With the surprising passing of David Bowie just a few days ago, I have come across a number of tweets from websites and publications proclaiming “The 24 Best David Bowie Songs” or something similar.
While I understand that these lists are the opinion of the publication or of a David Bowie fan, I find that this ‘these are his best songs’ reaction resonates for me as a high school English teacher because of the nature of ‘English class’ in high school.
Allow me to back track a little: how could there ever be a list of ‘David Bowie’s best songs’ — or any other artist, for that matter — when music is so very personal? For me, as a teen in the 1980’s, I was surrounded by David Bowie’s music, and while I liked some of his songs to a certain degree, it never really spoke to me in my gut (or soul or heart or whatever that place is when a song explodes inside you.) At that time, the music that made my cells thrum was Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, James Taylor, Cat Stevens, The Grateful Dead, and Santana to name a few.
The amazing group of friends I had in high school were a group for reasons other than our music tastes, which included my 60’s / Deadhead list, while others listened to death metal, ska, punk, new wave and indie rock. I can remember wishing that David Bowie spoke to me in my gut / soul because I sensed that he was an ‘important musician’, but for whatever reason, whatever my mixture of genes, background knowledge, upbringing, emotional sensibility, teen headspace, etc., David just never found a place in my heart. And that is okay.
And so, when I read about ‘David Bowie’s 24 Best Songs’ today, I remember that wishing his music spoke to me and then remember that it’s okay for not everyone to love his music.
How does this connect to high school English? I wonder what effect limiting students to reading only what have been deemed ‘the best or important novels’ will have on them? Kelly Gallagher, in his book Readicide, explores the idea that we, as teachers, should remember that while these core texts in English may be important, creating lifelong readers is more important. Neither Gallagher, Penny Kittle, Nancie Atwell nor other promoters of reading would suggest that we ignore these important texts, but Gallagher fears that force-feeding ‘classic’ texts that only speak to some (if not only a few) students will undermine or even kill a students’ desire to read for the rest of their lives. Woah.
If I, as an English teacher, am worried about students being exposed to proper syntax and grammar, as well as building their vocabulary, Stephen Krashen’s seminal meta-study, The Power of Reading, submits that free-voluntary reading is the most efficient and powerful way to build those elements of language arts. After having read these amazing works by respected authors and thinkers, I confess it has given me much to think about.
(To go one step further, Jim Trelease and Dr. Stephen Layne also write about how reading aloud to students at all levels (including PhD students) is also a very powerful tool for exposing students to the beautiful intricacies of the English language. But that is perhaps for another post…)
Penny Kittle echoes Gallagher’s idea and worries that if students are only exposed to academic reading in a boot-camp setting, they will turn off reading, and that is a much
greater problem than whether or not they were exposed to the ‘right’ or classic texts.
David Bowie’s music never took up a place inside my soul. That is okay — even though he is ‘one of the most important musicians of all time’. How would I feel, I wonder, if I had been forced to listen to his music, to dissect it, to analyze it, to discuss it, for weeks at a time, over multiple years?
Is it more important that I be able to critically analyze any piece of music or just David Bowie’s?
Kittle goes on to wonder whether we can balance students’ interests and needs with our responsibilities and goals.