Sunday, November 29, 2009


A talk I often have with my students throughout the year is about the difference between liking a work of literature and appreciating it. I use various analogies to try to make this clear. For instance, I don’t particularly like the game of lacrosse, but by studying the rules and talking to aficionados, I’m gaining an appreciation for it. Likewise, I wouldn’t choose to spend an afternoon watching skateboarders perform, but, by occasionally listening as students discuss the subtleties of the sport, I’m beginning to appreciate its complexities and nuances. Actually, the word “appreciate” has a monetary connection, as in “the house appreciated in value”, and I often discuss that aspect of the word with the students. In a way, their job as serious readers is to assess the value of a poem or story, and then, you might say, set a price on it. If they owned a skateboard store, they might not especially like a certain board, but they would surely try to understand its value in order to decide on a price and do appropriate advertising -- and they’re involved in an oddly similar process in my English class. Whether my students like a Mary Oliver poem or not is beside the point; what counts is whether they appreciate its value as a work of art. What counts is not whether they like the sonnet composed on Westminster Bridge (most teenagers are not huge Wordsworth fans), but whether they can understand why it’s been so highly prized by so many for so long. I’ll take “I understand the worth of this poem” over “I like it” any day.

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