Farewell to 'Farewell to Arms'

It’s Farewell to “A Farewell to Arms” in Douglas County, Nevada, reports Teaching Now, an Ed Week blog.

English teachers are protesting district plans to introduce College Board’s Springboard textbook set and curriculum, complaining it eliminates classic books in favor of short readings. From the Record-Courier:

(Douglas High teachers) argued SpringBoard prevents students from being exposed to classic, challenging texts with rich vocabularies. Rather, they said, students are stuck with one novel a year and random excerpts, some of which deal with movies and television shows, resulting in a loss of the English literary tradition.

More specifically, teachers argued that SpringBoard lacks rigorous grammar, vocabulary and writing instruction.

Sophomore Taylor Gray said her ninth-grade honors English class, which piloted Springboard, didn’t teach her how to write an essay, because “I was spending time learning about ‘Edward Scissorhands’ cinematic value.”

Middle school teacher and supporter Susan Van Doren thinks the curriculum could serve as an academic equalizer. “SpringBoard makes it possible to throw open the doors to Advanced Placement that have long been closed to all but the elite.”

Springboard’s thematic approach is supposed to prepare students for AP classes. But many Hillsborough County, Florida teachers complain it lacks substance, contains too much pop culture trivia and repeats material taught in lower grades. Some call it SpringBored.

There are fans. Sylvia Ellison, an English teacher at Brandon High in Florida, taught the American Dream theme to 11th-graders, many of whom were low achievers. “They like the variety,” Ellison told the Tampa Tribune.

Her class took about seven weeks to cover Jon Krakauer’s biography, “Into the Wild,” about a 24-year-old man’s adventures and death in the Alaska wilderness.

“We listened to the whole book on iTunes,” Ellison said. “Last year, they read ‘The Great Gatsby.’ I think they got more out of this one.”

And this will prepare students for AP English?

Update: James Elias of Common Core piles on, asking Where’s the Beef? and linking to reading lists.

In 12th grade, for instance, SpringBoard replaces a unit on the English Renaissance (Spenser, Raleigh, Shakespeare, and the King James Bible) with a unit on My Fair Lady, The Manchurian Candidate, Nine to Five, Cinderella, and The Legend of Bagger Vance. 12th grade Victorian literature (Tennyson, the Brownings, Kipling, Dickens, Bronte) is replaced by a current events unit focusing on the Waco massacre, Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” and newspaper editorials.

A SpringBoard supporter says, “If you can read, you can read the classics on your own.” Oh, OK. No problem.

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  1. Terri W. says:

    “We listened to the whole book on iTunes,”

    So … they didn’t even have to *read* it?

  2. In 1986 my AP English class read Beowoulf, Grendel, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, much of Canterbury Tales, and a variety of poetry. Other than a recommendation to review Strunk and White, our teacher covered no grammar. The essay instruction was also non-existant. I also took a Shakespeare class that year.

    The whole books were the best part of the class. But, then, I’m a reader.

    I was not a terribly good student in high school and was only recommended to the AP class via my study hall supervisor, who was also an English teacher. He kept his extra books for students stacked up near the my desk, and I read them all during study hall. I remember reading Peer Gynt and A Doll’s House that period. I guess he taught an Ibsen class.

    An AP or Honor English class should introduce students to material they might otherwise not have exposure to or choose for themselves. Isn’t that the point of education, to broaden horizons? It certainly was important to me.

  3. In addition, we also read Great Expectations and the Poetry was from Norton’s Anthology. Because of these selections I became a life long fan girl, reading all of Austen’s, all of both Emily and Charlotte’s works, and most of Dicken’s.

  4. Cynical says:

    A proper name for the results of this program would be TrapDoored, as in “dropped into the oubliette”.

  5. Mark S. says:

    Nice to see that it’s the PUBLIC SCHOOL English teachers who are leading the fight for high standards.

  6. Genevieve says:

    Stacy, did you take AP English Language and Composition or AP English Literature? I think that the AP Lit class has very little grammar instruction because it is supposed to be covered in other classes. I remember when I took AP Lang (about 10 years ago) there was a lot of focus on writing the 5 paragraph essay. We also read a few Shakespeare plays, Pygmalion, 1984, Brave New World and others that I don’t remember. I only took the first semester of AP English Lit, but I remember there was more of a focus on literature analysis (one of the reasons I didn’t take the 2nd semester). We did a unit on Greek tragedy and read Oedipus Rex and other plays, Grendel and part of Beowolf. I think second semester they read some Russian stuff, Heart of Darkness and maybe King Lear.
    To make a long story short, there is no way that Springboard would prepare students for either AP English course.

  7. Obviously any child should be able to learn to swim in a bathtub. Exposing them to deep, open water will only add expense, risk and difficulty.

    At some point, you have to wonder if there isn’t some sort of hidden conspiracy to keep the kids dumb. What other explanation is there?

  8. I had to take my 6th grader to “Clash of the Titans” for Greek Mythology. Though a fairly faithful rendering and nowhere near as sucky as the reviews that seemed to be somehting they could have covered in class.

  9. No, that sort of approach will not prepare a student for AP English, either Lit or Lang. I teach both courses.

    In general, Lang is the literature of fact — lots of non-fiction — and is designed around composition skills. Lit is a full-blown literature course focused on fiction, poetry, and drama.

    If you go to AP Central and look at the practice exams and released questions, the requirements of the courses become pretty apparent pretty quickly. (But there shouldn’t be a focus on the 5P essay for either of them — they’re more advanced than that.)

  10. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I seem to recall a conversation that Mark Roulo and I were having a few months ago (December?) about how much a child should read before graduating high school in order to be a proficient reader. The discussion was about being a fluent reader who can swim in the language — not just being able to hard-decode your way through a sentence.

    I find it hard to believe that students will acquire anything near reading fluency without having to read books as part of their English courses. I’m less worried about the idea that the classical canon is being ignored (though I object to that, too — My Sister’s Keeper is a good book but it’s no MacBeth) than I am that intense practice is required to have skilled reading become second nature.

    The thought behind this seems to be something like this: “Well, our students aren’t really fluent readers anyway, so what we’ll do is we’ll give them textual interpretation without the necessity of reading through hundreds of pages. That’s what English is really about, anyway.”

    Someone at Springboard listened very, very carefully to what they were taught in their PoMo English class in college before they designed this. This curriculum really does believe that everything is a text. (And the really galling thing about this is that whoever designed it probably thinks that they’re being quite intellectually sophisticated and progressive.)

    But this isn’t college, and these are not students who already have language fluency such that you can go and turn everything into a text. You need to teach them to read first. And learning to read requires practice. It requires books.

    Just to contribute to the B-conversation: The books I remember from high school are, in as close to Chronological order as I can get: Bless the Beasts and the Children, A Separate Peace, Animal Farm, Rebecca, The Good Earth, Midsummer’s Night Dream, Brave New World, Mayor of Casterbridge, Ethan Frome, The Chosen, The Pearl, MacBeth, The Scarlet Letter, Heart of Darkness, Sister Carrie, A Farewell to Arms, Long Day’s Journey into Night, The Glass Menagerie, Oedipus Rex/Colonus/Antigone, Lord of the Flies, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Pride & Prejudice, The Great Gatsby, 1984, Hamlet, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead.

    I’m missing at least one, and maybe a few. It was 20-odd years ago so the memory’s hazy. But it was somewhere around 6-7 books a year plus poetry, vocab, and (if needed) grammar refreshing at regular intervals.

  11. Cranberry says:

    From the College Board’s SpringBoard page:

    “With SpringBoard, students in ELL and Special Education programs have the opportunity to succeed in a rigorous academic environment. SpringBoard provides the opportunity for all students to continue making significant achievement gains while preparing for more advanced studies.”

    So, the pattern seen in elementary school continues. Increasing the number of students taking AP exams does not mean raising expectations for the student body. No, it means watering down the curriculum for all, especially for the highly able.

    Canned, short excerpts will not develop reading skills. All the excerpts in the sample high school lesson were written by Debbie Lamedman. I do not intend to insult Ms. Lamedman when I say that the college bound should be reading Shakespeare, Orwell, Faulkner, Hemingway, Ibsen, Stoppard, and others.

    It is a joke to think that a curriculum which does not expect students to read novels from freshman year on would prepare students for college study. It may prepare students to read short excerpts on an AP exam, but it would not prepare them to jump into college level courses. AP courses are not supposed to aim only to pass the AP exam. They are supposed to be college-level in content and rigor.

    If I lived in this school district, and had high-school aged gifted students, I would look to move, or to change schools. This is not a college prep curriculum.

  12. I assure you, it will not prepare students to read the excerpts on the AP exams.

    A student who is not college ready would not pass the AP exam. The multiple choice is only 40% of the score. They have to write three essays in 2 hours, and believe me, they are not the formulaic prompts found on the ACT/SAT.

  13. Like many of the other “reforms” (including mainstreaming, full inclusion, heterogeneous classrooms, portfolios and differentiated instruction), this one seems to be dedicated to the concealment of the fact that there are real and significant differences among students with respect to academic achievement, ability, interest and effort. In short, some students are not prepared for AP-level or college work.

  14. Richard Aubrey says:

    When somebody says “throw open the door”, you know a scam’s coming.
    Among other things, it presumes a door’s been closed.
    Yeah, it seems as if there is a conspiracy to keep the kids dumb. Given the length of time this stuff has been going on, the old classical and literary canon might end up making the kids smarter than the younger teachers.
    Can’t have that.

  15. Deirdre Mundy says:

    In Ninth Grade English we read the Odyssey, To Kill a Mockingbird, Les Mis, The pearl,Raisin in the sun, A ton of poetry and essays,Romeo and Juliet Huck Finn, some Dickens, and more. We also had a semester dedicated to composition and editing…

    By the time I graduated we’d had a whole poetry semester, a semester of American Lit (Gatsby, Grapes of Wrath, Invisible Man, American Dream, Some Hemmingway (I forget which–Sun Also Rises? Or Farewell to Arms?) Native Son, Scarlet Letter….. and more) ANOTHER semester of Comp, A semester of drama (lots of greeks and shakespeare), “Oral Communications” (speech writing), and AP English.

    I will freely admit that my teachers, even the ones I disliked, kicked butt. When I got to college, I got a B- on my first paper when the rest of the class got Ds and Fs and had to rewrite.

    I would have learned NOTHING from something like Springboard.

  16. Bill Leonard says:

    The SpringBoard approach seems nonsense for every reason listed thus far. Further: I wonder whether “excerpts” will motivate any student to read anything by the author excerpted. My freshman English text included a couple stories from Steinbeck’s “The Long Valley.” That was enough to prompt me to read everything by Steinbeck — to that point; it was 1958 — during that summer.

  17. High schools are having to dumb down because the elementaries don’t teach the kids much. In France, the content-rich national curriculum fill kids’ brains with facts. These facts are the keys to unlocking books’ meanings. Our kids know nothing, but they sure as hell have been busy doin’ stuff. In America, teachers aren’t supposed to teach; they’re supposed to facilitate activities in which kids exercise “skills”.

  18. I am thrilled to see that English teachers are the ones fighting against this, but otherwise I want to cry. When will it end? Does the downfall of American education still have a long way to go before it reaches bottom?

  19. I’ve read all of Hemingway, but A Farewell to Arms was the one book of his I couldn’t get through. I adored For Whom the Bell Tolls and I’ve read The Sun Also Rises a good 20 or 30 times, but A Farewell to Arms put me to sleep. I tried to read it five times and failed. Maybe in my next life.

  20. Richard Aubrey says:

    Just for grins, read Kipling’s “The Bull That Thought” and see if Hemingway wasn’t a style thief.

  21. Unbelievable. I’d rather my child be required to read a classic a week with no extra work than take that class.

  22. Richard Aubrey says:

    As I graduated HS in 1962, my memories of what we read are pretty thin. I recall The Scarlet Letter, something by Hemingway…don’t recall which. Old Man and The Sea, maybe. It was short, anyway.
    Of Hemingway’s stuff, I only liked “Death in The Afternoon”, which is not on many reading lists.
    Go figure.
    I do recall a number of college profs insisting on the value of the books mentioned above, a value not immediately obvious to me.
    So I read other stuff.
    IMO, the thing is to read something, almost anything. Let’s skip Sweet Valley High, though.

  23. Richard,

    One of the virtues of reading classics is that it gives our citizens something to talk to each other about aside from celebrity gossip and TV shows. And since classics are often alluded to in other works of art, knowing them increases one’s ability to “get” them. And classics tend to have more advanced vocab and sentence structure –very mentally enriching also. Classics are mental multivitamins; Springboard is a Vitamin D supplement.

    But they’re getting increasingly hard to teach because the elementary schools are leaving our kids’ brains mentally malnourished. Treasure Island or A Christmas Carol is now like a foreign language to them (and, I’m afraid, many of their educationally-deprived teachers).

  24. Richard Aubrey says:

    Ben F.
    Yeah, you can talk about classics, but if your view is that they’re classics because of the momentum of the literary departments, not because of any obvious merit, you probably won’t be all that happy to join the conversation.
    I’m a fan of Kipling, for example, and he’s been PCed off the syllabi for decades. Still, you can learn a lot, history, vocab, social issues.
    Why, for example, in “Daughter of The Regiment” are the folks dancing the Circassian Circle? Why not something English? IMO, to signal to the reader–staying at home but reading about the mysterious East–that the expats are going native, or at least going to someplace romantic and interesting. All of which leads to a number of thought paths, all of them interesting.
    Point is, you can be interested by a good many things not in the classical canon.
    I had a tenth-grade teacher tell us that we needed some familiarity with Bulfinch because many of the eighteenth and nineteeth century writings and political speeches made references to Greco-Roman myths. I get that. Still didn’t like the Iliad.

  25. Mark Roulo says:

    Still didn’t like the Iliad.

    Having read the Iliad in high school, I totally get this.

    But, if you are interested in giving it another try, I would suggest the Fagles translation. It is super excellent because he focuses on the *story* not the cadence, so given a choice between a rhyme or a clear sentence, he picks the clear sentence. Many of the other translations go with the rhyme.

    Having said that, Fagles is an excellent poet, and the poetry *does* come through, even though the story is readable.

    -Mark Roulo

  26. Richard Aubrey says:

    I liked Sutcliff’s “Black Ships Before Troy”. She tells the story minus rosy-fingered dawns and aegis-bearing zeus and other fillers needed to keep the bard in rhythm.
    I know guys like Achilles. Think about maybe ten or twenty percent of the NBA and NFL and speculate what they were like their senior year in high school. Petulant kids with great hand-eye coordination.
    I don’t need Homer to tell me what I lived.
    Achilles wouldn’t get far in Basic Training.
    Odysseus, on the other hand, would make a good company commander, but I knew some of them and I don’t need Homer to tell me that a boatload of Rhodian pirates–to use one observer’s characterization–would have gone out of their way to find somebody like that.
    Robert Graves said he got Beowulf more after WW I service in the Welch Fusiliers. Beowulf with his platoon of drunken thanes.
    IOW, the more you live, the more you understand the classics. That’s the reverse of what the profs tell you, but that’s because they haven’t lived–outside academia. The classics are the closest they come.

  27. Bill Leonard says:

    I find it pertinent that in the foregoing discussion of literary likes and dislikes, all posters have indicated a basic familiarity with our culture’s literary classics.

    I like Hemingway’s stuff, although I’ll freely concede that when his work is bad, it is wretched. I’ve never been able to get through For Whom The Bell Tolls — “the earth moved”, indeed! — but then, I’ve always felt he was far better as a short story writer. The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber is a very fine short story.


  28. Richard Aubrey says:

    Bill Leonard.
    My father had a college friend who ended up censoring Hemingway’s WW II correspondent work. His view was that the worst thing that happened to Hemingway was that he found out he was Hemingway.
    IMO, Hemingway is for parlor pinks who want to feel worldly, cynical, knowledgeable and brave.
    Further IMO, he cribbed his style from Kipling (see In Black and White, Plain Tales from The Hills, Soldiers Three, and Kim, at least.)
    He does the uninvolved first-person observer, occasionally throws a second-person reference into a third-person narrative. Same-same.

    I may be prejudiced. Had a great composition prof in college who hated cliches. His example was “standing out like a sentry against the sky”, after which he would explain that sentries don’t like to stand out against the sky (“except perhaps in the War of 1812”??) and seem very pleased with himself for knowing this arcana.


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