instead of four. The other two years should have been spent with something hands on, more active, and more interesting. It would definitely have done a lot more to help with the real world and college.

High school does not teach enough critical thinking skills – if it did it would have more of an impact on people.

Another student, who had previously described high school as trash and limiting, reported:

I think if we let students explore more via electives at the high school level, it will save them time and money in college

I hated reading in school, but now I LOVE it, books are the only windows into finding a better future. I would have kids read more personal development books and less “literature”. Authors like Malcolm Gladwell and Cal Newport will have more of an impact at a developmental stage than Shakespeare.



It’s ironic to me that so many respondents found personal relationships with friends the most rewarding part of high school, considering it has been my observation that teachers spend a considerable amount of time and energy keeping students from socializing and instead, focused on the very important task of learning those things that respondents largely found irrelevant.

Perhaps the best way to transform high school into something more universally and consistently valuable would be to allow students to define the terms of their own graduation. The median age of the respondents was 22 years old – enough time had gone by for them to think about the impact of high school, but not so long that they forgot many details. Many of them reflected that control over what goes into their brain and freedom of association with friends and adults would add considerable value to their high school experience, and that the majority of actual instruction is mostly a waste.

A second, more practical option, is described in great detail in the second half of my book. In a nutshell – even in the state of New York, with its draconian public school requirements, it is possible to offer much more freedom and choice to students and staff, while still meeting state and union requirements. It would take considerable trust between administrators, teachers, the school board, and the community, as well as a deeply held belief that the student is the most important aspect of the learning process…but it can be done.


The Ideal Public Education System Would Allow Students to Define Their Own Graduation

The Ideal Public Education System Would Allow Students to Define Their Own Graduation

In New York, where I teach, High School students are required to accumulate these 22 credits (one credit equals one year) in order to graduate:

  • English (4)
  • Social Studies (US History (1) Participation in Government (1/2) Economics (1/2) Other (2)= 4 total)
  • Science (Life Science (1 or 2) Physical Science (1 or 2) = 3 total)
  • Mathematics (3)
  • Languages other than English (1)
  • Visual Art, Music, Dance, Theater (1)
  • Physical Education (2)
  • Health (1/2)
  • Electives (3 ½)
    • = 22 Credits

In addition to these 22 credits, students must take and pass five regents examinations with a 65% or higher: English, Math, Global History, US History, and Science. There are some exceptions to these rules, and I admit that graduation criteria in New York are less flexible than many other states. However, there is no state (that I’m aware of) that allows students (in conjunction with their families, mentors, and the school) to define their own graduation.

The ideal public education system would allow students to define their own graduation:

  1. Note the specific and arbitrary nature of these graduation requirements, as in the number of credits, the subjects, even the number of years in school. This creates an environment that naturally favors some students over others in terms of interests and aptitudes, and leaves no room for flexibility (how absurd is it that, all else being equal, 3 English credits and 4 Math credits means you don’t graduate). Students are held up from internships and CTE due to, e.g., a single science credit. Also, as it stands now, academic subjects are heavily favored over the arts and physical education (see Ken Robinson if you haven’t already). That being said, I wouldn’t be happy if the script flipped and 15 of the credits were in the arts and 3 credits were required in traditional academics, because that’s just doing the same thing differently. It makes no sense that a single governing agency gets to decide specifically and arbitrarily what every student in New York has to sit through, and for how long and to what standards.
  2. There is nothing wrong with any of the things listed in the requirements, or their accompanying standards. There is nothing wrong with tests, per se, although these Regents exams have many structural flaws. That they exist isn’t the problem; that they are required, by someone else, for you, is. Consent is necessary for a respectful educational experience, and I don’t see any way around it: if we are to maintain a system of public schooling, but introduce the concepts of consent and mutual respect, then we must allow students, in conjunction with families etc., to define their own graduation requirements.
  3. Public school funding calculations derive, in large part (usually), from the number of students enrolled. The onus would then be on the school to create interesting, useful, and otherwise worthwhile programming that students would choose and thus remain in school; or else, if nothing important was happening on their schedule, they’d graduate themselves. Conversely, schools would have the power to offer those kinds of interesting things, because they wouldn’t be tethered to specific and arbitrary requirements.
  4. What about college? Colleges still have admissions officers, and students are still willing and eager to further their education. Those students will continue to skew towards an academic track – no need to panic, algebra and Shakespeare will likely remain somewhere in the book of course offerings. I work a lot with refugees and ENL students – many of them seem to find comfort in the familiarity of a traditional, classical education, as found in many places in Asia. “High performers” in the existing system will continue to be high performers in my proposed system, with the added benefit that students who don’t fit the classic school mold will also be high performers, in their own right.
  5. What about poor kids? School people (teachers, administrators, etc.) typically want what’s best for kids. The institution of school wants four year graduation rates to be at a certain percentage, and pressures the humans that it pays to achieve it, often by any means necessary. In my proposed system, where students may define their own graduation, graduation rates would effectively be at 100%. School systems could then stop doing data yoga for the sake of metrics, and school people could get back to the business of helping kids.

I welcome your thoughts 🙂



Joe Rogan Experience #975 – Sebastian Junger

Are You Important?


When you are in school, do you feel as though the work that you do is important? Is it meaningful to you? Does your homework help your community, or improve society? Do you feel a sense of risk, danger, or hardship in anything your teacher assigns or assesses you on (not to be confused with drudgery and anxiety)? Does school give you a personal sense of purpose and meaning? Or are you bored and complacent?


“As wealth goes up in a society, as modernity goes up in a society, the suicide rate goes up, the depression rate goes up, schizophrenia goes up in urban environments. They’re not good for the human psyche.”


Joe Rogan’s interview with Sebastian Junger (war correspondent, author of Tribe) isn’t about school and education, but it’s not a difficult leap to suggest that our genetic programming is incompatible with modern schooling. Some of the most ideal conditions in which our genetic programming resonates is an infantry platoon in combat, or a sports team. I’ve done both of those things, and although I love peace and am intellectually against our current wars, I can testify that something about being in combat spoke to me at a primal level.


“The irony about modern society is that it has removed hardship and danger from everyday life, and it’s in the face of hardship and danger that people come to understand their value to their society, and they get a sense of meaning from that.”



I can say the same thing about playing football, which I did in some form or another for 15 years. You are important; the work you do matters; you are fighting to survive, and even more importantly, you are fighting for each other’s survival. There is purpose and meaning behind your actions, and your actions are how you are judged and respected by your peers. These are extremely powerful and addictive experiences because this was how we as a species survived for tens of thousands of years, and evolution is not a quick process.


“You don’t feel like you are earning your own survival in the world, you feel like it’s being handed to you. I grew up in an affluent suburb and I never had a sense as a young man that I was contributing in any way to the fact that I was physically alive on the planet…that kind of life is correlated with depression.”



You aren’t important to the school community, and the work you do doesn’t matter. You know that as well as anyone else. If you transferred schools, dropped out, or graduated, the school will not be better or worse. The buses will still arrive, the bells will ring, the lessons will be taught, and students will continue to do their best to remember the answers until the test, at which point the information will be purged from their minds. Your grades are important until the moment you get into college, and from that point on they are literally meaningless. You are responsible for nothing more than what the teacher tells you to do. It is an incredibly safe and dull environment.


“Why do you think people join ISIS? There are people in Europe joining ISIS because they want a sense of purpose.”



Even the phrase “school community” is a misnomer. Students are competitors with one another. They compete for grades and class rank, as well as for the affection and approval of the teacher; group work during normal school hours is typically superficial and met with groans from students, who are concerned primarily with their own grade and not with other students learning.


“The one thing that I cannot survive is that kind of complacent affluence…look at their suicide rates, their addiction rates, their depression rates.”



This is not how we are genetically wired to interact with each other in a community. If for tens of thousands of years our group of 40 humans were to be in constant competition with one another, we would have gone extinct long ago. The school environment cannot resonate with our biology in the same way that, ironically, many afterschool sports and clubs do.


“Sell your house, sell your car, move into a community where you have to be inter-reliant with the people around you, and you have to interact with them every day. That is what makes people happy.”



I’m not suggesting that we start drafting kids into the military, or make participation in sports compulsory. I do posit that humans are a learning species – it’s how we survived for as long as we have – and to effectively teach and learn we need to be able to replicate some of the conditions in which we were programmed to learn. We can’t pit students against each other with grades and expect authentic learning communities. Boredom is much more serious than “teenagers being teenagers” – twenty thousand years ago nobody found figuring out how to keep their clan alive “boring.” Boredom is a deadly disease.


“The less you have, the happier you are. At the end of the day, you could probably make that as an empirically true statement.”



Teens need to struggle and take risks with real life endeavors, surrounded by people who support them, not led by someone whose job it is to rate and rank them. We need to create opportunities for young people to have significance to their community, and they are of no use to their community locked up in a school building all day.


“If soldiers are missing war, and cancer survivors are missing cancer, then something’s missing.”


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