Is literature necessary?

Never Mind Algebra. Is Literature Necessary?  English teacher Tim Clifford, not a fan of Common Core standards, asks the question on the New York Times‘s Schoolbook.

English teachers already have given up on teaching spelling, vocabulary, and grammar, Clifford complains. Creative writing has been “replaced with unending persuasive essays that are the darlings of the Common Core standards.”

Many schools teach reading as a set of skills to be mastered rather than as a journey to be embarked upon. Children are taught how to predict, to connect, to draw inferences, and so forth, but they are rarely allowed the leisure to savor what they read or to reflect on the art of good writing.

Until last year, his sixth graders conceived, wrote and illustrated a 20-page graphic novel, learning “story structure, characterization, use of dialogue, and exposition.” Now, as a result of Common Core standards, they must write an eight-page research paper, “filled with facts but devoid of imagination.”

The Common Core has already veered many schools away from narrative writing, or almost any type of creative writing at all. So what’s left to be picked from the remains of English study?


Starting this year, at least half of all reading in our schools is supposed to be non-fiction. And that includes kindergarten.

What makes matters even worse for later grades is that students already read non-fiction almost exclusively in all their other courses, so if you take science, social studies, and math into account, only one-eighth of student reading will be literary. And that fraction is likely to shrink in the future.

If algebra is dispensable, why not Austen? Clifford asks. Both can be difficult for some students: Graduation rates might rise if students didn’t need to struggle with algebra or Austen. Neither is essential for most jobs.

It’s great to read Great Books

The Great Books really are great– and relevant for today’s kids — writes teacher Jessica Lahey on Core Knowledge Blog.

It is important that we ask students to read great works of literature because, when we hand them Dickens or Shakespeare, we offer students so much more than a good story. We give them the opportunity to step beyond the safe boundary of the known world and journey into the uncharted territory of challenging vocabulary, unpredictable plot, and shifting perspectives. I’m with Virginia Woolf on this one, “Literature is no one’s private ground. Literature is common ground; let us trespass freely and fearlessly and find our own way for ourselves.”

. . . great works of literature require more than simple retrieval and regurgitation of others’ ideas; they demand feats of intellectual bravery, patience, and trust.

Great books contain more than challenging vocabulary and syntax. Great books contain novel ideas, universal themes, vivid sensory experiences and complex literary construction absent from commonplace works of literature. Great books teach great lessons. When students learn to ask more of the books they read, they learn to ask more of themselves.

That the classics are difficult to read is a bug, not a feature, Lahey argues. Is this realistic?

Sometimes a curtain is just a curtain

Lynne Diligent on Dilemmas of an Expat Tutor presents: How High School Students Feel in Literature Class.

What the Author Meant

Is STEM special?

What’s so special about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math)? asks Alfie Kohn on Answer Sheet.

. . . President Obama announced an expensive new public-private initiative last November called “Educate to Innovate” that will focus on improving student performance exclusively in STEM subjects. Then, in early January, he was back with a new education project. Was its intent to spread the wealth to other kinds of learning that he had overlooked before? Nope. It was to commit another quarter-billion dollars to improve the teaching of STEM subjects. And a few weeks later, in his State of the Union address, the only academic disciplines he mentioned were, yet again, math and science.

Thought experiment: Try to imagine this, or any other, president giving a speech that calls for a major new commitment to the teaching of literature, backed by generous funding (even during a period of draconian budget cuts).

STEM has an edge because it involves numbers, Kohn argues. We respect the quantifiable and distrust the qualitative.

Productivity and profit are the priorities for STEM boosters, Kohn writes.

“The nation that out-educates us today,” said President Obama last month, “is going to out-compete us tomorrow.” . . .  it is not a sentence likely to be followed by a discussion of the humanities.

Education isn’t just a mechanism to produce tomorrow’s workers, Kohn believes, quoting linguist Robin Lakoff: ”Education is invaluable not only in its ability to help people and societies get ahead, but equally in helping them develop the perspectives that make them fully human.”

Common Core Blog agrees with Kohn, though I see commenters who resent the idea that math and science are dehumanizing.

Unafraid of Virginia Woolf

Community college students usually read nonfiction in first-year English courses. Freakonomics and Fast Food Nation are standards. Katherine Boutry taught Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Michael Cunningham’s The Hours to her composition students at West Los Angeles Community College. Most rose to the challenge of reading complex literature. Three students were inspired to get tattoos with a Dalloway line, “fear no more.”

Also on Community College Spotlight: Researchers look at ways to raise graduation rates for community college student.

Education Buzz Carnival

At the Education Buzz Carnival, host Steve Spangler is writing about connections.

As educators, we encourage our students to activate their schema – think of what they already know that they can connect to something new – with each unit, chapter, lab or problem set.

When we study science, for example, we are also studying mythology, Latin, Greek, history, and sociology. Astronomy cannot properly be studied without also studying mythology. A proper study of history is also a study of biography and geography. English is a combination of hundreds of languages. The ink in our pens. . . the alphabetical order of a keyboard. . . . the composition of our bread. . . . the etymology of our words. . . .the names of rockets and cars. . . . everything is connected to everything else. Oh, and by the way? All those weird punctuation symbols exist not only in writing class, but also in math and music as well.

Connections. Let’s make some!

Mark Bauerlein encourages teachers to teach unabridged literature.

And here’s the real challenge: to make 15-year-olds realize that The Odyssey isn’t drudgery, but in fact speaks to their egos and desires and anxieties a lot more meaningfully and entertainingly than does the latest episode of My Super Sweet 16.

Bauerlein reads stories from The Odyssey to his five-year-old son. Why did Odysseus taunt the Cylops? (Pride.) What happened (suffering and death).  Can a hero make mistakes. (Yep.)

A year-long diversity workshop

A year-long class on diversity is an elective at affluent, high-performing Jericho Middle School, where most students are white or Asian-American, reports the New York Times.

Fifteen eighth graders at Jericho Middle School were considering a fictional case of stereotyping by hair color the other day, or how a boy came to be prejudiced against people with green hair, or “greenies.” From there, they extrapolated to the stereotypes in their own lives: dumb football players, Asian math whizzes, boring bankers.

Teacher Elisa Weidenbaum Waters hopes to “build acceptance, awareness and appreciation that people may be different than you.”

There are no quizzes or tests in the class, and homework is assigned only occasionally. Instead, there are free-flowing discussions about privilege, discrimination and oppression, and readings, like the recent one about people with green hair from “Prejudiced — How Do People Get That Way?” — a book published by the Anti-Defamation League.

School leaders say students growing up in Jericho need preparation for the diverse world they’ll encounter in college and beyond.

The class easily could turn into “amorphous mush” with little intellectual value, warned Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.  Class discussions could be slanted to “favor more popular, progressive views,” Hess added.

You know it’s a bad idea . . . when Crash is on the teacher-training syllabus,” writes Liam Julian on Flypaper.

A year-long diversity workshop sounds like a giant bore, even if students don’t have to do much work. It’s possible to learn a great deal about human differences and similarities by reading literature or studying history. Why not design a humanities class that deals with these issues while also asking students to read challenging books, not just pamphlets, and expand their knowledge of the world?

Why college grads can’t write

College graduates can’t write because Freshman Comp doesn’t teach them, writes R.V. Young, an English professor at North Carolina State, on the Pope Center’s Clarion Call.

When the GI Bill opened college doors to many more students after World War II, freshman comp “became the foundation for liberal education of a broad swath of American students who were often encountering for the first time the liberating effect of intellectual cultivation – the mental excitement of mastering intellectually difficult books, handling ideas with discernment, and realizing their thoughts in clear, coherent language,” Young writes.

. . . At least some acquaintance with the humanities was thought to prepare students for leadership or at least furnish the materials for better citizenship and a more fulfilling life.

In the last 30 years, freshman comp has been taken over by “the social sciences and the public education establishment.” Researchers write up their theories; adjuncts do the teaching.

Since theorists believe reading and writing are different skills, literature has been banished from composition classes.

Theorists believe grammar and usage conventions are unimportant, unteachable and “may even be damaging to minorities.” They tell adjuncts not to mark errors on student papers:  Students “best learn to write from one another by breaking up into little groups in class and ‘peer-reviewing’ their work, since it is their own generational cohort for whom they should be writing.”

In the 1970′s, when Young started at North Carolina State, English professors taught freshman comp.

The “theory” of composition that guided the course was that students learned to write by writing a great deal and having their papers marked thoroughly and severely by the professor, who would often reinforce the lesson in individual conferences.  The first semester of this two-semester course required 14 short papers, the second semester 11 plus a short research paper.  It was the academic equivalent of boot camp.

Asking students to write essays about works of literature gave them a common topic,  which they approached with few preconceptions, Young writes. Freshman find it easier to assess the role of faith in Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown, than to “give thoughtful, unself-conscious account of their views on abortion or global warming — the kind of topic that is typical nowadays.”

Young no longer teaches writing. As a literature professor with no “composition theory” training, he’s considered unqualified.

How well is this new approach working? An increasingly common complaint among employers is that college graduates can’t even write a short memo that’s clear. The melancholy results of the now prevalent approach to composition are plain to see in the pitiable level of reading and writing skills possessed by most college graduates.

Frisky blogger Jessica Wakeman wishes she’d learned more about literature, history and politics and taken fewer gender studies courses. “There’s a difference between what I thought was “cool” to learn about at the time and what has actually proved useful in life,” she writes.

Bored of darkness

In Heart of Darkness on the NAS Blog, David Clemens, a literature professor, wonders why each year more students complain the same readings — Hawthorne, Melville, Conrad, Kafka, Sophocles, Phillip Larkin, Tobias Wolff, and J.G. Ballard — are too dark.

. . . If such authors do anything, they force us to face existential questions. Once, students went to college to experience just this sort of perennial questioning. Today, questioning is a nonstarter having been replaced by what Phillip Rieff called “the triumph of the therapeutic” and, as he predicted, by students preoccupied only with themselves and with attaining a “durable sense of well-being.” This ends any interest in reading about what Victor Davis Hanson calls “the tragic limitations of human existence and how to meet them and endure them with dignity.”

The “Facebook and Twitter crowd” think medicine will postpone their senescence indefinitely, Clemens writes. “With death no longer inevitable, they find that a literature based on the tragedy of mortality is both archaic and irrelevant.”

BTW: Library Examiner has literary vampire links.

Making Connections, Part 1: The Road Not Taken

I am guest-blogging for Joanne Jacobs while she is away on vacation. I have been enjoying your comments and hope to respond to some of them this weekend. For the next few days I will focus on the topic of “connections” and “relevance” in learning, though other topics may pop up here and there.

I run two lunchtime literature clubs at my school. The fourth graders just finished reading A Little Princess. During our discussions, I encourage delving into the text and discussing it on its own terms. I am not a big fan of “accountable talk,” “making predictions,” “making connections,” and so forth when they assume precedence over the subject matter itself.

One student brought up the part where Sara spends her money on hot buns for a beggar girl. “She made a self-to-self connection,” the student said. I felt sorry that students are learning such ghastly terminology, however well meant. Why are students not encouraged to say, “She understood how the girl felt” or “She felt compassion for the girl”?

There is a great push in schools—in professional development meetings, training literature, evaluation rubrics, and general discussion—to make the learning “relevant” to students’ lives. The assumption is that students will learn more if they can relate the learning to themselves, consciously and explicitly, using applicable jargon (“text-to-self connections,” “text-to-world connections,” etc.). The idea of relevance goes back to antiquity, but its proponents often treat it as a recent and marketable discovery. For instance, the International Center for Leadership in Education owns the “Rigor/Relevance Framework (TM).”

In a sense, there is no arguing with relevance. Learning must pertain to us in some way, or we would be unable to understand it. The problem (to paraphrase Robert Pondiscio) occurs when teachers are required to have students make connections to their lives–when relevance becomes orthodoxy. Forced connections tend to be shoddy, and they presuppose a certain dislike of subject matter. Those who mandate connections assume that learning would be difficult, obscure, and abstract without them. In reality, the best connections are often the ones that come not from deliberate connection-making but from immersion in the topic at hand.

Consider these two contrasting lessons on the well-known Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken.” This poem seems to be about choosing the less popular path in life, but there is much more to it than that.
[Read more...]