Reducing Boredom with Rigor, Not Relevance

by Lisa Hansel
September 23rd, 2013

James Fenimore Cooper assures me that Mark Bauerlein is correct: Boredom is inevitable, relevance can be dangerous, and lonely persistence is essential. Fortunately, I learned that lesson in high school. No, I never grew to like Cooper’s endless descriptions of mundane (to my 16-year-old eyes) things. Thanks to my insightful teacher, I understood the context in which that miserable prose had been written, wondered at the idea that it had ever been popular, and saw its importance in early American life.

I also saw the danger of relevance—at least as is commonly defined in education. Education is not for the here and now; it is preparation for leading a good life (including grasping that defining a good life has been contemplated for thousands of years). What is most relevant to students’ education is what will best prepare them for seeking their best path in life.

And yet, when people talk of making education relevant, they mean bringing kids’ faddish, temporary obsessions into the classroom. Some of the ideas are harmless, like giving the word problems in math sports themes. This might give students a pleasant few minutes to space out about Saturday night’s basketball game, but it doesn’t change the math. Other attempts at relevance are truly harmful. There are the pitfalls of edutainment that Bauerlein described. There are also lost educational opportunities, such as when The Scarlet Letter is dropped to make room for Twilight. Students interested in Twilight will have no trouble reading it on their own or with their friends. The Scarlet Letter, however, becomes more meaningful with the careful guidance of a knowledgeable teacher.

James Fenimore Cooper was not relevant to me as a teenager. He was relevant to me as an American—and I was fortunate to have a teacher who explained why.

I kept plodding through that Norton Anthology (where else does a teenager read Cooper?) and was rewarded many times over. For very different reasons, I was grabbed by Thomas Paine, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry David Thoreau, Samuel L. Clemens, W. E. B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, and many more.

As some of the comments on Bauerlein’s post noted, academic content is actually quite compelling, especially with a thoughtful teacher. While I agree with Bauerlein that working through boredom is an essential skill, I also agree with the commenters that much boredom in class ought to be addressed because it has unproductive sources: watered-down curricula and insufficient teacher guidance. The world is beautiful and fascinating—studying it through literary, scientific, artistic, mathematical, and historical lenses can be a wondrous journey.

 

Wondrous image courtesy of Shutterstock.

 

Tomorrow, I’ll take another look at reducing boredom by strengthening the early grades.

 

The Inclusive, Capacious, Diverse, Relevant . . . and Misleading California Reading List

by Guest Blogger
April 8th, 2013

By Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein is a professor in the Department of English at Emory University and the author of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future; Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30.

 

Last month, the California Department of Education issued Recommended Literature: Pre-Kindergarten Through Grade Twelve, an updated reading list of books for teachers of English, science, and social studies to use in their classrooms. The press release states that the list will “help students meet the new Common Core State Standards,” which were adopted by the State of California on August 10, 2010. To produce the list, the Department of Education convened teachers, librarians, administrators, curriculum experts, and college professors who deliberated and crafted the final tally, which Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson declared “a vital resource for students, teachers and parents.”

Sadly, the result falls well short of that description. Worse, this reading list actually works against Common Core and the expectations that inform them. The document

  • Explicitly violates the spirit and letter of the standards;
  • Does not foster college readiness of high school graduates;
  • Does not ensure that students are exposed to our literary heritage.

Why? For two simple reasons: the list is too long and too indiscriminate. It contains 7,800 titles—2,500 for grades 9 – 12 alone—and it sets dozens of classics among thousands of contemporary, topical titles without distinction. Shakespeare’s Macbeth is followed by Macho, a 1991 tale of an illegal immigrant who becomes a field worker. Little Women makes the list, but the description of it says nothing about its historical status. Every work gets the same treatment, a one-sentence statement of content. The field is overwhelmingly wide and it has only one level, ranking Leaves of GrassHuck Finn, etc. equal to pop culture publications. It has no core, and it ensures that students across California will have un-common reading exposures.

Common Core demands the opposite. One unambiguous standard reads, “Demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature,” requiring that English classes foreground Ben Franklin’sAutobiography, Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery, Emily Dickinson’s poetry, etc. The California list does include such classics, but they are buried in a pile of recent works that have yet to face the test of time. When I clicked on one part of the Grade 9 – 12 list, I counted only three American staples among the 100 works provided. With no other guidance, Recommended Literature effectively says, “This is as good as that,” a flattening that contradicts Common Core’s emphasis on foundational texts. At face value, it implies that a year reading Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet in HeavenThe Breaking Point (cliques in a private school), and The Lost Symbol (sequel to The Da Vinci Code) is just as preparatory as a year of The IliadThe Odyssey, and The Aeneid.

The Department’s all-equal approach also undermines college readiness. When students enter college, their professors assume that they possess some cultural literacy, that is, a little knowledge about the Renaissance, the Civil War, ancient mythology, and the American novel from Hawthorne to Ellison. When professors in U.S. history, sociology, or political science mention the American ideal of self-reliance, those who have read Franklin, Emerson, Thoreau, and Washington have a decided advantage over those who haven’t. A high school English teacher who skips those seminal works may feel that contemporary titles speak to the students more immediately, but he or she disadvantages them at the next level (and possibly throughout their lives). Many contemporary works are superb, of course, but they do not provide the background learning that goes with Gulliver’s TravelsJane Eyre, and 1984. And few of them, too, contain the exquisite sentences of Gatsby, the piercing metaphors of Blake, the characters of Flannery O’Connor . . .

In the American setting, great works from the Puritans to the Beat Generation form an essential stream of our national identity, a lineage as crucial as the lineage of the American presidency. How much of our understanding of the Depression comes from The Grapes of Wrath, of the American South circa 1930 from William Faulkner, of old New England from Hawthorne? Without them, students lose a vital connection to their country. In adding so much contemporary literature, the CDE claims a more culturally relevant curriculum, but the relevance it offers amounts to a thin and haphazard version of the culture they inhabit.

Recommended Literature needs another component, one that ranks works by their literary-historical standing. Californians want the CDE to exercise some judgment, to distinguish the superb from the merely interesting, the foundational from the topical, the timeless classics from the temporarily relevant. Common Core does so, and in producing this gargantuan grab-bag of works, this list without a core, CDE has misaligned with the standards it adopted three years ago.

 

How Two Poems Helped Launch a School Reform Movement

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
April 5th, 2013

This essay was published on The Atlantic’s website on March 29, 2013; it is reposted here with permission.

Right now, roughly 1,000 schools—public, private, rural, urban, and suburban—are implementing a curriculum plan called the Core Knowledge Sequence. That number is slated to increase significantly in the fall: Under the new Common Core State Standards, the state of New York is recommending the Core Knowledge Language Arts program for preschool through second grade.

It won’t be long before the Core Knowledge program will have helped educate more than a million children—an estimate that doesn’t count the several million children whose parents have taken them through Core Knowledge books such as What Your First-Grader Needs to Know. Judging from the evidence, this is a good thing. The Core Knowledge curriculum is based on the idea that students need actual knowledge, not just thinking skills, in order to succeed. As the program’s website explains:

It’s natural to assume that teaching lots of “stuff” isn’t important anymore when students can simply Google anything they need to know. But you probably take for granted how much “walking-around knowledge” you carry inside your head—and how much it helps you. If you have a rich base of background knowledge, it’s easier to learn more. And it’s much harder to read with comprehension, solve problems and think critically if you don’t.

As I turn 85, I find myself looking back on my own intellectual history with Core Knowledge. I’ve written four books on the theory behind all this activity. But the thought occurs: Perhaps sharing my personal epiphanies might be a good way of helping others understand the program’s character and scientific origins. More important, perhaps it would help mitigate two misconceptions: that reading is a technical skill and that Core Knowledge is impelled by reactionary nostalgia.

***

A crucial moment occurred about 60 years ago as I was in my first semester of teaching English to Yale freshmen. The poem under discussion that day was “Valediction Forbidding Mourning” by John Donne, and my interpretation was being challenged by a very sharp undergraduate.

The poem starts this way:

AS virtuous men pass mildly away,
     And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
     ”Now his breath goes,” and some say, “No.”
 
So let us melt, and make no noise,
     No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
‘Twere profanation of our joys
     To tell the laity our love.

The undergraduate insisted that it was a poem about death, since the poem forbids “mourning” and offers the image of a man dying quietly.

Most professors of English would agree that this is not a poem about dying. In Donne’s day, the word “mourning” did not have the limited, mortuary connotation it has now. True, the poet does say he is departing from his beloved, but he’s going on a real geographical trip. In the rest of the poem he explains that he’ll be coming back, and they will renew their love as before. The valediction is a “be seein’ ya,” not a “farewell.”

But nonetheless the poem can be read as a permanent farewell. In Donne’s famous image of a compass, the twin legs part from each other, then one leg takes a circular trip, but then the two legs come back together. All that could be read as a reuniting of two souls after death. There are other clues that make death a plausible interpretation—not just the word “mourning” in the title, but also the image of the dying man, and the poet’s insistence that he and his beloved are not like “dull sublunary lovers” who depend on each other’s physical presence. That could suggest some sort of posthumous spiritual reunion.

But my bright undergraduate didn’t even need to bring out those detailed arguments. He made a more decisive theoretical observation: He pointed out that then-current literary theory held that the intention of the poet is irrelevant. A poem goes out into the world as an artwork, a “verbal icon,” to be interpreted as readers wish, so long as their interpretations follow the public norms and conventions of language. That doctrine meant, said the undergraduate, that hisreading of the poem was just as valid as my reading, since both followed public norms and conventions. My immediate response was that his logic was absolutely right.

So, why was I teaching this class?

In 1954, Yale was the vibrant center of the “New Criticism” that had already begun to take over the teaching of literature in the high schools, mainly through the phenomenally successful textbook by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren called Understanding Poetry. The theory was that you didn’t need to have a lot of biographical or historical information to understand poetry. You could learn to read any poem if you knew poetic conventions and techniques. The other influential text was The Verbal Icon by William K. Wimsatt, who, like Brooks, had been a professor of mine at Yale. All of them became dear friends despite our disagreements.

In those heady days when the Yale English department was rated tops in the nation, it had the feeling almost of a theological seminary for the new doctrines that freed the study of literature from its pedantic, historical trappings and treated works of literature intrinsically as literature—as “verbal icons.” Under this theory, the argument that my student made was right. His “reading” wasjust as valid as mine. Once he had mastered Understanding Poetry, why should I, or anyone, need to teach him how to read Donne’s poem?

***

Five years passed. I was now back from a Fulbright in Germany where I had completed my dissertation on William Wordsworth and Friedrich Schelling, and I was teaching at Yale again. I now thought I was ready to respond to the undergraduate’s challenge. I had explained in the introduction to my dissertation just why you do really need to know quite a lot of extrinsic things to understand even the simplest poem of Wordsworth.

When I was in Germany, I had eagerly read the works of humanistic theorists like Wilhelm Dilthey and philosophers like Edmund Husserl. I had also begun to read linguistics and cognitive psychology. I wrote up my musings as a 1960 article called “Objective Interpretation” in the Publications of the Modern Language Association. Besides citing a lot of eminent German theorists, I offered a concrete example: a simple Wordsworth poem along with two very different interpretations, one by Cleanth Brooks and the other by historical scholar F. W. Bateson. Here is the poem:

A SLUMBER did my spirit seal;
     I had no human fears:
She seem’d a thing that could not feel
     The touch of earthly years.
 
 No motion has she now, no force;
     She neither hears nor sees;
Roll’d round in earth’s diurnal course
     With rocks, and stones, and trees.

In Brooks’s view, the poem evokes a sense of futility—the lover’s “agonized shock” at watching his beloved turn into an inert object like a rock, stone, or tree:

Part of the effect, of course, resides in the fact that a dead lifelessness is suggested more sharply by an object’s being whirled about by something else than by an image of the object in repose. But there are other matters which are at work here: the sense of the girl’s falling back into the clutter of things, companioned by things chained like a tree to one particular spot, or by things completely inanimate like rocks and stones. … [She] is caught up helplessly into the empty whirl of the earth which measures and makes time. She is touched by and held by earthly time in its most powerful and horrible image.

In contrast, F. W. Bateson sees the poem building up to a sense of “pantheistic magnificence”:

The vague living-Lucy of this poem is opposed to the grander dead-Lucy who has become involved in the sublime processes of nature. We put the poem down satisfied, because its last two lines succeed in effecting a reconciliation between the two philosophies or social attitudes. Lucy is actually more alive now that she is dead, because she is now a part of the life of Nature, and not just a human “thing.”

As someone deeply immersed in Wordsworth, I could say authoritatively that Bateson caught the poet’s intended sense pretty well: He knew that nothing was really dead in Wordsworth’s nature. As the poet wrote in “The Prelude Book, III”:

To every natural form, rock, fruits, or flower,
Even the loose stones that cover the highway,
I gave a moral life: I saw them feel,
Or linked them to some feeling: the great mass
Lay bedded in a quickening soul, and all
That I beheld respired with inward meaning.

If Wordsworth had meant to imply the “dead, dead inertness” that Brooks found in the poem’s conclusion, he would hardly have ended the series “rocks and stones and trees.”

However, by favoring Bateson’s reading over Brooks’s, I was disobeying the New Critical doctrine that intention doesn’t matter. This raised a troubling contradiction. If there was no such thing as a “correct” interpretation, then a poem could mean one thing and its complete opposite. In other words, if the text was all you needed, you were led by a kind of Hegelian logic to the next dominant literary theory: deconstruction.

But deconstruction was far less tolerant than New Criticism. It said you have to read every poem as meaning one thing and its opposite. This was how the heady optimism of early New-Critical days evolved into a world-weary, endlessly recurring, formulaic self-contradiction: all texts in the end say the same self-subverting sort of thing.

Such a theory could not interest anyone very long—and indeed deconstruction was much shorter-lived than New Criticism. This explains why literature departments now have largely turned away from “readings” and have focused their work (often productively) on cultural activism and historical studies.

***

Fast-forward a decade and a half to the late 1970s. By this time, I was a chaired professor at a top-rated English department. I’d written several articles and books on English Romantic poets and theory of interpretation, and I was putting the maximum into my retirement fund. But I was getting worried: After serving two stints as department chairman, I’d seen that English programs were neglecting the task of teaching composition.

With the help of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, I decided to do some large-scale empirical work on how to teach writing more effectively. Studies by the Educational Testing Service had shown that the teaching of composition was currently neither an art nor a science, but almost completely arbitrary. When a single paper was graded by multiple people, the resulting grade was unpredictable almost to the point of randomness. My research was designed to discover whether we could devise a non-arbitrary grading system based on the actual communicative effectiveness of writing.

But what I discovered was something altogether unexpected and, as it turned out, life-changing. I found that when readers were somewhat unfamiliar with the topic in the text, no paper, no matter how well written, could communicate effectively with those readers. I had assumed that clear writing would help the most when the subject was unfamiliar. In fact, the opposite was true. When the topic was familiar to readers, you could measure the benefits of good writing (and the problems caused by bad writing) quite consistently. But the time and effort it takes to understand a text on an unfamiliar topic completely overwhelms the effects of writing quality.

When we carried our experiments to a community college in Richmond, this truth became more apparent—and extremely urgent. These students, primarily from disadvantaged backgrounds, could easily read a text on “Why I like my roommate.” But even after controlling for vocabulary level and syntax, they could not easily read about Lee’s surrender to Grant. These Richmond students, surrounded by Civil War mementos on Monument Avenue, were clueless about the Civil War. Their lack of knowledge was the reason they were unable to read well about anything beyond the most banal topics.

At the same time as I was doing this research, other studies were beginning to show that relevant prior knowledge—information already stored in one’s long-term memory—is the single most important factor in reading comprehension. It’s more important than average vocabulary level, syntactic complexity, and all the other technical characteristics of texts used by schools to determine grade-appropriate texts.

Schools continue to give the impression that there is such a thing as a general level of reading skill. One student is said to be reading on grade level, while another is said to be some precise number of grade levels ahead or behind. All of this makes sense when talking about decoding skills—the ability to translate those marks on the page into words. But when it comes to reading comprehension, there is no such thing as a general level of reading skill. That single score that a student receives on a test masks the fact that the test itself had a variety of passages on a variety of topics. When the content in a passage is familiar, students read it well. When it is unfamiliar, they read it poorly.

Decades of cognitive science research boil down to this: For understanding a text, strategies help a little, and knowledge helps a lot. I consider this the single most important scientific insight for improving American schooling that has been put forward in the past half century. But unless one is familiar with the research, it’s hard to overcome the cast of mind that regards reading and writing as a set of technical skills—just as devotees of the New Criticism had done.

***

When I first started my experiment on writing, I thought it would prove that a student could become a good writer by learning a few formal techniques. But the data showed that background knowledge, not technique, is by far the more important element in both writing and reading. Technique only gets you about 10 per cent of the way in communication. The remaining 90 percent requires knowledge—knowledge that those struggling readers in Richmond hadn’t been taught.

When the results of our writing experiment surprised us, an unprepared mind might have simply considered it a failed experiment. I realized years later that it was my own prior knowledge that allowed me to comprehend the results of the study. The light bulb went on for me only because my mind had been prepared by my work in literary theory: the harsh glare of a bright-yet-contentedly undereducated student and the contradictory interpretations of two poems.

Fundamentally, the Core Knowledge reform movement is an effort to give all students the broad knowledge that will set them up for a good income and a lifetime of reading and learning. I won’t be around to see how it ends. With luck it could end with higher achievement and much smaller achievement gaps—but only if far more schools, parents, and concerned citizens become persuaded, as I did, that knowledge trumps skills.

Toy Canon

by Robert Pondiscio
October 10th, 2012

Just days after Mark Bauerlein’s assertion that Common Core State Standards makes high school English class safe once more for Dead White Males, along comes living white male Mike Petrilli with a proposed “Kindergarten Canon” — a collection of 100 “must-read picture books for preschoolers.”

Mike’s list  draws substantially on Core Knowledge’s list of recommended books for preschool and kindergarten, so there will be few quibbles from this blog.   Its principal strength is that every time I find myself thinking, “I bet he overlooked (A Chair for My Mother, Ferdinand, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel)….”  I find, nope, it’s in there.

A few selections feel like filler. One Morning in Maine is one too many Robert McCloskey books, after Make Way for Ducklings and Blueberries for Sal.  No room for Rumpelstiltzkin but George and Martha make the list?  The Tale of King Midas is out but Knuffle Bunny, is in?   Teachers will surely mourn the omission of Miss Nelson is Missing!   Everyone is sure to have absent favorites:  My canon would have to include  Tar Beach; Come Along, Daisy; Go Away, Big Green Monster!  Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse and How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnightif only to get at least one book on the list with illustrations by Mark Teague, the best  children’s book illustrator currently drawing breath.

One big difference between a kindergarten canon and shelf of major works of literature to read in high school or college: there really IS time to read every single book on Mike’s Kindergarten Canon while a child is in preschool, and then some.  Repeatedly.  Lots of parents can still recite Goodnight Moon by heart, years after their kids are off to college.

That should keep the gnashing of teeth to a minimum.

 

 

 

 

“OK Dead White Guys, You Can Come Out Now”

by Robert Pondiscio
October 5th, 2012

With the advent of Common Core State Standards, English class may be safe once more for Dead White Males.  In an op-ed in the New York Daily News, Mark Bauerlein points out CCSS’s requirement that students should be able to “demonstrate knowledge of 18th-, 19th- and early-20th-century foundational works of American literature.”

“A praiseworthy aim,” writes Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University and author of The Dumbest Generation. “It goes right along with reading the Declaration of Independence, studying the civil rights movement and, ultimately, becoming an informed citizen.”  But to the gatekeepers of high school English, he notes America’s literary tradition “is not a treasure. It’s a threat.”

“The rich but flawed history of our literature, which stretches back not just to the Puritans, but to ‘Beowulf,’ has been chipped away by identity anxieties. We’re told that female, black and brown students must encounter inspiring female, black and brown characters and authors — or else they won’t realize that they can become successful adults.”

“This is the role-model premise, and it applies a quota system whereby the representation of authors must mirror the population in race and gender,” writes Bauerlein.  “With the advent of Common Core standards, we finally have the chance to break their hold,” he concludes.

“English teachers now have a solid defense against identity quotas in the classroom. The states that have adopted Common Core, including New York, have to observe the standards, and so the high school English classroom will thus preserve Hawthorne, Irving, Melville, Whitman and other authors who don’t match the PC mentality.

The “demonstrate knowledge” requirement in CCSS is an interesting turn of phrase and one I hadn’t thought much about until reading Mark’s piece.  While I expect debates about the canon will always be with us, it seems reasonable to suggest that an educated high school graduate can and should be made familiar with a wide array of classics while still reading “Beloved” in English class. As with so many mad pendulum swings in education, it needn’t be an either or proposition.

One can look at literature in two ways.  Given the depth and breadth of our literary traditions, few of us will live long enough to do more than scratch the surface.  But there is still great value in familiarity with works that are cultural touchstones, and to which allusions are common in our language and discourse.  For example, I will reluctantly confess that I have never read Moby Dick, but I’m familiar with the plot of the novel and I get the references associated with it, and you probably do too:  Captain Ahab.  The white whale. “Call me Ishmael.”  That nautical logo on the cup of coffee you ordered from Starbucks this morning?  Not a coincidence.

Did I just “demonstrate knowledge of 18th-, 19th- and early-20th-century foundational works of American literature?”  Am I at, above, or approaching the standard?  Surely, there’s clearly value in both depth and breadth.  Indeed, one of the best pieces I’ve read on the value of cultural literacy was written by Bauerlein himself.

I’d be delighted if CCSS didn’t start yet another war over the canon.  But I’m naive like that sometimes.

Trespass Freely and Fearlessly

by Guest Blogger
April 17th, 2012

by Jessica Lahey

A teacher emailed me a while back with a great question. I’ve been meaning to answer and there’s no better time than today, when I have five other deadlines to avoid.

Dear Jess,

Here’s my question for today: how much can high school age students benefit from a classical curriculum like the one at my kids’ school?   I love that next year my son will read, for example, Plato, as part of the Great Books type humanities program. That stuff is challenging for even the best educated adults. We chose to transfer our kids this year to [name deleted] specifically because of their humanities program. The other option was having them take many AP courses while attending the nearby traditional public high school. I had nothing like the [name deleted] curriculum back in my high school days, and I only read Great Books stuff on my own, many years after I graduated from college.  So I’m excited for my kids to have this opportunity, but only if it benefits them.

Are “Great Books” relevant for today’s students?  My answer is an emphatic “yes,” and I whip out my favorite quote on the subject, by Michael Dirda: “Classics are classics not because they are educational, but because people have found them worth reading, generation after generation, century after century.”

The argument against asking young people to read great books goes something like this discussion from the Diane Rehm Show. Panelists were discussing the novel Ethan Frome, and a caller said he thought students should not read some books until they are forty, with the life experience and perspective to understand the darker, more mature themes.

While I would shy away from teaching Ethan Frome in the darkest weeks of our New Hampshire winter – just for sanity’s sake, mind you – I respectfully disagree. I have heard this argument among teachers, that Romeo and Juliet is appropriate for middle school, while King Lear is not. Romeo and Juliet concerns itself with the heartache of young love, while King Lear stares down the naked torment Lear finds at the end of his useful life. Students may find connections to their own life in the story of Romeo and Juliet’s love tragedy, but the pain of losing a child and the treachery of the vile Edmund are just too mature for younger readers.

Sure, the familiar may be strange in King Lear, but there is much to offer young people in a story such as Lear’s. My students love the treachery of Edmund, the way he plots against the seemingly perfect and legitimate Edgar. Lovely, bookish, kind, Edgar, who can do no wrong in his father’s eyes. And the tensions runs high as Edmund is overtaken by sibling rivalry and plots to steal a place in his father’s heart – or at least his inheritance.

Or what of Cordelia? The youngest child, who cannot heave her heart into her mouth in order to satisfy her father’s outlandish expectations and is eclipsed by her more rapacious older sisters? Or Gloucester, who does not realize until too late that he has hurt someone he loves, and must find a way to make amends.

No, King Lear is not an easy read. It would be much easier for me to reach for The Hunger Games or Inkheart – both commonly assigned in middle school, and books with entertaining plots, to be sure, but they are…lacking. Reader’s questions are too easily answered. “Of all the virtues related to intellectual functioning, the most passive is the virtue of knowing the right answer. Knowing the right answer requires no decisions, carries no risks, and makes no demands,” writes Elanor Duckworth in The Having of Wonderful Ideas.

It is important that we ask students to read great works of literature because, when we hand them Dickens or Shakespeare, we offer students so much more than a good story. We give them the opportunity to step beyond the safe boundary of the known world and journey into the uncharted territory of challenging vocabulary, unpredictable plot, and shifting perspectives. I’m with Virginia Woolf on this one, “Literature is no one’s private ground. Literature is common ground; let us trespass freely and fearlessly and find our own way for ourselves.”

In the end, that’s what I hope I do. I teach my students how to find their own way through a complex and challenging world, and these books are the maps I hand my students.

Great books are literary proving grounds, safe places for students to try, fail, and in the end, find unexpected moments of wonder and pride in their own abilities. Students cannot approach these works lightly; they must brave these works armed with their own experiences and ability to reason, because great works of literature require more than simple retrieval and regurgitation of other’s ideas; they demand feats of intellectual bravery, patience, and trust.

Great books contain more than challenging vocabulary and syntax. Great books contain novel ideas, universal themes, vivid sensory experiences and complex literary construction absent from commonplace works of literature. Great books teach great lessons. When students learn to ask more of the books they read, they learn to ask more of themselves.

Jessica Potts Lahey is a teacher of English, Latin, and composition at Crossroads Academy, an independent Core Knowledge K-8 school in Lyme, New Hampshire. Jessica’s blog on middle school education, Coming of Age in the Middle, where this piece also appears, can be found at http://jessicalahey.com.

Loose Canons

by Robert Pondiscio
April 5th, 2012

The top 40 books read by U.S. high school students – whether assigned in school or chosen by kids on their own – are on average written at a fifth grade level.  In an op-ed in the New York Daily News, Sandra Stotsky blames a curricular approach to literature that worships almost exclusively at the altar of student interest, a practice nearly unique to teachers of English.

“Suppose that a school’s math curriculum director said it didn’t matter in what grade kids actually studied fractions. What’s important is that they “own” fractions if they choose to study them. That way, they will like math better.

“Suppose that the same school’s history curriculum director said it didn’t matter when kids studied the Constitution — or if they did at all. Instead, let them decide what history to study so that they like studying history.”

Stotsky cites a new report that shows The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (reading level 5.3) topping the list of books read by high school students, whether assigned by their teachers or chosen independently. “What high school kids choose to read on their own is one matter,” writes Stotsky. “But, surely, school librarians should recommend and English teachers should assign as many texts above their grade’s reading level as on it. If we don’t actually challenge students, how can we expect serious learning to take place?”

Even books that almost certainly were assigned demonstrate a relatively low level of challenge:  Of Mice and Men (reading level 4.5), To Kill a Mockingbird (5.6), and Night (4.8), for example. All fine works, writes Stotsky, “but these easier-to-read selections must be balanced by other works also with adult themes but much higher reading levels.”  Stotsky faults the “damaging notion that students of all grades should be allowed to read chiefly what they want in the English classroom” for the decline.

“Thus the K-8 reading curriculum came to feature a sequence of culture-and-content-free skills, with a variety of “trade” books for kids to choose from — no oppressive Western canon full of Dead White Males (or Females, for that matter) or even any coherent sequences of culturally or historically significant authors and texts. High schools had no choice but to respond accordingly — you can’t just foist Austen or Dickens on a student who’s been reading fifth-grade-level texts. Few even try: Most of the top 40 books in grades 9 to 12 today are easy “contemporary young adult fantasies.”

The well-intentioned idea behind the ‘just let ‘em read’ approach is that it will create adult readers with a lifelong love of books and reading.  Only there’s no evidence that’s actually happening, Stotsky notes.  “We’ve tried a literature curriculum chosen by students’ or teachers’ whims,” she concludes. “Now it’s time for that unfortunate experiment to end.”

Follow me on Twitter: @rpondiscio

“Opinion Is to Knowledge as Dessert Is to Vegetables”

by Robert Pondiscio
March 16th, 2012

As a society, writes Liel Leibovitz, we have “rejected the thick weave of common culture for the gossamer of individual opinions” both as readers and writers.  His essay in the online magazine Tablet offers a noisy defense of a common literary canon.  Unless we commit to being serious readers, Leibovitz argues, we might as well just stop reading at all.

“If you consider reading simply a pastime, stop reading. Watch movies: They are less demanding on your schedule, tend to have considerably more nudity, and are generally easier to bring up in conversation. Let the faculties of your mind previously dedicated to parsing text commit themselves instead to better, more needful uses, like mastering Angry Birds. Let reading go gently into the good night and take its place alongside archery and woodcarving in the pantheon of pastimes past, previously popular and currently the domain of the few and the carefully trained.

“But if you’re serious about reading—or, for that matter, about your education—see to it attentively. Revisit Homer and read your way through human history. Don’t stop until you hit Kafka. Or, better yet, don’t stop until you see the entire vista of our culture spread before you and feel yourself every bit a part of it.”

The devaluation of knowledge in schools and lack of a common canon has created a culture of “poor readers, middling writers, and unfortunate human beings,” argues Leibovitz, whose most recent book is The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ideals of Divine Election, co-written with Todd Gitlin.  He is particularly scornful of the current vogue for memoirs. If you’re Winston Churchill and you won World War II and the Nobel Prize for Literature, then by all means write your memoirs. “Heck, make that two,” Leibovitz quips. “But if one’s designs on posterity involve writing an inane and intermittently amusing account of traveling somewhere banal and meeting some, like, really crazy people, one ought to take a cue from Sir Winston and first live a life truly worth writing about.”

Leibovitz acknowledges that his own opinions “might send many readers into fits of modern indignation.” Why not read for pleasure and share your points of view with a waiting world?  “The blunt answer is that points of view do not matter in the least,” he concludes.  “Points of view are to knowledge what dessert is to vegetables: You earn one only by first consuming the other.”

Follow me on Twitter: @rpondiscio

Drawn to the Loadstone Rock

by Guest Blogger
December 20th, 2011

by Jessica Lahey

We are currently reading A Tale of Two Cities in the eighth grade, and things are heating up in France. Dickens is deep into his fire and water metaphors – the French Revolution as rising fire and rising sea, “the firm earth shaken by the rushes of an angry ocean which had now no ebb, but was always on the flow, higher and higher, to the terror and wonder of the beholders on the shore…”

Today’s discussion will focus on chapter 24, “Drawn to the Loadstone Rock.” I asked them to look up the meaning of “loadstone rock” over the weekend and to think about how it might figure in the chapter, why Dickens might use that title for this particular chapter. I happen to be a big fan of titles, particularly chapter titles, and Dickens is at his metaphorical best in A Tale of Two Cities. The symbolism and allusions lay thick on the ground, and even the youngest students can’t help but stumble over a couple by the time the Reign of Terror begins.

I adore teaching this novel. This novel is where even my most literal-minded students make that leap from the literal to the figurative. Students who have been steadfastly rooted in the facts and just the facts (“why doesn’t the guy in ‘The Tell-Tale Heart ’ just move his chair somewhere else when the heart starts beating again?”) suddenly emerge from the darkness, and see. They see the Fates in the guise of Mme. Defarge and all that knitting, they see that wine is more than just wine, blood more than just blood. Gorgons, scarecrows, resurrection men. Their eyes widen, breath quickens, and hands shoot up in the air, and it’s like watching a small miracle take place. I call it their Dorothy moment, the moment black and white text switches to Technicolor.

This transformation happened to a young 8th grade girl last week, and she’s been on a roll ever since. This morning, I gave over a period of composition class so we could listen to a CD of Patrick Stewart performing A Christmas Carol. We got to the part where two children emerge from under the cloak of the Ghost of Christmas Present. The children are grotesque personifications of humanity’s Ignorance and Want.

“Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.”

As the scene ended, one student raised her hand, and I paused the disc. “Those children – they are like The Vengeance in A Tale of Two Cities. She’s the personification of the vengeance in the people of St. Antoine, and those children are the personification of the bad stuff in people.”

Sweet. The day has been a success.

This was a girl who, just two months ago, could not identify the simplest metaphor. She was not the student who asked the question about “A Tell-Tale Heart,” but she may as well have been. It’s not her fault; those neurons responsible for identifying and interpreting figurative speech simply had not joined up yet, but then, about halfway through A Tale of Two Cities, they did. And there was light.

I am looking forward to today’s discussion. For the record, a loadstone rock is a naturally magnetic rock, the sort that were used in marine navigation. Here, Dickens is referring to the inexorable magnetic pull of France that will eventually lead Darnay to his imprisonment and death sentence. Dickens is not referring to just any old loadstone rock, he’s referring to the loadstone of Arabian Nights fame. In that novel, a ship was drawn to a gigantic loadstone rock, one so powerful that the nails were pulled from the wood of the hull, and the ship sank. I show my students a beautiful engraving of this scene, and hope someone will make some sort of connection between poor Agib, clinging to the loadstone rock, and Darnay, about to step on to the shores of France.

The students are always exasperated by Darnay’s decision to return to France, even to save his employee, Gabelle, from prison. They know what is going to happen – it’s inevitable, fated. It’s been registered in the knitting, after all. Today should be a good class, as the metronome of those hundreds of footsteps is picking up and the climax of the novel draws near. I still have still five or six literal-minded 8th graders, and one or two may well have their Dorothy moment today. There’s some good stuff in store for them, plenty of fertilizer to fuel those branching neurons:

“The unseen force was drawing him fast to itself, now, and all the tides and winds were setting straight and strong towards it. He left his two letters with a trusty porter, to be delivered half an hour before midnight, and no sooner; took horse for Dover; and began his journey. “For the love of Heaven, of justice, of generosity, of the honor of your noble name!” was the poor prisoner’s cry with which he strengthened his sinking heart, as he left all that was dear on earth behind him, and floated away for the Loadstone Rock.”

A Little More Text, A Little Less Self

by Robert Pondiscio
December 19th, 2011

When studying a story or an essay, is it possible to be too concerned with what the author is saying? In an opinion piece in Education Week, Maja Wilson and Thomas Newkirk complain the publisher’s criteria for Common Core State Standards are overly “text dependent,” discouraging students from bringing their own knowledge and opinions to bear on their reading.

Wilson, a former high school English teacher, and Newkirk, a University of New Hampshire English professor applaud the guidelines’ “focus on deep sustained reading—and rereading.” However they pronounce themselves “distressed” by the insistence that students should focus on the “text itself.”

“There is a distrust of reader response in this view; while the personal connections and judgments of the reader may enter in later, they should do so only after students demonstrate ‘a clear understanding of what they read.’ Publishers are enjoined to pose ‘text-dependent questions [that] can only be answered by careful scrutiny of the text … and do not require information or evidence from outside the text or texts.’ In case there is any question about how much focus on the text is enough, ‘80 to 90 percent of the Reading Standards in each grade require text-dependent analysis; accordingly, aligned curriculum materials should have a similar percentage of text-dependent questions.”

Consider me undistressed. If this means less reliance on the creaky crutch that is “reader response” in ELA classrooms, then I’m very nearly overjoyed.

The very worst that can be said about an over-reliance on text-dependent questions is that it’s an overdue market correction. As any teacher can tell you, it’s quite easy to glom on to an inconsequential moment in a text and produce reams of empty “text-to-self” meandering using the text as nothing more than a jumping off point for a personal narrative. The skill, common to most state standards, of “producing a personal response to literature” does little to demonstrate a student’s ability to read with clarity, depth and comprehension.

Indeed, educator, author and occasional Core Knowledge Blog contributor Katharine Beals points out in a response to the piece that Wilson and Newkirk have it precisely backwards: research from cognitive science suggests that making external associations during reading can actually worsen comprehension. She cites a paper by Courtenay Frazier Norbury and Dorothy Bishop which found that “poor readers drew inferences that were distorted by associations from their personal lives. For example, when asked, in reference to a scene at the seashore with a clock on a pier, ‘Where is the clock?’ many children replied, ‘In her bedroom.’”

“Norbury and Bishop propose that these errors may arise when the child fails to suppress stereotypical information about clock locations based on his/her own experience. As Norbury and Bishop explain it: ‘As we listen to a story, we are constantly making associations beween what we hear and our experiences in the world. When we hear “clock,” representations of different clocks may be activated, including alarm clocks. If the irrelevant representation is not quickly suppressed, individuals may not take in the information presented in the story about the clock being on the pier. They would therefore not update the mental representation of the story to include references to the seaside which would in turn lead to further comprehension errors.’

Struggling readers in particular would benefit from a lot more text and a lot less self. As Beals explains, “Text-to-self connections, in other words, may be the default reading mode (emphasis mine) and not something that needs to be taught. What needs to be taught instead, at least where poor readers are concerned, is how not to make text-to-self connections.”

Wilson and Newkirk illustrate their concern about over-reliance on text by describing their preferred way of teaching Nicholas Carr’s 2008 essay from The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

“Before assigning the essay, we would have students log their media use for a day (texts, emails, video games, TV, reading, surfing the Internet) and share this 24-hour profile with classmates. We might ask students to free-write and perhaps debate the question: “What advantages or disadvantages do you see in this pattern of media use?” This ‘gateway’ activity would prepare students to think about Carr’s argument. As they read, they’d be mentally comparing their own position with Carr’s. Surely, we want them to understand Carr’s argument, but we’d help them do that by making use of their experiences and opinions.”

It’s critical to understand that this approach to teaching Carr’s essay would not be verboten under CCSS publishing guidelines, which have nothing whatsoever to say about teaching methods. In fact, there’s much to recommend Wilson and Newkirk’s approach. But the test of whether the students understand Carr’s line of argument has nothing to do with the “gateway” activity, which serves mostly as an engaging hook to draw students into Carr’s thesis. Students cannot be said to have understood the piece—or any piece—of writing without the ability to show internal evidence.

Thus if publishers are “enjoined to pose text-dependent questions [that] can only be answered by careful scrutiny of the text” that is at heart not a teaching question–it’s an assessment question that probes whether or not the student understands the text.

All those connections—to our own experience, to other works of literature, make the study of literature thrilling and rewarding. But for those connections to be deep and meaningful requires more than just the superficial, paper-thin connections that too often pass for “personal response.”

What often gets lost in our rush to engage young readers and make their reading personally relevant is the simple fact that text has communicative value. When someone commits words to print, they mean to communicate facts, ideas, imagery or opinions. They should expect, if they’ve done their job well, to be understood. Might the reader have a response? Let’s hope so. But unless they have understood the author’s words and intent clearly, any response they make is less than satisfying and may not be particularly relevant as a “response.”

The bottom line: Demonstrating comprehension based on what a text says is not a problem. It’s a baseline skill for any literate human being.