‘American Gods’ in a High School Classroom

The first day, when they went to the bookstore and bought the book, I thought most of the kids would try to transfer out of the class. “There is no way I’m going to read a book this thick,” more than one student said to me. Another student told me the longest thing he’d ever read was an entire issue of Sports Illustrated. Others accused me of trying to kill them, particularly when I told them that we’d be discussing the first chapter (about 30 pages) at the next class.

“I am not going to finish 30 pages in one night,” one of the students said.

“Bet you will,” I said, trying to suppress the evil seeping out of the corners of my grin.


It is, indeed, difficult to keep from killing all the pleasure a book offers when you are doing such things as forcing people to read it each night and giving them tests on the content. In an ideal world, people would read whatever they wanted, however they wanted, and talk vociferously about the experience. In the real world, many teachers don’t know what to do other than ask what all the colors in The Great Gatsby stand for (green for money, yellow for desire … or was it green for envy, yellow for…), and so the books that get taught in high school are often the books that are, frankly, the easiest to create multiple-choice tests for…. A healthy culture of literacy needs literatures that aren’t sanctioned by schools, literatures that are enjoyed simply for enjoyment, that have a mystique to them, an inability to conform to the central culture of the society. But a healthy culture of literacy also needs literate people, people who are capable of reading more than a basic instruction manual for how to tie shoelaces, people who have active imaginations. I fear we are losing that. —Matthew Cheney‘American Gods’ in a High School Classroom (the Mumpsimus)

A teacher describes his success in getting high school students to read an actual book.

I taught Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age last year… it’s a whopper of a book at about 400 pages. In order to help students manage it, I stretched it out a bit, giving them other assignments in between reading exercises. I had the advantage of teaching this in “Intro to Literary Studies,” which is the entry-level course for the English major, so there was some self-selection going on, and most students who took the course were already good readers. A few were turned off by the cyber-jargon, but because it is a science fiction novel that contains extended fantasy sequences created by a souped up computerized book, and because the novel follows the education of a young girl to womanhood, I thought it would be perfect for a class that included creative writers, education students, lit majors, and new media students.

Overall, I thought it worked pretty well… so well that I’m going to add another novel (a shorter one one) and basically beef up the “critical reading” component of the course. Later they will all take a course in literary criticism, so I don’t have to tackle that in this course.

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