Though I Walk Through the Valley of the Dolls

by Linda Bevilacqua
January 22nd, 2013

Many years ago, when my now-grown daughter was in fifth grade, I had a brief exchange with her teacher that left me very concerned. I am sad to say those concerns are still with me. It was the zenith—or nadir—of whole language in that particular public school, but my daughter had already overcome that barrier to learning to read. She was in a “gifted” class and, like me, was a voracious reader. At a parent-teacher conference in the fall, the teacher told me that her approach to teaching reading was to let the kids select whatever they wanted to read in class, including Archie and Superman comic books. I tried (as diplomatically as I could) suggesting that perhaps it would be worthwhile for her to offer some challenging literature for classroom instruction. I knew all was lost when she firmly shook her head “no” and told me she had never liked to read until she discovered Valley of the Dolls as an adult. (While this book about barbiturates has been wildly popular, I feel confident saying it will never enter the canon.)

I was reminded of this exchange while reading Michael Shaughnessy’s interview of Carol Jago, former president of the National Council of Teachers of English and current associate director of the California Reading and Literature Project at UCLA. She was explaining the brilliant 6/6/41 plan she and Will Fitzhugh, founder of the Concord Review, have come up with: Since youth ages 8 to 18 average 53 hours a week on entertainment media, they could devote 6 hours a week to literature, 6 hours to history, and still have 41 hours for their entertainment. Jago points out that not only would students’ knowledge and vocabulary grow, their writing would improve (since they would have something of substance to write about) and current debates among educators about whether students should be reading fiction or nonfiction would be moot. Just take a small fraction of those entertainment hours, and you’ve got plenty of time for reading fiction and nonfiction.

All true, but what really had me cheering, and brought me back to Valley of the Dolls, was this:

Voracious readers will read anything an adult they respect and trust recommends. It is a teacher’s responsibility to talk about books of history and classic literature with enthusiasm and verve. It is also our responsibility to design curriculum that includes important books and offer instruction that helps scaffold the reading for less-than-voracious readers. Much can be accomplished by pairing books and by using excerpts to tempt students to read the whole work….

One of the biggest obstacles to revising school reading lists is finding books that enough teachers have read in common to make wise decisions. Teachers who read and love reading history and literature will instinctively put the books they love in student’s hands. America’s children deserve no less.

Jago makes a crucial point here. Teachers’ personal preferences often do have an impact on students. In many cases that impact is positive—but not in all. My daughter, without my strong influence at home, could have spent the year reading comics and ended up not having the ability to read anything more complex or enlightening than Valley of the Dolls. How can schools create environments where those who do “talk about books of history and classic literature with enthusiasm and verve” have some influence in the classrooms of those who do not? Revising school reading lists is critical, but there are signs that the first challenge is to keep existing lists from being tossed out.

According to J. Martin Rochester, a professor at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, many educators (in our schools and colleges of education) are getting swept up in a “voice-and-choice” movement that is grounded in “the student-centered, active, discovery-learning paradigm—that goes back to Rousseau, Dewey, and Piaget and that was more recently promoted by disciples of Lucy Calkins’s Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University’s Teachers College.” He goes on to question such thinking:

What is the likelihood that the voice-and-choice movement in K–12 will produce an increase in academic standards rather than further erosion? After all, as Diane Ravitch once framed the issue, “What child is going to pick up Moby Dick?” Where all this “choice” leads can be seen in the recent case of an Honors English course at my local high school where at least one student, entrusted with selecting a “great book” to read as the basis for a semester project, opted for Paris Hilton’s autobiography…. Have we carried the idea of empowering students with “choices” a bit too far? You be the judge.

Yes, we have carried the idea too far. But I’m not going to advocate for no choices. There really is a time and a place for (almost) everything. The time and place for Moby Dick is school (including homework). And students who really need to know more about Paris Hilton can find a time and place for that outside of school, after their homework is done. Such reading will fit nicely into the 41 hours per week Jago and Fitzhugh allowed for entertainment.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying teachers should not try to inspire a love of reading. They should. Like Jago, I remain convinced that such a love comes from great teaching with great works of fiction, literary nonfiction, and nonfiction. Here’s how Jago put it a couple of weeks ago in a blog post about the Common Core State Standards: “I’m not talking about force-feeding students but rather inviting them to partake of the richest fare literature has to offer. One thing I know for sure. The teenagers I taught were always hungry.”

At the same time, everyone knows that not all books, even books that are widely acclaimed as great literature, will resonate with all students. So with extensive planning, many well-read, knowledgeable teachers may come up with some limited selections for their students. I could imagine a unit on Shakespeare, for example, in which four plays are discussed in class, but students are required to select two plays to read in full and are only required to read essential (teacher-selected) passages from the other two.

In developing reading lists, deciding what works are required, and creating controlled-choice options, I hope educators will keep in mind that reading isn’t just for pleasure, and reading isn’t a skill that is indifferent to what is being read. Reading is vital to vocabulary and knowledge development. As E. D. Hirsch reminded us just last week, vocabulary—and the knowledge it represents—is predictive of future income.

When students, especially young students with so little knowledge to draw on, get to choose their own books, their vocabulary and knowledge acquisition will almost certainly slow down, and their future reading ability will be in jeopardy. One of the chief responsibilities of school districts, schools, and teachers is to ensure that students are rapidly acquiring new vocabulary and knowledge. At the Core Knowledge Foundation, we see only one way of doing that: through a specific, grade-by-grade curriculum that efficiently provides broad knowledge and prevents children from either repeating content (e.g., Charlotte’s Web in second and third grades) or missing content (e.g., never studying a nonfiction book about spiders).


  1. I think that the beginning of the problem is that ES teachers are not particularly academic in outlook. They don’t seem to value serious academic content in any area, as compared to the old-style, now-retired, teachers and nuns.(although the “doesn’t matter what you read as long as you read” idea has been around forever, many teachers disagreed with it) The ed school philosophy of today seems to ignore serious content and even denigrate its importance. I really see many ES teachers who seem to be wedded to the “playing school” game of their childhood; lots of arts/crafts, lots of happy talk about feelings and personal experiences and little to no emphasis on the real work involved with actual learning of content knowledge and skills. Of course, kids can “read anything they like” – on their own time, separate from school.

    Comment by momof4 — January 22, 2013 @ 11:44 am

  2. Voracious readers will read anything an adult they respect and trust recommends.

    Maybe that’s true of voracious readers, but three generations of my family have noticed the “parent cooties” effect with somewhat less than voracious readers. My daughter tends to give the benefit of the doubt to teacher recommendations (though not so much to assigned books), but I’m guessing that’s not so true with more school-averse kids.

    Comment by Rachel — January 22, 2013 @ 12:46 pm

  3. The real weakness of Bevilacqua’s approach is how often she uses “require” as a verb. “Incent” is infintely more useful in any school, whether be it a jail or garden. And rewards beat punishments by a huge margin, whether for grade 2 or grade 15.
    Does “requiring” Shakespeare get answered by “West Side Story” and then a dialog on Romeo?
    Does “requiring” “Grapes of Wrath” force us to ignore the movie?
    The goal of such a “requirement” is to create common memories of great works. It is far, far too easy in schools to lose track of such a goal in enforcing such mandates. Even Paris Hilton’s autobiography might be interesting and memorable were it contrasted with T.E. Lawrence, or Helen Keller, or Nelson Mandela, or Anne Frank. Getting caught as an enforcer is usually the key to transforming a teacher’s influence to a cop’s rule making.

    Comment by Joseph Beckmann — January 22, 2013 @ 1:43 pm

  4. Joseph: Thank you for reminding all of us that in the hands of a truly knowledgeable teacher, virtually any content can be transformed into a worthwhile learning experience. If only all teachers had the opportunity to acquire such deep content knowledge, our schools would be rich environments indeed.

    Comment by Linda Bevilacqua — January 22, 2013 @ 2:30 pm

  5. Good article, but it makes me feel like there’s a soft center in education delivery despite efforts like the Common Core. Choosing educational reading materials seems too arbitrary with significant opportunity to make bad choices. Isn’t there some systematic way to address this issue and eliminate the arguments and bad choice consequences?

    For any course involving book reading, couldn’t we define the purpose and expected learning achievements from reading a book or set of books? And for any candidate book, couldn’t we define properties of the book that correlated to learning objectives (vocabulary is a simple example)? Then, with this set of data, couldn’t the list of books satisfying the learning objectives be produced? With so many books available, there’s bound to be many book choices or combinations of books that satisfy the learning objective selection criteria and can get the planned learning accomplished.

    Choice is important, but from this article, it seems to have gone too far. But, I do see at least one method of solving the issue so we can get on with delivering the best education possible.

    Tom Sundstrom
    SundRy Education

    Comment by Tom Sundstrom — January 22, 2013 @ 3:09 pm

  6. I read a great little small book a couple years back called Readicide. It had an interesting chapter on assigning challenging classics, the author, Kelly Gallagher did not advocate complete free choice, but instead a more measured teaching of classic books. He noted that we often over taught these books because we wanted to find so many small lessons on metaphore or voice or character or setting that kids hated the book. I think the free choice movement is a response to the over teaching of content within a book. I can personally say that I know I felt like had been undertaught the classics by my teachers in an inner-city school when I hit college.

    Comment by DC Parent — January 22, 2013 @ 6:23 pm

  7. Like all educational movements, we need to be careful of completely disregarding any previous ideas; just because the ideas belong to a different set of rules or purport a different approach does not make them invalid–or worse, evil. Actually implementing any curriculum is always a delicate balance. What is prescribed, what has worked, and what your students need all are part of the equation. Education is not one size fits all. Why can’t students have some choice and have some books selected? Some fixes are just that easy.

    Comment by Suezette Given — January 22, 2013 @ 10:36 pm

  8. One thing we haven’t mentioned here is the possibility that many English teachers lack any real appreciation for the classics. It seems to me with postmodernism, lit crit and other recent trends in academe, many English majors are getting a warped education that does not engender passion for the likes of Middlemarch, the Scarlet Letter, and Robert Frost. Can we have impassioned teaching of the classics by people who haven’t been taught the classics? Or who only know how to scrutinize gender roles in them? I’m also afraid that some of my colleagues even struggle to comprehend many of these classics. There’s been erosion of our cultural “top soil” and I’m afraid it will be a long, slow process to replenish it.

    Comment by ponderosa — January 23, 2013 @ 2:24 pm

  9. @Ponderosa I had an English teacher in AP English that deliberately did not teach those titles. I know my teacher said she thought Beet Queen by Louise Erhdrich was more valuable than the Scarlet Letter in particular. I also think it is cumulative problem in terms of many of us not being able to reach that level of literature. I know that when I read Tale of Two Cities in 10th grade my ability to understand the story was pretty limited and I struggled. I was an A student in the “excerated” courses. that was 25 years ago, I would hazard that is still a problem for many teachers. My siblings that went to that school appeared to have progressively less difficult literature taught in their classes.

    Comment by DC Parent — January 23, 2013 @ 5:17 pm

  10. As an elementary English Learner (EL) educator, I spend a great deal of time focused on building the vocabulary and background knowledge to begin a piece of literature. The lack of schema in these ELs make mastering the “classics” very difficult, if not near impossible. Of course, with thoughtful planning and effective scaffolding, most ELs are able to understand the language and text, many of us take for granted. My only hope is that the basic skills I am teaching at the young ages will transfer as they continue on into more difficult literature classes. Perhaps being able to enjoy some of the classics that have been mentioned in this post. Excellent thoughts!

    Comment by Mrs. Shoog — January 24, 2013 @ 12:17 am

  11. Linda,

    Great post on a very important topic. Too many children are neither developmentally or cognitively ready nor mature enough to be licensed to make such critical life decisions. These decisions will, of course, impact their futures.

    What folks need to remember about child centered programs, like Dewey’s at the Chicago Lab School, was the size and composition of the classes. Less than fifteen students in a class where many of the students were children of college professors could adopt almost any model and be successful.

    To suggest such a model could be taken to scale in a traditional public school in the Bronx or Detroit goes beyond stretching the truth. It’s a canard, a prevarication, trotted out all too often by disingenuous people attempting to attach themselves to something many never thoroughly researched.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — January 24, 2013 @ 1:48 pm

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    Pingback by Weekend Reading | CUNY Institute for Education Policy — January 25, 2013 @ 3:53 pm

  13. I also think that children should undoubtedly have some choice in their own reading material. I can draw from my own experience in school, when I was in high school I could not read any book. I was never turned onto books because I never received a choice. This continue in college when I was forced to read ever more tenuous books it seemed. It never occurred to me that I could read for “fun” until I got turned onto it by a good friend of mine. We shouldn’t continue this nature of forcing students to read without taking into account their input.

    Comment by Philip Caccamo — January 27, 2013 @ 10:23 pm

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