Capt. Underpants to the rescue

Stop Glorifying Indifference to Literature writes Diana Sencheal on The Core Knowledge Blog.

A New York Times story on the “reading workshop” method praises a teacher who lets her middle school students pick all the books they read. Some prefer Captain Underpants. The classics she used to teach — To Kill a Mockingbird, The Diary of Anne Frank — are sent to a storage closet.

. . . fans of the reading workshop say that assigning books leaves many children bored or unable to understand the texts. Letting students choose their own books, they say, can help to build a lifelong love of reading.

“I feel like almost every kid in my classroom is engaged in a novel that they’re actually interacting with,” Ms. McNeill said, several months into her experiment. “Where as when I do ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,” I know that I have some kids that just don’t get into it.”

This is a teacher who didn’t like reading literature when she was a child in school, Senechal points out. She didn’t like Huckleberry Finn!

This so-called movement is led by people who don’t love literature enough to defend it, and who don’t care about history enough to find out that their revolution is nothing revolutionary. It glorifies a certain indifference.

The movement writes off the literature itself. It writes off the teachers who teach it well and inspire their students to love it. It writes off the possibility that literature will affect students’ entire lives and stay in their minds, in ways that teen novels cannot do.

Many schools have a daily reading period in which students read whatever book they like — though there seems to be no correlation between free reading and reading ability.  Teaching fewer set books and providing more opportunities for students to analyze their own choices could make sense. But why drop all common reading?

Robert Pondiscio, who was trained in Readers’ Workshop but found it ineffective, offers a comentary mash-up.

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  1. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Also–Captain Underpants as a MIDDLE SCHOOL book??? Really? It sounds like some of the kids are just trying to avoid a challenge.

  2. Margo/Mom says:

    In fact, this is a very thoughtful article, bringing in a good bit of data that is supportive of a more choice oriented approach. It does not surprise me that Diana Senechal disagrees. She is generally opposed not student-centered approaches, anything that goes by the name of “workshop” and students not sitting in neat rows. I cannot say that her methods are not effective, I do not know her classrooms. I do know her writing and the intellect she displays (although she and I have opposite bias) and therefore rather expect that she experiences success in her approach to the classroom.

    But the two teachers profiled in this story also present a very thoughtful approach, an experience of success–and very little evidence that Captain Underpants is taking over. In fact, both seem dedicated to raising the level of challenge that students take on, monitoring reading to see that reading actually takes place, requiring meaty essays on student reading (telling one student that his essays won’t improve until he takes on books with weightier content to them). I see thoughtful modelling of the process of book selection and introduction new titles.

    The article of course reports on the obligatory response of other teachers (she can only get away with that with the gifted kids).

    I don’t know that the fact that Ms. Mcneil did not enjoy Huck Finn when it was taught to her is an indication of a lifelong rejection of literature. It may have had a good deal to do with having to learn it in lock-step, or from a teacher who was unable to connect it to student’s lives and experiences.

    Where I see a danger in this approach–and the same danger applies equally to the whole-class novel approach–is in implementation without sufficient understanding and grounding in what is being taught and the best means of accomplishing that. If bean-bag chairs and everyone doing their own thing is what is seen as primary, this will not be an effective means of anything beyond filling time. Likewise, if the whole novel approach is only about “covering” the chapters and inducing everyone to be able to put on paper what the teacher has identified as the the most important points, same result. In fact, the two approaches, responsibly implemented, do have slightly different aims. Senechal’s approach aims to acquaint students with a “core” body of quality literature. McNeil’s approach focuses more on recognizing quality in literature across a vast sea of possibilities. Beyond that, I believe, both have similar aims–the ultimate experience of literature.

  3. Anecdotal as this is, I used to belong to book group in Pasadena, CA. All members were college grads, many were affiliated with CalTech or JPL and the only one who wanted to read fluff was the one who taught in the public schools. I’m not surprised the teacher in the piece didn’t like Huck Finn. Oprah’s selections seem right up her alley.

  4. I still can’t get over the fact they let kids read Captain Underpants in school, or for a school assignment. That’s just silly fluff – like Junie B. Jones or The Babysitter’s Club – that can be enjoyed at home or at the library.

  5. This issue is a good example of the reality that some best practices have to be operationalized along a continuum. I agree that teacher-assigned and student-chosen books both meet needs that pretty much all students have. It’s equally as clear to me that some students can tolerate a high degree of teacher-chosen (or curriculum-chosen) reading, and should be making many of their own choices from among the works that are challenging and significant — much as they do in college seminars. Other students, in order to maintain momentum, need a higher proportion of their reading to be self-chosen, with not too many constraints on what they choose as long as it’s at their reading level or a little above or below AND as long as there’s real attention to developing their analytical skills.

  6. Students should choose books they’re interested in (at appropriate difficulty levels) until they are pretty good at reading…after which, there should be some selected books to be read & discussed by all.

  7. I tend to believe that if you offer challenging literature to kids, they will rise to the challenge. The key is to select literature with themes to which the kids can relate. I love teaching Mockingbird and Animal Farm…and others…to my little 9th graders, and they can completely relate to the themes. They can connect, which makes them up for the challenging text. Have the kids aim low and that’s exactly where they’ll land. Save Capt. Underpants for independent reading if that happens to the reading level which is appropriate for the kid.

  8. Tom in GA says:

    Teachers responsible for teaching things they don’t like? Sounds like your typical elementary school math class…

  9. Richard Aubrey says:

    Rosemary Sutcliff’s YA historical novels.
    Problem is, seeing as this is public school, you’d have to have the equivalent of an AP history class to provide context. Not likely many high school grads know what we did back in the day. I’m scared to ask my kids and their friends–all college grads.
    Anybody remember “Story of Nations?

  10. Vince Swagerty says:

    Prior to becoming a principal, I would select the genre in my social studies classes and the students could pick a book within that category. I would approve each book so I could make sure students were reading at or near their reading level which allowed me to differentiate for the varying level of readers and for students on an IEP. That way, students did make choices but it was not a “fluffy free-for-all” with no challenge. Captain Underpants in middle school is nearly inexcusable unless the teacher is working with a student at the 3rd or 4th grade reading level. Choices are good. Guided choices are better. Authentic literature is the best.

  11. It’s fun to tease Oprah, but her latest selections included East of Eden and Anna Karenina. I don’t know in whose world those would be considered fluff.

    Free choice (from a pre-screened list) is fine as a side dish, but not the main course. If they don’t need me to help them read a book, then there’s no point to paying me to be there. Whole class reads should be slightly beyond their ability so that they can reach and grow through the challenge.

    If you don’t love literature, go teach history or sell real estate or something.

  12. Three cheers, Richard, for your mention of Rosemary Sutcliff! All of my kids loved her books, from about 5th grade onward. BUT, they were accustomed to good fiction and non-fiction from toddler days; Aesop’s fables, classic fairy tales, poetry, myths,history etc. IF kids are started on that stuff from the beginning, by having it read to them, they’ll be ready to read it on their own.

    The Usborne history series (picture-book-sized paperbacks) was a great jumping-off point for young elementary students to get an idea of the timelines of history. The Fertile Crescent, Ancient Egypt, Greece, Roman Empire, Dark Ages, Exploration and Discovery, Vikings etc.; I haven’t seen them recently. Do they still exist? My older kids literally wore out their set and I had to replace it for the younger ones. The Greeks and the Romans were good companions for the classic myths (D’Aulaire).

    Where did we lose the idea that education – all subjects – is a process that builds on previous knowledge?

  13. Richard Aubrey says:

    I reviewed Sutcliff’s “Sword Song” for Amazon, recalling that once, years ago, my wife had a “reading lab” class in high school where, in actuality, the losers showed up and read something from a cart of teen paperbacks.
    No Sweet Vally High. All Catcher in The Rye wannabes.
    The heroes were always losers.
    A commenter remarked that was her experience, too.
    Nothing like hitting slackers and hubcap stealers with clumsy attempts at the nihilism in “Catcher”.
    I sure like the idea that “Catcher” was a coming-of-age novel. Where the kid ends up in a rubber room. Sure.


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