American Gods in a High School Classroom

At the end of August, I discussed how I was going about putting together a syllabus for the first term of my American literature class and my Advanced Placement literature class. We're are now in the midst of final exams for the trimester, and while Alex Irvine's One King, One Soldier was a useful, easy read for my AP students (I made them do it in one week), and did, indeed, increase their interest in Rimbaud and the legends of the Holy Grail, as I'd hoped, Neil Gaiman's American Gods proved to be exciting, overwhelming, engrossing, mystifying, and all sorts of other participial adjectives.

I was not quite prepared for how low many of my students' skills would be, since I haven't taught eleventh graders in a few years and had forgotten what a large transition it is between sophomore and junior year of high school. In the first two weeks, when we were studying The Great Gatsby, I often lamented to colleagues, "They can't read. I'm not a reading teacher. I can't help them. I'm useless. They can't read. This is going to be a horrible year," forgetting that I'd said exactly the same thing at the beginning of every every year about whatever group of students I had, because what was most vivid in my mind were the accomplishments of my students from the previous spring, and most students make quite a long journey from September to May. (I did end up having to push My Antonia to the next term, as American Gods ended up taking much more time than I had anticipated.)

One of the reasons I chose American Gods was because it is big, and I knew that few of my students would ever have read a book of more than 200 pages. I hoped that they would get caught up in the story of American Gods enough to find that reading it was enjoyable, and so they would reach the end without too much pain and suffering, and then could look back with a great sense of accomplishment.

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.

The next morning, I stopped by to talk to a co-conspirator, who I will call Diane, because that's her name. Diane teaches our Advanced Reading class, which a number of my students take in addition to mine. She gives them time to read my books and helps them with comprehension, etc., and I had run many of my ideas by her to make sure I wasn't completely insane for assigning the book. She had been on duty in one of the dorms the night before, and said to me, "Boy, your book caused quite a stir in the dorms last night."

I would hear the same thing from other dorm parents. Apparently, the scene at the end of Chapter 1 where a prostitute absorbs a man into her vagina (she's the goddess Bilquis) had been popular with the kids. One of the more dutiful students finished the assigned reading and then ran to a dormmate, book in hand, and said, "You've got to read this, you won't believe it!" That created a chain reaction, and not only were all of my students rushing to read the chapter, but plenty of students from other classes were borrowing copies of the book to read.

Visions of angry parents and administrators stomped through my head...

During classes that day, I told the students that I hoped they would handle the mature material maturely, and that this is a book written for adults and not high school students, etc. etc., blah blah blah. Secretly, I was thrilled.

The energy from the first day carried through for the next hundred or two hundred pages, but the more they read, the more I noticed many students were completely lost. Not because they had trouble keeping up with the reading (a few did), but because they had trouble figuring out how to read a fantasy novel. It was a minority of my students that knew how to read a novel that mixed reality and fantasy, history and fiction, myth and the mundane. The handful of kids who had read other fantasy novels did fine with the book -- indeed, devoured it, finishing a week or more before the rest of the class. But the majority of students, kids who would have no trouble suspending their various disbeliefs for the most fantastic products of Hollywood, told me again and again that the book was nearly incomprehensible.

I attacked the problem with a few different strategies, including the use of reading quizzes on basic material. I would essentially give the students the answers to the quizzes in discussion, often telling them to mark one page or another because it would be important later, and then use the quiz as a way to force them to memorize a few key details that would allow them to have some "ah ha!" moments later on. It's a crude technique, but it worked -- when the pieces to the story began to come together in the last third, more and more students found themselves enjoying the book. In the first half, they loathed and often skipped the "Coming to America" sections, but by the second half they were able to tie these seemingly unconnected parts of the book to some of the ideas fueling the main story. One of the things I like best about American Gods is its scope -- Gaiman's bold willingness to tackle American history (whether mythic history or real) from 14,000 B.C.E. to now, and to do so on the outskirts of the primary story, allowing the book the virtues of popular plot-based literature along with the virtues of philosophically serious literature (the two don't need to be mutually exclusive, though they often are). That scope and breadth, though, is also what makes the book particularly challenging for people who are used to much less ambitious books, never mind people who don't read many books at all.

Now that my students have finished reading the book and are reflecting on the experience of reading it, most of them seem grateful to have read it. Not all of them enjoyed American Gods -- some of the kids said it was just too weird for them overall, some never got into the story enough for the amount of pages to seem like anything other than a burden -- but over and over again kids have said to me this week, "I'm glad we read that book," or "I never thought I could enjoy a long book" or "I didn't want it to end!" Many students have said that it got them thinking about their own beliefs, their relationship to religion or legends or tall tales or history. We did some research with Encyclopedia Mythica, and I was surprised to find how many students had no idea there were myths other than Greek ones (or how many students didn't even know about those). I was happiest to see that for some students the book became more than just a book; it was a portal into new ideas, new curiosities. If we're going to force people to read something, and determine a grade for their reading of it, then it's nice if we can offer them the possibility that the work they do could change their perspective on life.

Scott Edelman once wrote an editorial that I mostly agree with, titled "Science Fiction is Supposed to Be Fun". Amongst other things, he said,
When I think back to all of the books that were ruined for me in high school, I am glad that science fiction at the time was only in its infancy as an academic subject. ...

The educational establishment that started teaching SF as an inducement to get kids to read has instead managed for some to take a genre that is supposed to be fun and made it homework. Based on the evidence of the e-mails I receive from students seeking help, it seems that the school system, having embraced science fiction, is helping to turn novels that are supposed to be fun into dead frogs.
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. It's one of the reasons I have ambivalent feelings about the English Journal article I mentioned recently -- if students are taught that SF is nothing more than a weak form of sociology, or that the point of any literature is to "teach lessons" [sound of gagging], then it's no wonder they think all books are dull or incomprehensible.

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. As passive visual culture becomes more and more dominant, I fear that people who are otherwise capable of using their imaginations don't know how, because they are used to the imagining being done for them. In such a situation, teachers have a certain responsibility to buck the trends, to offer something other than pre-imagined material. Most literature doesn't need to be dissected, it's true, because dissection requires a dead subject. But literature most certainly deserves to be discussed, argued about, examined, and celebrated. That's what both the best teachers and the best critics do. There are no right answers, but there are certainly good questions to be asked and good answers to be offered. But before any discussion, argument, examination, or celebration can take place, the text in question has to be understood, at least at some basic level. If fewer and fewer readers are capable of utilizing their own imaginations, then literature is doomed, regardless of how it is taught.

I have strayed through many subjects here. The key is this: vital, exciting literature can still be vital and exciting in a classroom, and it can even help people stretch their minds, leading them to think in ways they had not considered before, helping them to exercise their imaginations. That's what American Gods seems to have done for quite a few of my students, and it has been great fun watching their struggles and progress.

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