Why Do We Read *That* in School?
Hello hello my lovely, foxy folx.
So, what the heck are kids doin' nowadays in the classroom. There's a lot of talk about books being banned and parents challenging required reading. It's a mess. And there isn't a one size fits all answer.
But, I don't think people take the time to think about the process teachers use to choose books, or what the goals are in the classroom. We don't just grab books willy-nilly. Nor do we choose the most boring books possible in an attempt to ruin the lives of our students (although students would absolutely argue that is exactly what are process is) .
The public school ELA classroom is guided by a set of standards, most of which are based on the Common Core and then given specific adaptations state by state. The PA ELA standards document is 30 pages of charts and numbers and criteria that guide our lesson planning. It is not a user friendly document & when making unit or lesson plans, we have to copy and past all those numerical identifiers to specifically show WHAT criteria we're teaching (as though a single administrator is going to actually look them up to make sure we're not just making up numbers or a parent is going to look at them and be like, OMG they aren't teaching L.N.F.184.108.40.206.D!!)
After that, we have standardized tests to prepare for. Many standardized tests use (poorly written) texts and short stories designed specifically for that test, but some rely on excerpts from the "classics" meaning that if we teach To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, 1984, The Scarlet Letter, etc, we are increasing our student's chances of scoring well on the test because they will have (in theory) already been exposed to those texts and have a thorough understanding of them--
--sorry, sorry, give me a minute.
Okay. Okay. Laughter is contained. It's just that these books are not easy reads for an adult and we expect kids to understand them and to be deeply moved and impacted. And look, those books have value and they deserve excellent, nuanced conversation and they can reveal some universal truths about the human condition. BUT THEY ARE NOT TIMELESS. What I mean by that, is that whenever I've taught those books, I had to hold my student's hands every step of the way--and that was IF they actually read. I teach academic kids & their reading skill and reading ethic is generally NOT to the level it needs to be for any of those books. Not to mention those books were all written and published over 50 years ago. To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye confuse students just on the basis of them being set in a time period that is foreign to them. When it talks about Scout, Jem, and Dill reenacting their favorite novels to pass the time, kids are like ????? It's really hard (not impossible) for them to disconnect from the way the world is now. When I teach Night, the kids are like, how did they not know? How was no one communicating? They can't fathom a world that doesn't have instant communication and a constant newsfeed or texting.
Now, (I'm almost done with this tangent, I promise! And it's relevant!) I get that the jump to high school is a big one for most students and high school is a place where their world starts to expand and they have a chance to develop a global perspective, but this does not come easy and most kids aren't getting this reinforced at home (even with access to news and social media and the internet!). So as a teacher, this is now added to my plate. I don't get to *just* teach literature and rhetorical devices and grammar. No. Now I'm an amateur historian having to fill in the specific gaps in their history education, or teach them history they haven't reached yet. I teach Night before they get to their WWII unit in history class, so I have to do a lot of additional work to make sure they understand the historical context (I've had history teachers complain that when our shared kids get to that unit, they're like "yeah, Ms. P already taught us this...") But I CAN'T teach Night without that--it's vital. And we've tried to coordinate, but it never works out because in ELA, we jump around from time period to time period. History classes are living that chronological order life (which, totally makes sense!)
Which brings us back to the original gripe--which is that students are expected to have a thorough understanding of texts that most adults can't grok. *deep sigh* What these test takers want is a deep, complex understanding that a student who is committed and serious at college might have. Not the fledgling understanding that is just starting to bloom in most teens. Since test scores are directly tied to teacher performance and to school funding, it makes sense that a lot of teachers will stick with these outdated classics instead of updating to newer texts. (which then begs the question are we teaching critical thinking or are we just telling kids what to regurgitate on tests?)
And I'm not saying the classics shouldn't be taught. I'm just arguing the WHEN and the WHERE of them being taught. My academic and my co-taught (a class were the majority of students have IEPs) don't need to read To Kill a Mockingbird in 9th grade. It is a book written for adults about an adult, Scout, reflecting on her childhood and while it's a lovely look at loss of innocence and coming to understand who the monster's are in the world (Bob Ewell is the monster, NOT Boo Radley), it flies over the heads of 90% of my students and that's IF they read it. Most don't even read it because it's so difficult, so they rely on the bits and pieces they pick up from me talking about the books, or the more industrious copy and paste from Spark Notes or Shmoop (I love both of these sites! especially Shmoop!) But there is very little critical thinking going on. These kids are still in the parrot back what they learned stage in 9th grade. Most won't start to dip into the "having their own independent thoughts" category until senior year and the rest will have their come to Jesus moment in college when a professor tears them apart without remorse.
Okay, back on track with the book selection process. So standards and testing are at play. Those standards play a HUGE role. We need a book where we can teach figurative language, dynamic & static characters, theme, symbolism and every other rhetorical device in existence. The *easier* those texts are, the better for high school students. I love teaching Speak because that book oozes figurative language and symbolism, not to mention a dynamic character. I can hit so many standards with that book. Not to mention it's high interest, written for teens, and it's short.
It's a book they can read on their own and most will understand at least 85% of what is going on. Which leads to them having deeper conversations because I've given them something to build off of. They can relate to some aspect of Melinda's life because they too are 9th graders just like her. In To Kill a Mockingbird, most of my students would come in and say, "I read the pages, but I have no clue what any of it was about" so the self-comprehension level was closer to 30% (and I have no actual maths data to back this up, I'm just estimating). That is a key piece of what goes into the books I choose to teach. I need texts that students can read ON THEIR OWN and grok most of what happened. So that when I ask the big questions, they can answer them. For example, after we read Salt to the Sea, I ask my students who the hero is and because they were able to self-comprehend the novel, they can demonstrate independent critical thinking skills.
So readability and interest are high on my priority list. After that, I purposefully seek out diverse and inclusive books. I want books by marginalized voices that center the voices so often erased or ignored. I also try to update my curriculum every two or three years. This year, I added Roman + Jewel to pair with my Romeo & Juliet unit. I'm excited to have the kids read this AMAZING novel after we've read and and dissected the original play.
When it comes down to it, pretty much any book is going to have figurative language in it--I could teach The Old Man and the Sea, it's Lexile level is 4th grade. BUT! is that really what any 4th grader wants to read? About some old guy in a boat? No. They want to read Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Fablehaven! Lexile level is a fancy analysis of a text that determines it's readability based on sentence length and vocab. But it doesn't actually take into account the subject matter of the text. Some schools require that you only teach texts which fit within a specific Lexile range, otherwise, you're clearly not challenging the student's enough. Which, to be clear, is a load of bull. We're supposed to foster a love or reading in kids, but we're not allowed to let them read the actual books that would accomplish this.
All of these factors go into how a teacher chooses required texts for their classes before we even get to the idea of choosing books we personally enjoy and feel passionate about teaching. The district I teach in allows me the privilege of choosing my texts, I have a lot of flexibility, I'm able to request 130 copies of a new text every few years and it usually gets approved. Some districts can't afford to buy new books every 3 years (you're looking at roughly $2000 worth of books for 130 students--and funding of the education system is a whole 'NOTHER issue).
Which brings us to books being challenged. When a parent challenges a book, it really upsets that process and what we're doing in the classroom. Parents absolutely have the right to regulate what their children read, but I don't think they realize that they're actually doing more harm by withholding information.
Over my years of being a teacher, I've had a few students (aka, their parents) opt out of reading an assigned text. Some were valid. Most are not.
A small sampling:
Students whose own personal trauma is too closely related to what happens in the book. VALID.
Students whose parents didn't want them to read swear words. INVALID (to clarify, they weren't allowed to read The Book Thief because they swore. In German. BUT! They were allowed to read To Kill a Mockingbird, which has swears and slurs in it. In English)
A student whose parent wouldn't let them read Speak because it didn't align with their values BUT this same student was allowed to read The Outsiders. INVALID. (honestly, I'm struggling to see how a young girl being sexually assaulted at a party and having the courage to speak up doesn't align with your family values, but a story about a gang of boys who drink, smoke, and KILL people, does)
I do believe in a parent's rights to look out for the well-being of their child and I respect a child's rights to not read something that is going to cause them harm (see example #1 above). But, they also fail to look at some of the other aspects involved in them protecting their precious Sally from learning the German word for shit (It's scheisse, by the way!)
The teacher (hey! that's me!) now has to find another suitable book that meets that parent's specific criteria and it has to be a book I have enough familiarity with to teach. I have to find a place for that student to go for the 2-3 weeks that we're reading the book they aren't allowed to read because they can't even be present for discussion. I have to make assignments specifically for this book that still contain all the eligible content included in the unit. And I'm now expecting this ninth grade kid to do an entire 3 week unit as a self-study class because they aren't there to get all the nuanced lecture moments or the class discussion. And yes, they could ask me questions, but will they? PROBABLY NOT. And the other kids ask where they are, or why they show up for attendance and then leave--so it's not a quiet under the radar choice. And we have to find time to do this when there is no time. Parents don't tell you at the beginning of the year about this kind of stuff, it's usually within the first 3 days of having handing out the book.
This is the classic example of a parent (usually white) not wanting their child exposed to ideas outside of their strict and conservative viewpoints. And I hate to break it to these parents, but you're not doing your kid any favors. First off, you are aware they go to an underfunded public school, right? The amount of cursing that happens in the hallways could, within a year, fill a swear jar with enough money to cover the student loans of all the teachers in the building.
Wait. Did I just solve part of the student loan debt crisis? I think I did.
Anywho, secondly, one of the best ways to grow as a person is to have your ideas and beliefs challenged. Being challenged on a belief doesn't mean you'll change--it means you're going to develop a deeper understanding of why you believe that idea. From there, you'll either double down (with a new, better understanding!) or you'll say, "Hey, I think I was wrong and would like to amend my viewpoint. It lets you delineate between your logic and your heart.
By actively keeping these ideas or discussions from you child, you're not preparing them for the WORLD. When that kid goes to college, no professor is going to let them skip a required text because there are swears in it or because it *gasp* makes your kid feel bad.
I teach Night. It's the unit we start the year off with and when I tell you I don't pull any punches, I don't pull any punches. I don't want my students to feel bad per se, but I want them to feel something--that's a big purpose of books! This one is a window to the suffering endured by Elie Wiesel during the Holocaust. We talk about it. I show them a PBS Frontline video that has actual footage of a camp liberation. We don't watch sanitized versions or films. It's an uncomfortable class period, but for most of these kids they walk away with a better, more honest understanding.
Dumbing things down for kids is NOT KIND. These are never good or comfortable conversations to have, we want to protect our kids, we want them to be happy and hopeful. But how much damage is a parent doing by not allowing their kid to read Speak because it doesn't align with their values? Why not read it with your kid? And discuss why it doesn't? Or have a strong enough relationship with your kid that they will come to you with those questions?
My students know that if they ask me a question, I won't shy away, even if it's uncomfortable. I'm mindful of how I speak and the words I use, but I answer them. And this is what they need. They need honesty and truth. Let kids read and watch what they want--they will self regulate and if you make a habit of being mindful, instead of saying, "oh, that's a bad book!" you can say, "hey, so in Speak, Melinda goes to a party and..." and then discuss what happens. And answer whatever questions the kid has. Kids have questions and parents, you have an obligation to answer them truthfully--take a moment, collect your thoughts if you need to, but don't just ignore them. Your kids WILL go to other sources, so stop outsourcing your parenting duties and just talk to your kids!
For those of you suggesting that we just let kids read what they want to read in class and get rid of required text, I couldn't agree more. BUT!! The public school system isn't set up for this. I have 95 ninth graders this year. If I were to let them read what they wanted, to be an effective teacher, I would need to have read (and clearly remember) each book that they read--which also means I'm now reading A LOT of books I have no interest in reading. Not to mention the kids I have phoning it in and copying info about their book from Wikipedia. Or they say they're reading the book, but they actually just watch the movie...
Parents don't challenge Shakespeare or Chaucer--two of the most raunchy writers to ever set pen to page. Please enjoy my absolute most favorite line ever penned by the bard. Did you know that most parents have never read the books they're challenging. Most parents have a knee jerk reaction to something that they don't take the time to understand. The Hate You Give is often challenged because it has too many uses of the word 'fuck.' 89 times. Out of the 110,000-ish words that book is made up of, those are the only ones that matter to conservative white folk. They completely disregard the other 110,911 words (did I do my maths right??) on the false argument of purity. The current round of books being banned isn't doing anything to protect children. It's harming them. You're taking valuable representation off the shelves. You're telling kids that they don't deserve to be seen or heard or validated.
Personally, this is a hill I'm ready to die on. As an educator, I am here for my students. All of them. I want students to feel safe, seen, and hear. That's my underlying educational philosophy. We can't do the rest of the work of education until we handle that. I want more diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Share your thoughts in the comments! Favorite book you read in high school? Least favorite? What would you teach?