Sunday, February 22, 2015

Why Teach Any Specific Book in School?

The arbitrary nature of content in the average high school English curriculum is one aspect of this career that frustrates me the most. To begin, specific titles are never mentioned in any state standard anywhere in the country. Thus, the conventional wisdom implies teachers can teach any book they so desire - as long as, I guess, it has some curricular merit. That ambiguity bothers me, though I am hesitant to declare there is any book that high school students "must read." In departments where I've worked, teachers adamantly argue there is "no sacred book," and then they rabidly fight to maintain their favorites. Additionally, while there are some common titles throughout the land, schools teach them at different levels, and that seems problematic as well.

English departments tend to set standards for curriculum along the lines of the number of novels taught each semester, and nearly all of them offer a blend of "required" and "optional" or "supplemental" texts. Yet, little annoys me more than a high school teacher asking around for a book to teach late in the year. It is as if they have no particular reason to teach the book other than to "teach a novel." That is nothing if not ridiculous, and it seems to be a real disservice to the profession. The key, of course, is that English teachers are "skill driven," and if the students are reading quality literature, they are developing skills of critical reading and critical thinking. And, certainly, there is a component of "character education" that comes with all classic literature. We teach Mockingbird or Lord of the Flies because we want students to have discussions that force them to question what they want their society to look like.

Thus, I am frustrated by the ambiguity of it all, but I am also uneasy about a national curriculum of mandated titles. For, as a colleague and I once reviewed plans by the state to encourage more "workplace oriented outcomes," she lamented, "What about catharsis and my students' emotional growth from the sacrifice and death of Sydney Carton?" I couldn't quite argue, but I also didn't mention that I managed to make it all the way to a Master's degree in Literature and a job as a highly successful AP Language teacher before I ever read A Tale of Two Cities.

So, I am left to ponder - why do we read what we read?

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