Friday, September 12, 2008

The Power of Books

We're covering an English Regents Exam from 2006 in my class. It's a listening passage from an author named Gary Paulsen, who maintains that books saved his life. The students must compose an essay on the power of books, supposedly to deliver as an address to their local library.

One of my students opened his essay with the immortal line, "Books can be very powerful, even though they are boring."

I looked at the kid's Iron Maiden t-shirt, and asked him what he thought would happen to me if I went to one of their concerts, got up on stage and called the band boring. Did he think people who went to libraries might feel the same way about books?

That didn't work. Then I asked him if he wanted to write an essay showing how books saved Paulsen's life even though they were boring. I told him that would be a pretty tough argument to make, but I'd read it if he wanted to write it. I'm pretty sure he erased the line after that, but I won't find out for sure until I see him again.

Several other of my students took exception to Paulsen's account--that he walked out on his job and family to pursue a writing career.

"He's retarded," declared a young lady in the corner.

This proved a popular sentiment, and much discussion was devoted to the apparent deficiencies in Mr. Paulsen's judgment. I suggested that smart people did not always do smart or nice things, but the kids were having none of it.

"How could he do that?" asked another kid.

The consensus was that he was wrong to do that. I tried again to convince the kids that even if he did the wrong thing, it didn't mean he was retarded. Whether or not I was successful, no one left that classroom thinking he was much of a role model.

On the other hand, the story may have been edited so full of holes that it barely resembled the original. After all, it was presented by the same government that thinks kids who've had little or no time to learn English need to pass this writing test.
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