Reading The Odyssey — and the GI Bill

In the Common Core era, English teachers are pairing literature with nonfiction, reports Kate Taylor in the New York Times. It can seem a bit . . . odd.

In Harrison, N.Y., 10th graders read articles about bipolar disorder and the adolescent brain to help them analyze Holden Caulfield. In Springdale, Ark., ninth graders studying excerpts from “The Odyssey” also read sections of the G.I. Bill of Rights, and a congressional resolution on its 60th anniversary, to connect the story of Odysseus to the challenges of modern-day veterans. After eighth graders in Naples, Fla., read how Tom Sawyer duped other boys into whitewashing a fence for him, they follow it with an op-ed article on teenage unemployment.

At least half of what students read in elementary and middle school classes (not just English) should be nonfiction, according to Common Core. By 12th grade, students should spend 70 percent of their time reading nonfiction.

There’s less time to teach literature said Kimberly Skillen, administrator for secondary curriculum and instruction in Deer Park, N.Y. “We look at teaching literature as teaching particular concepts and skills. So we maybe aren’t teaching an entire novel, but we’re ensuring that we’re teaching the concepts that that novel would have gotten across.”

The new standards call for everyone to read “seminal U.S. documents of historical and literary significance,” including the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Gettysburg Address and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From Birmingham Jail, as well as presidential addresses and Supreme Court opinions, notes the Times.

Literature classes may include “contemporary nonfiction by authors like Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Pollan and units on argumentative writing and debate.” Romeo and Juliet may be paired with a magazine story on teenage suicide.

I can’t get over the attempt to equate Odysseus with GIs seeking job training or a degree. Perhaps his readjustment would have been easier if he’d had plans to study agriculture — and no gaggle of suitors to slaughter.

Teaching literature isn’t just about “teaching particular concepts and skills,” responds Valerie Strauss, who’s not a big Core fan.

How about teaching literature so students can learn to examine (not conform to) societal values, expand world views, understand their own and different cultures, appreciate the beauty of strong, eloquent language, develop emotional intelligence?

She also wonders about teaching parts of novels rather than encouraging students to read the whole thing.

It’s OK for my kids to watch TV

Cragger the crocodile and Laval the lion in Lego’s Legends of Chima

I Refuse to Feel Bad About Letting My Children Watch TV, writes Mike Petrilli in The Atlantic.  And he’s not just talking about educational fare.

Currently it’s all about Legos in our house, and not the building-block variety. Ninjago. The Legends of Chima. Mr. Rogers these are not.

But these programs offer something valuable nonetheless. Many of them portray valor, heroism, and bravery, all within story lines akin to the world’s great epics. I’m particularly smitten with Star Wars—a child of the ‘70s am I—which, I think, deserves its place in the panoply of great epics right along with the Iliad and the Odyssey, or more recent creations such as the Lord of the Rings.

An introduction to epics via pop culture will prepare his sons to read The Odyssey some day, he believes.

And there’s another thing: “Frankly, I don’t want either of my sons to be that kid, the one who can’t carry on a conversation about Star Wars, or Wii, or the NFL, on the playground.”

Centralization is to decentralization as Scylla is to…

In education, at least in this country, it’s treacherous to go too far toward centralization or decentralization.

Let’s consider curriculum. In the United States, a centralized national curriculum would cause far too much political turmoil. Or, rather, if such a thing could be pulled off, it would turn out bland and incoherent, after all the additions and compromises had been made. Well aware of this, policymakers have pushed for the “voluntary” nationalization of standards (not the same as curriculum) instead. Since standards usually focus on skills, they carry less threat than curriculum, at least on the surface. Hence the Common Core State Standards.

Now, it makes no sense to have common standards without common implementation. If people around the country interpret them in their own way, you might as well not have common standards at all. Thus, the standards and accompanying directives veer into curriculum and pedagogy. It’s inevitable, but that’s where the trouble begins. For instance, the standards specify the ratio of literary to informational text for each grade level. A guide for publishers (written by the main authors of the CCSS for English Language Arts) encourages close reading and discourage “pre-reading” activities; in the most recent version, the authors changed the wording to make it less prescriptive (in response to fierce criticism). The assessments based on the Common Core will likely carry even more implicit pedagogical directives and cause still more uproar.

Standards come with unofficial directives as well. District leaders pass on messages to administrators, who pass them on to teachers. Some of these get crass by the time they reach the classroom (e.g., “Only one novel per year“). Some are vague and voluminous; teachers hear that they will be expected to do all sorts of things they haven’t been doing, but it isn’t clear what. All sorts of “stuff” comes along with the standards, a great deal of it insubstantial.

In other words, nationalized standards are difficult to pull off in moderation and with discernment. They start to resemble the Scylla of education: that twelve-footed, six-necked monster that peers over the cliff and fishes for dolphins and bigger creatures.

In response, many argue that curriculum and standards should be left to local communities. This sounds like a great idea, if you live in a community that shares your view of education. Woe (or Charybdis) to you if you don’t.

Why be wary of local control? Oh, because the community’s likes, needs, and preferences might clash with yours. What’s more, they can be limiting. Some communities will try to guard their children from anything that conflicts with their religion. Others will seek curricula with immediate real-life application. Still others will want curricula that focus on their cultural heritage. Still others will focus on job skills and whatever seems to be in vogue. Others still will want anything that gives the children a competitive edge.  Others will insist on the beautiful and classical.

If education is supposed to take you into a larger perspective and larger world, then curricular decentralization, taken too far, works against this goal. Disparities will grow, and they won’t be only economic. Schools will be ingrown entities, confined to what the local communities value and know.

Now, most advocates of common standards and advocates of local curricula avoid the extremes I have described above. They keep some sort of counterbalance in mind. In education discussion, though, people tend to defend the principle they think needs defending, even if it isn’t the sum total of the truth for them. So their views may sound more extreme than they actually are.

Ultimately what makes sense is a  combination of centralized and decentralized curriculum. Getting the combination right is tricky, but it’s worth figuring out. For instance, we could have a few common texts per grade (nationwide), and leave it to districts and schools to shape the rest of their curricula. We could have institutes where teachers and principals immersed themselves in literature and other subjects, thus building a culture together. There are many more possibilities.

We need a common curricular basis of some kind, but it must not stifle initiative, limit variety, or drag down what is good. Finding the right mixture of the common and particular may be one of education’s most difficult challenges. Are we willing to undertake it? Is there a good place to begin?

Sometimes it seems that we are clinging to the fig tree, our legs dangling down, as Odysseus did in order to escape both Scylla and Charybdis. Not being Odysseus, we can’t count on such agility or fortune. Fortunately our Scylla and Charybdis aren’t quite as ferocious as the old ones. Things are bad, and plenty bad, but they aren’t quite that bad.