As for the students who did make it to more accelerated English courses, their recollections are a little less disheartening, but only a little. They read Shakespeare, they tell me, usually "Romeo and Juliet," sometimes "Macbeth." They read "Catcher in the Rye" or "Huck Finn," "The Sound and the Fury," a little Melville or Hardy. They read these works and then they talked about them in class discussions or small groups, and then they composed an essay on the subject, received a grade, and moved on to the next masterpiece.
This describes my honors English classes in high school to a T. We read MacBeth, Huck Finn, the Sound and the Fury, and some Melville and Hardy (among other things, of course), then, yes, the discussions and small groups, the essay, and the next book.
And you know what? It worked. I fell completely in love with those books, and with fiction in general. Between my junior year in high school and moving to South Bend six years later, I probably watched less than four hours of television, and filled a bookshelf or two with the "classic" books that make jaded English grad students roll their eyes. I also apparently absorbed enough grammar from seeing the masters do it to string coherent sentences together in college. Admittedly, I probably could not have told you what a direct object or perfect tense was until I began taking Latin, but I didn't need to because I knew what "looked right." Grammar had become intuitive.
This description of regular courses sounds much less helpful, admittedly:
Those who didn't make it onto the honors or A.P. track hardly mention writing or reading at all. They talk about giving oral presentations and keeping reading journals evaluated with a big, meaningless check. They reveal putting on skits, reenacting some scene in a novel or play whose title they can't recall. One student recounts a month of junior English class in which she and her classmates produced digital short film adaptations of the trial in "The Scarlet Letter."
"Sounds fun," I say to this student, a girl who would not know how to summarize a source or correct a sentence fragment if her life depended on it.
I go back and forth on whether this increasing emphasis in pedagogy on "making learning fun!" has been a helpful corrective to centuries of schoolmarm-ey villainy or ultimately done more harm than good. The classics taskmaster in me rolls his eyes at these pointless attempts to make kids enjoy something they're going to be graded on and that still requires being in school. Learning is work, kids. Deal.
On the other hand, teaching five sections of high school grammar and composition, grading hundreds of papers and homework assignments every week and having to drag the students kick and screaming along with you every class, sounds like the kind of godawful teaching load that burns out even the most enthusiastic teacher.