Why Haven’t We Embraced Change?

 

I don’t teach because of “summers off” and “time for a family.” I teach because I want to inspire and educate. I want to create passionate readers and writers.

Yet, here I am in my eleventh year of teaching and while I still have a passion for my subject matter and my profession and my students, I’m worried and sometimes feel defeated.

I’m worried that so few young adults are choosing a career in education. Our profession is regularly beaten down and teachers aren’t always provided a way to elevate their voices. We are forever confined to an endless stream of standards to hit and standardized test prep. It very often feels like our autonomy as teachers is falling away.

And that worry is combined with a feeling of defeat when I think about the secondary English curriculum. Why has it not dramatically changed in decades? Why do these classics continue to be the most taught novels in the secondary ELA classroom?

At NCTE this year, Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle pointed out both concerns during their Friday morning presentation. They also made a point that has stuck with me: If we continue to teach what we were taught in high school, then how can we expect our current students to think differently about the way English classes should be/can be taught? If for the next twenty years, I continue to teach every freshman who enters my classroom To Kill a Mockingbird and Romeo and Juliet, isn’t it to be expected that those students–if they even choose to become English teachers–will expect to teach the same material? I know it’s been this way for at least 30 or more years.

There’s so much to try and unpack in one blog post, but essentially my mind keeps focusing on the idea that our curriculum as a whole and across the board really hasn’t changed. I’ll admit, I’m growing tired of teaching the same classics over and over again, especially during a time when novels like The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, Dear Martin by Nic Stone, and All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely are available and more timely than ever. Do future English teachers know about these titles? Are they aware of more titles available to teach the concepts found in To Kill a Mockingbird than Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry? Why are we afraid of change? Why is it so easy to stay complacent and not embrace changing how and what we teach? Why do teachers worry about what other department members might think if we go against the grain and teach more contemporary novels?

As I try to unpack what is essentially a philosophical issue, I need to address questions and concerns that ultimately come up.

  1. If we don’t teach students the classics, when will they read them?
    You know what? I don’t know. But will my students survive their adult lives if they don’t read one of the classics? Yes. I also know that if I provide my students with the opportunity to read a novel like Dear Martin during a unit when I would normally teach To Kill a Mockingbird, I can most definitely expose my students to Harper Lee’s classic. Nic Stone’s debut also opens up discussion about Martin Luther King Jr. which could lead to readings and discussions of the award winning memoir graphic novel March by John Lewis.
  2. Can’t I do all of the above while still teaching TKAM (for example) to all of my students?
    Yes, but why are we so set on this one novel or any one classic? (I’m not trying to pick on TKAM.) Why do we need to continue teaching only one novel at a time to an entire class? The one size fits all novel doesn’t work for all of our students all the time. What if we allow our students choice? Why not present them with the option of reading in book clubs and focusing more on essential questions and concepts than focusing so much on simply the content? We’re teaching STUDENTS, after all, not books.
  3. Are we literature teachers or literacy teachers?
    This has been a tough question for me to grapple with in the last five years, but I’ve made peace with it. I’m not teaching classes of 36 (yes, 36) future English teachers, so I’ve been okay with letting favorites go in favor of the greater good. If I let go of a cherished favorite novel, I can make more time for writing assignments and other texts that increase their reading enjoyment and literacy levels. When I allow my students choice in what they read I’m also allowing them to read novels at their reading and interest level. As their lead learner, I need to think about which novels and texts I provide and how they might work for the individuals in my room. Even the students in my honors courses are lacking the stamina and ability to grapple with some classics. It doesn’t help when these texts are spread out over weeks of time.
  4. So should we abandon the classics?
    In short, no. There is a time and a place for the classics. In a PBS interview with Jason Reynolds, Jason says in regards to teens and reading “…when it comes to young people who don’t like reading, who feel intimidated by literature, do we answer that cry with an onslaught of the very thing they fear? Why do we show up with a pack of pit bulls in the form of pages, and expect them to stop running away?” Jason here is speaking about the importance of exposing teens to poetry, but this also fits with throwing classic after classic at our students. Why do we continue to do this? Haven’t we all read more literature outside of the canon? SHOULDN’T we be reading more than the canon? There’s a time and a place for contemporary novels, including young adult novels. It should also be noted that text complexity–many times cited as a reason for using classics–should not be the only reason for what we include in curriculum. A young adult novel is not “easier” reading, but it is often more engaging. Once we engage our students and turn them on to reading, they are much more likely to willingly read novels like The Great Gatsby and Of Mice and Men. How do we expect our students to leave our classrooms as readers–true readers, not pseudo readers faking their way through assigned classics–if we never expose them to well written and high-interest reading? The young adult category (it’s not a genre) is full of well written novels like The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough, Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys, and The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner just to name a few.

As I stated, there’s a lot to unpack here. As I think more on these topics I hope to write more, especially as I think more about what Kylene Beers wrote here and how I can apply this more to my teaching. As educators we need to be open to these discussions and not retreat to our classrooms with the doors closed. If I’m feeling defeated, then I know others are as well. Our profession can’t afford to lose teachers, especially at a time when fewer and fewer people are entering the profession.

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Will Probably Never Read

Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and The Bookish

I wasn’t expecting ever expecting to see this as a top ten topic! It’s fun though because it’s not a topic I’ve ever really considered before. I’m so used to thinking about what books I want to read and how that list is never ending. Does anyone else participating this week feel the same way? Or have any of you who aren’t participating this week thought about books you’ll never read?

1. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck–Unless I end up teaching juniors, I don’t plan on ever reading this novel. The topic doesn’t interest me and I’m certainly not interested in tearing this book apart via literary analysis.

2. The Bane Chronicles by Cassandra Clare–I’m a Cassandra Clare fan, but I haven’t really wanted to keep up with all of her spin-off series. It’s expensive and I’m happy sticking with The Mortal Instruments series.

3. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert–I don’t know that I have a reason, really, but I’m not interested.

4. A Million Little Pieces by James Frey–I always enjoy reading memoirs, but I don’t feel compelled to read a story that’s supposed to be true, but isn’t.

5. My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult–Nope, I simply can’t read it. Too many tears will be shed.

6. A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin series–The HBO series is too awesome. I know that if I read the series I probably won’t enjoy the show anymore and that will make me incredibly sad.

7. The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman–I’ll occassionally watch the show, and I’m a fan of graphic novels, but I don’t know if I want to experience zombies graphically on top of watching the show.

8. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy–I suppose it would be cool to say I’ve read all 1,392 pages of this classic, but I think I’d rather spend that time reading more than just one book.

9. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen–This admission makes me feel like a horrible English teacher, but honestly, I’m just not interested in reading this. I might, however, read Sense and Sensibility since that’s my favorite Austen movie adaptation.

10. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott–I remember trying to read this when I was in middle school and ultimately abandoning it. This is a book that’s cherished by many, but it doesn’t hold much appeal for me.

Thoughts on Summer Reading Lists

Paul Hankins posted a link on Facebook to an article called “How to Choose Summer Reading for Students” published in today’s New York Times with the headline SOME BOOKS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS.  Paul’s ideas and the article itself made me think about the summer reading assignment I handed out for this summer.

I’m teaching Honors Sophomore Seminar for the first time this fall and before me four other teachers have taught the class and made it their own.  From what I’ve gathered, past summer reading assignments have included Of Mice and Men and a reading packet and/or a test upon return, The Count of Monte Cristo and a reading packet and/or a test upon return, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and a reading packet and/or a test upon return.  I’m pretty sure essays were written at the beginning of the year too.  I’m not bashing or judging those assignments because I know they were assigned with good intentions, even if that’s not my style.  I understand the importance of the classics, but I decided to go about my summer homework assignment a little differently.  I have a blog page devoted to my summer assignment just in case my students lose their homework folder, but the short version of the assignment is that I asked them to read three books this summer.  They’ve been asked to read three novels from the Michael L. Printz list: one award winner and two honor books or two award winners and one honor book.

Right now I have 52 kids signed up (two sections of the class).  I’ve had about half of those students already this past school year, so many of them are acquainted with my teaching style and my love of reading.  I can hope that all 52 of my students will be reading to their heart’s content this summer, but I know many of them won’t be.  And if I were to hand them something like The Red Badge of Courage?  Yeah, some would read and love that book.  Many would look it up on Sparknotes to pretend they read it.  I don’t think any of the Printz books are on Sparknotes, but that’s not why I chose those novels.  I chose that list because it’s a good starting point when requiring YA for homework (in my opinion).  It’s a list of books qualified as “literary excellence” and having read many of them, I tend to agree.  I also chose that list of reading because the novels suit a variety of reading interests and levels; they’re also current.  I considered giving them a list of great books to read including non-fiction, graphic novels, fiction, etc, but even that list is objective.  I wanted to have a specific focus to their assignment while reading, hopefully, books they’ll enjoy since they’re choosing them from that list.  I didn’t design this summer homework assignment to instill a sense of fear in my students about how tough this class is going to be or to give them something to be held accountable for.  The purpose for their reading is to think critically about what they’re expected to read as college bound students.  The majority of our high school English curriculum involves reading classics.  With this in mind, I presented them with the challenge to read these Printz novels and think about the novels included on the college bound reading list.  Did I ask them to write an essay this summer? Yes.  And I know that some will agree with me for having them write an essay and others will disagree.  I’m having them write an essay to support the books they read being added to the college bound reading list or to oppose the books they read being added to the college bound reading list.  My reasons behind having them write the essay (which is due the second day of school) this summer is that we’ll be able to begin the year focusing on revision and learning to view writing as a process that, really, never ends.

Will their summer reading be relevant throughout the school year?  Yes.  I plan on creating an independent unit where the students will be required to read a book from the college bound reading list and reflecting back on their summer essays.  Plus, I know we’ll be reading independently throughout the entire year.  SSR isn’t just for freshmen (most of the 10th-12th grade classrooms don’t offer SSR).  My sophomores next year will be reading novels of their choice during SSR all year.

So writing this whole long post began because of that article I referenced.  Do I agree with it?  In short, no.  I don’t want to assign classics over the summer because like I already said, they’ll most likely go to Sparknotes and because I’d rather read the classics with my students.  I want the chance to discuss the classics openly with my students.  I understand the author’s idea that students can read those texts without worrying about questions and pressure from the teacher, but I also understand my role as the teacher and helping my students become better learners and readers.  I don’t agree with her claim that our higher readers will only increase their vocabulary by reading the classics.  I’ve read the classics all through high school and college and I’m still increasing my vocabulary when I’m reading YA.  If she’s worried about her students needing to build a better understanding of the world, I’d recommend she read Sold and Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick.  There’s also Ruta Sepetys’ beautiful debut novel Between Shades of Grey giving readers insight to a piece of world history barely covered in history classes or known about at all.  I could go on and on, but considering the length of this post I won’t.

Summer reading is apparently more of a touchy subject than I first thought.  Next June I’ll reflect on the year and maybe I’ll change my summer reading assignment.  Right now, however, I’m still happy with what I assigned because I know my administrators and what they expect and more importantly, I know my students.  I know many of my 52 students will need a starting place in the world of YA because I know many of them aren’t as acquainted with it as I’d like them to be.  I guess we’ll see how it went over in a couple months.

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