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.

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