Category Archives: Literature

Common Core Question Answered

On the 1st I mentioned my concern about administrators in my district pushing non-fiction texts into Language Arts classrooms to an unwelcomed and unintended degree. This article by the two co-lead authors of the Common Core Standards affirms my assertions:

By high school, the Standards require that 70 percent of what students read be informational text, but the bulk of that percentage will be carried by non-ELA disciplines that do not study fictional texts. Said plainly, stories, drama, poetry, and other literature account for the majority of reading that students will do in the high school ELA classroom.

And:

The Standards in no way ask ELA teachers to abandon literature; instead, they require that students read demanding, high-quality fiction and demonstrate their ability to analyze such fiction.

Common Core is Here

Well, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are here, and my district (and a few department members) see it as the panacea for this generation of students. While I don’t have anywhere near that sort of faith in the new standards, I do like the professional development that could stem from the implementation of the standards.

However, I do see three problems looming: too much commonality, too much reliance on hope, and not enough joint accountability.

Firstly, I see my department being pushed to use exactly the same assignments in every class on the same day, almost as if a scripted curriculum could be imposed. Of course, we’re told “not to worry” because the new standards will help us all become better teachers. But, then the same veteran teachers (me, for one) who were successful using the old standards are then teaching my department members how to use the new standards. While I think teaching people what the new standards mean, how to reach the standards, and why scaffolding is needed are all excellent ideas to learn, nothing really new is happening. We’re taking what we have and adapting that to new skill expectations. Fortunately, the CCSS differ little from my state’s old standards. Still, I’ve never believed lock-step assignments and daily lessons take into account student and class individuality and needs, a teacher’s strengths, or student interest.

Secondly, the notion that people think these standards will be the magic pill to cure all of our students’ ills bothers me. Standards don’t help students pass a test or learn a skill or achieve. Teachers do. Teachers of excellence with the abilities to engage students, to adapt to student needs, and to scaffold lessons for students will be successful no matter what standards are adopted. Teachers who were successful with the old standards will be successful with the new standards. Teachers who struggled previously will continue to struggle without strong, reliable mentors and skillful evaluators.

Lastly, as an English teacher, I continue to hear the maxim that “all teachers are responsible for reading,” but only the English Department is held accountable for reading scores. When my school’s state reading test results came in, literary reading (fiction) far surpassed non-fiction reading scores. Instead of asking the other disciplines–which teach non-fiction almost exclusively–to improve non-fiction teaching approaches and to become more skilled reading instructors, the English Department is again being asked to add something to its already crowded curriculum.

And, the new CCSS backs this up. An expert speaking to my department about the new standards suggested that 70% of a student’s reading load be non-fiction. I responded that this is splendid since only 1/6 of a student’s day is spent in a literature-based class (reading fiction), which means that students currently read non-fiction 83% of the day (80% if we exclude P.E.). I was told “no, this means the English Department should teach much, much more non-fiction.”

Now, I’m not against teaching non-fiction texts. I do this with every unit I teach, generally using non-fiction texts to help set the context for the fictional readings with which students are engaged. Then, my students must integrate the contextual information into their fiction-text responses and writing.

In short, I’d like to see school-wide reading trainings to begin and to hold all disciplines accountable for raising students’ reading levels. The CCSS could help here since all included subject areas have reading standards now, but administrators at the building and district levels must get on-board and help support this philosophy with action and not just talk.

P.S. People want to compare schools, districts, and states across the nation with the new tests, but I think we missed the boat here by not using the SAT or ACT. How helpful would it have been to pay for kids’ tests already required (or expected) by colleges and universities? Plus, we could have already looked at comparisons. Granted, all curricula are not set up with the SAT or ACT as the endgame in mind, but when have we ever done this? And, the kids still take those exams.

P.P.S. The text book companies have strong lobbyists.

CollegeBored?

My school district has told the high school English Department to create an assessment system like CollegeBoard’s SpringBoard program or else it gets the SpringBoard program.

My department’s resistance to the SpringBoard program is, in part, as follows:

  • expectations for kids will be lowered,
  • vocabulary and grammar are not emphasized,
  • it could negatively affect our AP numbers and scores,
  • our honors program will be eliminated,
  • poetry is not a primary component,
  • it’s scripted,
  • the classics are almost non-existent,
  • it’s based on excerpts rather than full texts (and students struggle with stamina), and
  • the kids tells us how little enjoyment there was with it at the middle school level.

This morning I searched for other people’s takes on the SpringBoard program, and I definitely saw a mixed bag of responses but I read much of what we saw too.

“The meat’s not there,” according to one teacher.”There is no grammar. There is no vocabulary.” Out goes Beowulf and the poetry of Shelley and Yeats. In come TV and film clips and excerpts from other literature.

Another teacher called the program “Orwellian.” This teacher says, “a program whose chief product is culturally illiterate students actually calls itself a literacy program? It’s not that the College Board people don’t try to help students become more sophisticated readers; it’s just that they have them read so very little.”

On another site a teacher notes that “some of the stories and poems use to be in the middle-grade classrooms. Guess what? I teach 9th grade honors. I don’t believe that placing lower level literature in the honors classroom is one of the best practices…Most teachers believe it should be a tool for the classroom, not obligatory to the extent that it is. It is sad that the only people in the classroom everyday are the very people that are not listened to and are afraid to speak up. It speaks volumes about the climate of this county.”

Another teacher used an analogy: “I once felt like a gourmet chef serving up 5 course, 5 star meals to my hungry students. I put my heart and soul into each and every one of customized recipes, and always took special requests when necessary. Now, with Springboard, I feel like a cashier at a fast food drive thru, dishing out pre-cooked, re-heated meals that are quick, easy, and ready to serve, but not all that filling or healthy in the end.”

What I fear behind all of this is what another teacher mentioned: “SpringBoard has essentially broken my spirit and my love of teaching.” Teacher voices in my district seem to be getting quieter too as more and more of the programs eliminate the originality and personalization of the instructor. Pre-packaged lessons in a can are replacing the lesson designs based on the diversity and needs of the students before the teacher, and those farthest away from the classroom appear to be making more and more of the classroom decisions.

Does a teacher really need to build a relationship with a student and learn his interests when the lessons are already pre-determined?

Does a teacher need to research anything or look at modern or immediate supplemental materials when the lesson is pre-generated?

How does a teacher succeed in a classroom where she feels she is giving the students less than what she could and that the child’s future may be negatively affected?

Ultimately, when the creativity, autonomy, and passion of the teacher is exchanged for teaching sameness, what happens to the “art” of teaching?

Integrate The Objectives

Well, I’m neck-deep in paperwork, meetings, and planning, but everything is working out well. Still, I want to accomplish three goals this week:

  • to have the students write in a different (and more fun) mode,
  • to force the students to review a literary work, and
  • to encourage my students to write with more sentence variety.

I am giving my students an assignment to write a break-up letter to someone in the style of The Declaration of Independence using the four structural elements as the format. Each student’s letter must have a preamble, a declaration of rights, a list of complaints, and a statement of independence.

In addition, the students have to (correctly) label and use a simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex sentence within the body of the letter (one each is the minimum but two each is required for a top score).

I think this short writing will present a challenge and allow some creativity. I’m excited to see how it goes.

Move From What to Why!

We and our students are immersed in media today. Look at the numbers:

Arguably the most frightening statistic is that 95% of the media is owned by five companies (Time Warner, VIACOM, Vivendi Universal, Walt Disney, and News Corp). So, how do we teach our students to wade through this morass of information, this new world of constant persuasion?

We teach them to be discerning, critical readers. We teach them to be rhetors.

However, an important shift must happen in our classrooms, especially for those of us teaching high school English students. Our students are pounded over the heads with setting, character, and theme from the time they enter elementary school and on into high school. They get the basics, but we sometimes drive the kids to look only for those ideas, ideas that can be found almost literally on the page.

We need to move from what and where to why.

What I mean by this is that we often ask students what the meaning of a literary term is (the what) and then to find examples in the text (the where), at times actually having the students touch the page for the location of the term’s employment. This is a basic skill, a rudimentary skill at the lower end of a taxonomic scale (usually Bloom’s or Marzano’s).

Let’s move kids beyond this and get to the why. Why did the author choose this setting? Why was alliteration used in that name? Why was this the best metaphor to use (or was it)? Why is the paragraph structured this way? Why is this sentence structured in such a way?

This leads the kids away from searching the text for answers and towards searching the text for meaning. This allows for nuance, not black and white assignments and activities. This moves the kids towards true analysis.

Ultimately, I want to see my students understanding the reasons authors make choices. Whether I use a novel, short story, editorial, advertisement, virtually any text, I want my students discussing the why when we analyze a text and this requires a close textual analysis. This means I have to move my students from defining and locating to analyzing.

It’s a daunting task at times but a necessary one if I want my students to become successful navigators and explorers in this Information Age. If I want my students to become citizens who contribute to our democracy, I need to help them critically read, question, and discover the nuances of argumentation and the means of persuasion.

The Humanities and Contemporary Society

With the focus of education reform seemingly centered primarily on STEM content areas, I am often confronted with the statements, “Why do we teach the classics?” or “Why do we need humanities taught in schools?” Of course, my instant reaction–being an English teacher–is to rebuff these statements with some anger, but in a base sense it is a valid question, one that needs to be answered.

The difficulty is that the questions are usually asked accusingly or with an added sarcastic note or simply put more bluntly and disrespectfully. A colleague at my school told one of my department members that the English Department teaches nothing of any relevance and that the literary studies are unnecessary. It brought tears to the eyes of my department member, but I think there is quite a bit of cynical superiority when people look at the humanities as a lesser discipline.

We see this mentality in our English classrooms. How often do your students put their reading homework last because “it’s only reading”? The kids are taught, indirectly or directly, that literature is a lesser content area or one of little immediacy despite its everyday relevance.

Bill Smoot spent an entire column answering the humanities’ critics, and he concluded that the students needed:

“to pay attention, to contemplate, to appreciate beauty, to experience awe and wonder, to think with depth and sensitivity about life, and to know there are values beyond profit and self-interest.”

The society of today is very often deemed selfish, self-interested, and egocentric, and the study of the classics, the literary canon, teaches us that there is more to life than what kinds of toys we have (although I might advocate for the Kindle in this discussion).

My students have often asked me why they have to study literature, but this question only appears at the beginning of a course. By the time the course concludes, they can answer this question with authority, assured that they know why the classics remain important. I use the classics, ancient and contemporary, to teach the students life lessons as well as to teach critical thinking, analysis, and clear communication; great literature teaches us as much about ourselves as individuals as it does about the people of other times.

Ultimately, classical literature is a study of humanity itself. Antigone teaches us about leadership, rebellion, and individual strength. The Odyssey teaches us about hubris, honor, and justice. To Kill A Mockingbird teachers us about equality, innocence, and courage. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn teaches us about conscience, equality, and hypocrisy. And so on.

Smoot, in my mind, accurately sums up the defense of the humanities with this:

With each new gee-whiz technological gadget, with every claim that the world is now flat and the 21st is a century like no other, I become more convinced that the humanities’ greatest value lies, as my student said, in their lessons for contemporary life. For the world will never change so rapidly as to outpace the issues universal to humanitiy — war and peace, good and evil, justice and revenge. Unless we take an awfully dim view of humanity and its potential, we have to conclude that it is better to think about these things than not, and better to think about them more rather than less. Lest we fall prey to an arrogance like that which infected those suitors on Ithaka [in The Odyssey], we should acknowledge that the deepest literary and artistic expressions of the world’s cultures, from the ancients to the contemporary, are of interest and value to us. We need them.