Attention English teachers…

Quick poll of our readers who teach English, or who work with people who do:

When I was in high school, we read 9-10 books a year, with a paper on each one.  I’m given to understand that the number of books has either been drastically reduced, even in honors classes, or that we were reading some insane number of books even for the time.

How many books (and if you know, what lengths?) are taught each year to English classes at your school?

This is just for my own curiosity, though it may end up in a blog post in the near future (before Joanne gets back and takes away all my toys).

Comments

  1. Disclaimer: High school science teacher, but I work with english teachers. I also work at an inner-city, 90% low-income school, but one that is considered “high-performing” according to state tests.

    The students read about 4 books a year in class because most only read what is actually read in class. The students may write an essay about the book (~1 page) but that is all. 10% of the students’ grades comes from outside reading (accelerated reader tests) but most just take the penalty or cheat.

    Lots of reading is just excerpts from books that students used to read.

    I do not know if I should blame the teachers or not. The students come in reading many grade levels behind, refuse to read outside of class, and can barely write a coherent sentence much less a paper. Whenever I have my students write an essay I always regret it as I start to crumble under despair as I try to grade them.

  2. Parker identifies the big divide accurately: if students will read outside class, then you can assign a book per month, or more. This is true even for students with a weak background in literature, or slightly below-grade level reading skills. If they won’t read, there’s no point in structuring the class for 9-10 books per year. Now, one big reason for refusal to read outside class, in my estimation, is reading skills that are years below grade level. Then, it’s too discouraging to read, the students have basically given up before high school level. So this issue reaches back into MS and especially ES. Some of those kids would have much better reading skills if they had had better reading instruction in K-3 or K-5.

    But another issue is interest. Some of the kids who will not read a novel outside class, would read other material. Some kids will read repair manuals for cars and computers. Some will read self-help books. Some will read novels, but not the ones the curriculum nominates. Some will read newspapers (or news websites). It is hard to build an analytical essay around these types of reading, but since many kids are resisting the analytical essay anyway (or doing a terrible job on them), not much is being lost.

  3. >not much is being lost.

    No, only their birthright (to over dramatize it a bit). I don’t know just how we got to a place where the students get to pick the assignments, but in picking this path of least resistance, we’ve traded their right to the wonders of all of human literature for… well, nothing, really.

    Once you’ve lost the books, well, there isn’t much left but pop culture and texting your friends.

    Do you realize that within living memory there was a time when you could make a reference to Shylock in a sitcom or comic strip and the average person would understand the reference? A time when people “got” that the Gomer in “Gomer Pyle” was a biblical reference? A time when a mention of Euclid did not draw a blank stare? A time when a toss-off reference in an editorial to “The Ten Thousand” was understood?

    Thousands of years of human culture have essentially been lost (or at least relegated to the uncertain trust of academia) in the space of about two generations.

    I don’t blame the teachers, at least not by themselves, it was all of us. We collectively squandered it all.

    Bitter, you ask? Damn right.

  4. I teach juniors and sophomore honors. In each, I taught 7 novels or full-length plays. With sophomores I also did lengthy short story and poetry units and with juniors I did a big Transcendentalism unit, so kinda like 8 or 9 major units. They write 10-12 analytic essays throughout the year, based both on the novels we read and other topics.

  5. But, Rob, how do you get them to read outside class? I’m not disputing that students would be enriched if they did do that, only that as our high schools are structured now, it’s not possible to make them all do it. I suggested better reading instruction in the early grades. What is your suggestion?

    I do agree that pop culture has replaced students’ knowledge of (and maybe even enthusiasm for) culture as transmitted through literature. How do we put that genie back in the bottle?

  6. Well, I’m not an educator, but to me the answer is very simple, but all but impossible to achieve. As a society, we would have to go back to an attitude that learning and culture are valuable in and of themselves. You can do some of this in the classroom (I remember a “government” class where they pounded home the idea that you HAD to be educated and up on current events if you were going to be a good citizen), but mostly it’s the parents and the culture at large. Also, parents would have to set the example by reading to their kids and themselves reading for their own betterment. In other words: the cause is lost.

    Here’s an interesting tidbit: in Hungary, mathematics education is particularly valued (I haven’t found anyone who knows why). It’s just part of the culture. As a result, Hungary has very rigorous secondary education in mathematics and turns out a disproportionate share of professional mathematicians.

    My theory is that this was lost in the late 1960’s as the counter-culture became the culture. 1968 was the worst year in recent decades.

  7. Mike DeCaprio says:

    I teach 4-5 books a year in class. I require the students to self-select for independent reading another 4-5 at the HS level, and 8-10 others at the MS level.

    The outside reading is simply meant for them to discover things they like on their own. I give them something like 20 different (differentiated) options to prove they read it.

  8. wahoofive says:

    Sure, Rob. Blame the hippies. Couldn’t have anything to do with the fact that one of our major political parties is pretty much against public education; wants mythology taught in school as “science,” and believes that scientists in some fields are all conspiring to lie about their results as a path to world socialist domination. Oh, and their budget proposals repeal the law of arithmetic.

  9. I was on the “honors” track and we read 2-3 novels or long plays per month. The last year I had a reading textbook was in 4th grade.

    The high school for which my children are zoned uses some boring-looking textbooks off the state-approved list (The Reader’s Choice from Glencoe and Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes from Prentice-Hall) and I have no idea how many (if any) actual novels/plays are assigned to supplement the textbooks.

  10. Sean Mays says:

    semi-Retired former Math teacher chime in:

    I recently helped develop a proposal for a charter high school that is to be “classical” in focus and college prep. The English sequence requires 8 to 9 books per year, plus shorter works. AP Lit might be 12 tops, plus shorter works. Some as short as Shakespeare plays; Hamlet. Nothing worse than Crime and Punishment. Several longer papers and frequent essays is the goal.

    We did surveys of other classical high schools and this falls in line. If you look into Jessie Wise Bauer’s The Well Trained Mind, her guidance is between 8 and 20 “Great Books” per year. In fairness, there’s some double duty though, there’s history in there, as well as literature and supplementary materials for both. Looking at the new Veritas Press catalog I counted 21 primary texts for the senior year in their Omnibus VI class – which grants credit for Lit, History and “Doctrine and Theology” if you’re constructing your own transcript / homeschooling. My memory of high school AP is fuzzy, but it was around 14.

  11. “Do you realize that within living memory there was a time when you could make a reference to Shylock in a sitcom or comic strip and the average person would understand the reference? A time when people “got” that the Gomer in “Gomer Pyle” was a biblical reference? A time when a mention of Euclid did not draw a blank stare?”

    No there wasn’t. The people who surrounded you probably knew these things but it wasn’t nearly universal in our society. There was no Golden Age of knowledge in America. Many of the people we are trying to educate today would simply have been left by the wayside in the good old days.

    I have no idea what went on in the “regular” english classes back in my day, only my honors classes. I also have no idea what went on in the english classrooms of the people not from the middle class back in my day. I also have no idea what they were doing in low-income, minority schools back in my day. We must get over thinking that our experience in school is universal.

  12. I taught in SoCal in Long Beach, CA, and then in NYC.
    It was pulling teeth to get kids to read much in SoCal, but in NYC my kids WANTED to go to college. They had families who (for the most part) were willing to support them and give them time and quiet and a place to study and read.
    NYC students also did a LOT of their reading on the subways (which I encouraged) as they wound up having quite interesting conversations with adults (which I encouraged).

    Jr Year’s reading list (and this wasn’t a tracked or test-into school):
    1) The Scarlet Letter
    2) Huck Finn
    The Transcendentalists/poetry
    3-4)Their Eyes Were Watching God/The Great Gatsby (in tandem)
    Modern short fiction
    5) Catcher in the Rye
    6) One modern 20th C novel of their choosing for a research paper (question: where is the connection between time and topic in your novel–e.g., Scottsboro Boys and TKAM)
    They had to write 3-5 page essays on a topic of their choosing related to each novel, and wrote brief pieces throughout the reading of each book. Lotsa reading, lotsa writing.

    btw–every year the fave book was a tie–TSL and Gatsby

    As I recall, Sophomores read (tho’ not in this order):
    1) Lots of short world fiction
    2) Frankenstein
    3) Heart of Darkness
    4) Dante’s Inferno
    5) Othello/Macbeth/Shrew (one or more of these–our kids loved drama)
    and there are at least two more books I can’t recall. I only taught this course a few times… but it was fun. Animal Farm maybe? Not sure.

    I agree about the kids reading levels, but I had kids who read at a fifth grade level in my classes. It seemed to come down to a perfect storm of family involvement/support, kid desire for future success, my ability to scaffold things in such a way that the kids who struggled didn’t feel stupid and were always able to participate and get the help they needed, principal support for a challenging curriculum, and–and this is super important–the support of the entire staff.

    The school was small 500-600 students–and we all knew what each other taught. Science teachers didn’t let the kids get away with lousy writing b/c they knew what we’d taught in the ELA classes, (“seriously, Majidah? You think I don’t know you learned how to fix a fragment? Go back and clean this up before I read it.”). That gave everyone–kids too–a lot of power and pride. I expected my kids to be able to calculate their grade and the math teachers expected the kids to be able to write a coherent answer to their word problems–and we could hold the kids to it b/c we knew we were right. We had each other’s backs.

    It was a good school, and a team effort (that includes the kids).

  13. I was in honors or AP English back in the 70s, and no way did we read 9-10 books a year. That strikes me as absurd. (And I got a 5 in AP English and an 800 on the English Lit Subject test).

    I’m given to understand that the number of books has either been drastically reduced, even in honors classes, or that we were reading some insane number of books even for the time.

    Again, why is it that so many people think there’s one population out there? Title I schools with a high degree of URMs have kids who don’t read outside of school. Suburban schools with a high median income read more books. How complicated is that, and why on earth would anyone need to even ask about it?

    Obviously, it’s not happening everywhere, or there wouldn’t be any high scores on the AP English test–and there still are.

  14. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Cal,

    If you really want to know why I’m asking about it (and aren’t just being a crankypants), I talk to my students, who were generally at or near the top of their respective high school classes from quite literally all over the country. That’s not to say they all had the same curriculum; some of them are AP students, some IB, some merely college Prep with good SATs. Some are very well-prepared for college, some are fairly ill-prepared, despite having gotten in at UCLA.

    Anyway, I’m relying on their testimony, which leads me to believe that the typical reading load is between four and six books per year, even in the honors classes. (This seems to track across students at all levels of preparations; there are, of course, exceptions, but I’m definitely noticing a trend.) As this is substantially at odds with my own personal experience at a fairly mixed-race-mixed-SES school in the late-80’s/early 90’s, I’m trying to increase my sample size to see what I can see. Perhaps what I experienced is the norm, used to be the norm, or was never the norm. I don’t know yet, and that’s what I’m trying to find out. Maybe there isn’t a norm.

    But yes, I sorta assumed that there’d be a difference in the reading load between Honors at Lowell and Remedial Pre-Basic at Locke. Despite your perfectly reasonable suspicions, I’m not actually a moron.

    Thank you for your datum. I’ll put a check mark in the “your HS reading load was insane” column (you said “absurd” but that’s close enough) .

  15. Roger Sweeny says:

    Michael,

    I think he meant that his honors and AP English classes read substantially less than 9-10 books each year “back in the 70s.”

  16. I did. But I’m not a he.

  17. Isn’t UCLA about 90% students from CA? I’d say that the responses the author is getting speaks more to the poor quality of the state’s government-run schools than anything else.

  18. Mark Roulo says:

    UCLA is about 75% California students.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_of_California#Statistics:_Freshman_Admission_Profile_.28Fall_2010.29

    and not all of those are from California public K-12 schools.

  19. >No there wasn’t. The people who surrounded you probably knew these things but it wasn’t nearly universal in our society. There was no Golden Age of knowledge in America. Many of the people we are trying to educate today would simply have been left by the wayside in the good old days.

    Read Dashiel Hammet or any of the other “pulp” writers of the day. Their works are full of classical references. Robert Heinlein’s Juvenal novels make many classical references. Culture was not “pop” in those days, at least not exclusively, it was just plain culture…

  20. I’d say my regular kiddos do about 8 or 9 works a year; my AP kids do more. It varies depending on what I choose to teach. A paper per unit plus a research paper is standard. I’m too old to remember what I read in high school.

    Crimson: I don’t like anthologies in general (except maybe the real thing — Norton’s, etc.), but that Prentice-Hall one really does a number on Romeo & Juliet.

  21. Though writing a book report is great for the sake of accountability, nothing kills the desire to read quite like a mandatory book report.

    I push reading and I believe that quantity matters, but I tell my students that if they dare try to turn in a book report, they’ll be shot on site.

    How many books do my 7th graders read? About two per month.

  22. Isn’t UCLA about 90% students from CA? I’d say that the responses the author is getting speaks more to the poor quality of the state’s government-run schools than anything else

    Sure. Because UCLA is such a crap school and only selects horrible students, yet somehow manages to be a top 30 school, second or third best public university in the country.

    Moronic much?

    And enough of the nonsense about the vital importance of reading. KNowing how to read, important. Actually reading for fun, not all that important.

  23. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Robert,

    That’s funny… I have to tell my students the same thing. NO BOOK REPORTS is one of my most common themes when talking about writing.

  24. Cal- I never said that UCLA was a bad school or that its students were dumb. Plenty of bright kids in this country attend mediocre K-12 schools through no fault of their own. I used to tutor a number of them back when I was in college. They were as smart as any of my other classmates but woefully underprepared for rigorous university-level coursework.

  25. In High School in the early-mid 9os, I read 10-15 books a year in English (not counting the poetry, essays and short stories) and had to write papers on all of them, plus we usually had one larger “literary reference paper” a year.

    This was the standard honors English Curriculum for Montgomery County Maryland. My friends at schools with lower sores were reading the same things, though our School did have Dr. Smith as head of the English department, and I think she made a HUGE effort to produce excellent writers.

    Anyway, in 9th grade, we read(Probably missing some):

    The American Dream
    Romeo and Juliet
    To Kill A Mockingbird
    The Pearl
    Les Mis
    The Oddyssey
    Their Eyes Were Watching God
    Black Boy
    ummm… and a couple more that I could try to remember, BUT those were the most memorable. 10th grade we did a lot of Greek, Medieval and Renaissance Literature. 11th was American Lit, 12th was AP English Lit. We also had 2 semesters of “Writing Workshop,” where we had to write and edit like crazy.

    BUT even at the time, I think it was an unusually rigorous and structured curriculum, because when I got to College and took the required Freshman Hum. Course (and remember, this was a highly selective college) I got a ‘B’ on the first paper. The paper that everyone else in the class failed and had to rewrite. (I think there was an Exeter kid who also passed on the first try.)

    I think a lot of how an English dept. is structured depends on the Department Head— If you have one who is committed, you can see real excellence. And Dr. Smith WAS committed. Heck, she even made us keep reading, writing, and working AFTER the AP exam… right up until the very last day of senior year!!

    Also, Cal, could you please stop calling statements you disagree with “moronic?” It really damages the tone of the discussion here, and is making Joanne’s blog a much less pleasant place to read and argue.

  26. Oh, one other thing…

    I may be wrong here, but I thought the AP tests were graded on a curve— in which case a national decline in English instruction would NOT mean fewer 5’s on the test.

    (I recall a teacher mentioning this about the AP CS exam in HS, at least. Her point was that since we had some of the best CS instruction in the country and the test was on a curve, we’d be disgraces if we didn’t all get 5s. Which we pretty much did– even I got a 5, and I was one of the WORST CS students in the place!)

  27. Oops! I also just realized…. The Invisible Man was in there too.

  28. I thought the AP tests were graded on a curve— in which case a national decline in English instruction would NOT mean fewer 5?s on the test.

    They aren’t graded on a curve, or we wouldn’t have a bimodal distribution and various states wouldn’t have “1” as the most frequent score.

    And, btw, your example has nothing to do with a curve.

  29. My CS teacher at the at the time said it was graded on a curve– But if it was a national curve, why would it be impossible for some states to produce mostly “1s?’

    Thank you for the polite reply! 🙂

  30. Ok– just found this: http://www.collegeboard.com/student/testing/ap/exgrd_set.html

    No idea why my teachers all thought it was a curve– there’s no limit to the number of 5s…. it’s just that you have to hit a certain minimum to match a “college A student.”

    I suppose the info on what colleges they test at is proprietary. And then, you’d also think that grade inflation at the college level (if it’s as bad as pundits claim) would mean significantly more ‘5s’ at the High School level……Hmmm…..

  31. Alex Bensky says:

    For what it’s worth, when my father was in college and then working in New York City in the thirties, his favorite baseball player was Hal Schumacher of the New York Giants. The Giants’ leading pitcher was “King” Carl Hubbell so Schumacher was “Prince Hal.” However, my dad told me that most people were at least aware that there was a character in Shakespeare with that name.

    In the late nineties I was substitute teaching part-time in a suburban Detroit school system that was quite decent, at least as these things go these days. One day the history lesson was on World War II and I said something like, “Before the war broke out many people thought the French army was Europe’s best but by June of 1940 it was revealed to be like Samson with his hair shaved off.”

    And almost the entire class wanted to know who Samson was.