Wednesday, April 20, 2016

What Should Students Read?

REPOST from Mazenglish blog - November 2012

Is there a "sacred book" that all students must read to be considered "educated"?  Doubtful.  However, as the Common Core works its way into the nation's consciousness and the curricula nationwide, teachers are discussing - sometimes passionately so - exactly what kids should be reading.  I've heard it said that "All reading is good reading - but reading literature is sublime."  Certainly, there is an argument to be made for reading Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird over John Green's The Fault in Our Stars or a simple blog on  Basically, education is about introducing students to ideas and information that they wouldn't normally engage with on their own.  And, learning comes from being challenged - both in basic language as well as ideas.  Thus, a child may engage with great YA literature on his own, and many will read anything about sports, but the depth and quality of Mockingbird will give them that which they would miss - that's education.  Education writer Sarah Mosle weighs in on the topic of reading lists with her commentary for the New York Times on "What Children Should Read?"

The most challenging and controversial aspect of the Common Core for many English teachers is the expectation of a "healthy dose" of non-fiction.  Namely, CC advocates for access and learning from "informational texts" which worries English teachers who worry about losing Harper Lee to pamphlets and how-to manuals.  And, English teachers have clear right to protect their "content" - for the other content areas like social studies and science should be - and should have been - teaching these texts and this genre all along.  Isn't a history or biology textbook an "informational text?"  Of course it is.  But is the skill of literacy part of the expectations for those texts and teachers?  Probably not because far too many non-English content teachers do not see literacy and the basic skill of accessing content from the text as part of their job.  And there is a general, but misguided, contempt for the content of English in the world.  For example,

David Coleman, president of the College Board, who helped design and promote the Common Core, says English classes today focus too much on self-expression. “It is rare in a working environment,” he’s argued, “that someone says, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.’ ”

Coleman ought to be a bit ashamed of himself for his myopic understanding of the content of English class.  While many in the workplace don't have to write poems or short stories for their job, the emotional intelligence skills of narrative and empathy are integral to the job.  Most companies know these days how important the creating of narrative in selling products and self-expression in relating to clients are to productivity in the marketplace.  So, English teachers are going to be hit by all sides from this attack on the content of English.  And they need to be able to effectively argue for the value of their content at the same time they increase the expectation of literacy on other content areas.

What schools really need isn’t more nonfiction but better nonfiction, especially that which provides good models for student writing. Most students could use greater familiarity with what newspaper, magazine and book editors call “narrative nonfiction”: writing that tells a factual story, sometimes even a personal one, but also makes an argument and conveys information in vivid, effective ways.  There are anthologies of great literature and primary documents, but why not “30 for Under 20: Great Nonfiction Narratives?” Until such editions appear, teachers can find complex, literary works in collections like “The Best American Science and Nature Writing,” on many newspaper Web sites, which have begun providing online lesson plans using articles for younger readers, and Last year, The Atlantic compiled examples of the year’s best journalism, and The Daily Beast has its feature “Longreads.” not only has “best of” contemporary selections but also historical examples dating back decades.  If students read 100 such articles over the course of a year, they may not become best-selling authors, but like Mr. Gladwell, they’ll get the sound and feel of good writing in their heads. With luck, when they graduate, there will still be ranks of literary nonfiction authors left for them to join.

 Some food for thought.  What are you teaching?


Anonymous said...

Hello. I am a Cherry Creek graduate class of 2009. I now teach middle school English at a title I school in Denver (I am in my 3rd year). While I agree that students need to be introduced to literature outside of what they might seek out on their own I believe there is merit to teaching YA Lit as well. Perhaps the perspective varys some with middle school versus high school. One of my biggest challenges is simply getting my students engaged and I have books which I usually use towards the beginning of the year because I know I can hook students with them. One such book is Monster by Walter Dean Meyers I read it every year with my 7th graders, and we do a big unit on argumentative, and persuasive writing with an emphasis on using textual evidence. This year we ended the unit in a mock trial and even brought in non-fiction pieces by looking at statistics surrounding teens convicted of crimes, the school to prison pipline, and related current events. Oh know that what i taught was a rigoruous unit. In 6th grade I always start with S.E Hintons The Outsiders and in 8th grade with Lois Lowerys The Giver. I find that by starting with YA Lit which is often more accessible and engaing to the students I can hook them, and build them up to reading literature.

mmazenko said...

Thanks for the comments. I completely agree that YA has it's place, and there are many works that I find compelling. You can't go wrong with The Outsiders, especially at middle school. I'm not a fan of The Giver, but I know many who are. And Walter Dean Meyer and Sherman Alexi are both excellent choices.