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).