After three years of frustration I am removing Heart of Darkness from my AP Lit curriculum. I admit defeat. I get the sense that only a few students read it and the rest used Sparknotes to get through it or just chose not to read it at all, feeling like low quiz scores was the lesser of two evils. Originally I picked the book because it was challenging and the AP students need that kind of rigor. However, there seems to be little point in giving students a challenging text when only a few of them read it all the way through (and that may be a conservative estimate.)
This has happened before. I loved Invisible Man and couldn’t wait for the opportunity to teach it. However, the kids just didn’t get it. Some of my students actually held a bonfire at the end of the year to burn all of their school stuff and sent me a picture of Invisible Man in flames. I hate to say it, but as much as I loved that book in college, I probably will never read it again with any sort of enthusiasm because my experience teaching it left such a bad taste in my mouth.
As a teacher it’s hard not to take such things personally. However, I have to keep reminding myself that just because they don’t like a book, it’s not a personal vendetta. This isn’t a “screw you” move. I have to keep in mind that they found it too difficult or too boring and it had nothing to do with me or my instruction.
It’s hard not to get caught up in “shoulds” in this situation. Heart of Darkness is a book that AP kids SHOULD be able to read. In fact, they SHOULD be able to read everything I put in front of them. They SHOULD want to challenge themselves. They SHOULD recognize that by reading a novel that pushes them, they will become better readers. They SHOULD expect that books that aren’t The Hunger Games and Harry Potter have something for them and that the best books make you work a little bit harder than others.
They SHOULD, but the fact is they don’t. And one of the things that I learned as a teacher is not to “should” on yourself. It’s best to just accept what is and move on.
The reality is that this book is not doing for me what it needs to do in the curriculum. Assigning a book that most students don’t read is no better than not reading a book at all. The fact is the students like most of the books that I have assigned. However, there clearly isn’t enough in Heart of Darkness to sustain their interest, and I’m doing them a disservice if I continue to teach it if most don’t benefit. There are plenty of books out there to teach.
Defeat is hard, and I am still sad that Heart of Darkness didn’t work for them. I’m also still a little angry that AP kids, of all people, didn’t just grind it out. But I’ve made my peace with it. So be it.
Before we read Heart of Darkness I tell the students that it is a journey story, and that any story about a journey is not about getting from Point A to Point B but rather about the changes that the traveler undergoes. It’s a good metaphor for what’s going on here. As much as I would like kids to appreciate this book, I now realize that I am no longer willing to deal with the disappointment when they don’t. So I will no longer embark on this journey and will pick a new path.
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