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The “Old Yeller” Teacher (This has nothing to do with screaming at kids.)

When I was a 7th grader, I read Old Yeller for English class. Well, I didn’t actually read it. My teacher assigned it to the entire class. I wasn’t the only one who didn’t read it, however.

In a class of nineteen students, seven of my friends didn’t read it, either. Twelve of my other friends did read it. Fourteen of us (whether we read it or not) hated the novel (a major reason why the non-readers didn’t read it in the first place). Five of my friends in class loved Old Yeller.

So, why do these statistics speak to me so loudly years after I graduated from 7th grade, years after I was an English teacher, myself; but, years after, and still seeing the same practice taking place in schools today: assigning whole class novels that do not engage the whole class?

While many may argue with me that to collectively study a piece of literature is important, I look back on my teaching career and only think about how unimportant and disengaging it really was.

I taught 7th grade English for five years. Ironically, I remember taking a pushcart to the middle school book room at the beginning of the year in order to grab class sets of the novels that I wanted my students to read and study. I was my own 7th grade Old Yeller teacher, with the same philosophy as she—that this was GREAT literature that I should be exposing students to. I prided myself in knowing so much about the literary elements of MY CHOSEN novels that we were going to study them together and learn about what GREAT literature really was!

Here is a portion of what Amazon includes about Old Yeller in their book synopsis section:

  • Awarded the Newbery Honor in 1957.

  • When a novel like this comes along just as Huckleberry Finn or The Yearling did, it defies customary adjectives because of the intensity it evokes in the reader.

  • Fred Gipson's Old Yeller stands as one of the most beloved novels ever produced in this country and one that will live in the hearts and minds of readers for generations to come.

So, what makes a novel . . . any novel . . . an award winning novel if it doesn’t really evoke all readers (and it isn’t supposed to)?

See, I failed to “get it” back then. I know I lost student interest along the way. I know I pinched my students’ brains by pressuring them to read what I assigned them. I know I turned off potential readers because of my prehistoric philosophies about whole class novel studies. I know many of my students wanted to read something else. I know it. I remember some of my students’ faces turning green at the sight of books that I mandated. Maybe, I got lucky, too, and only five of my students, each year, loved what I assigned them. But, the rest of my students were instructional casualties and I created them. Too bad it took me years after leaving the classroom to learn that teaching is not a canned process with canned student identities, likes, and dislikes.

Education wasn’t a mold that I needed to squeeze my students into. Literary elements can still be acknowledged when reading anything. I didn’t expect my students to all brush their hair the same way or wear the same shirt each day. So, why was I so possessed by becoming the Old Yeller teacher that I didn’t like, myself, as a student?

I’m not bashing Fred Gipson, the author of Old Yeller, in this blog post. Hell, if I initiated student choice, his novel may have popped up in my class, anyway.

I’m calling on you to push against the educational status quo where we think that this is how we should teach. I’m calling on you to terrorize the idea of canned curricular practices. I’m inviting you to destroy any system that does not embrace differentiated instruction, student voice, or student choice.

We can’t afford to keep behaving, instructionally, this way, and then get upset when our students could care less about what we are so possessed about teaching.

Why? Because our students are counting on us!

P.S. I love dogs, by the way.

Join the Pushing Boundaries campaign. We are not a clique or cult. We care about students and that's why we strain ourselves each day by pushing on the status-quo King Kong.

Let's take him down. C'mon!

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