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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Poet X replaces Romeo: Why high school students can't read


Adam Kotsko, who teaches humanities at a small liberal arts college, finds that even his best students are unprepared to read and understand 10 to 20 pages of a complex text, he writes on Slate. They can't stay focused. They can't follow arguments. Professors can't lower expectations fast enough to keep up with the decline in literacy. (My post is headlined Why Joe College Can't Read.)


Romeo and Juliet are an inter-racial couple in Gareth Hinds' graphic version of the Shakespeare play. The duke of Verona appears to be Asian.

Brian Huskie, who teaches English at a large urban high school, has seen the "same problem -- only worse." His students groan at "as little as a single page of reading."


They're not asked to read challenging books. His school replaced Romeo and Juliet with The Poet X, a "vacuous and uninspired" young-adult book with a Dominican heroine (black and Hispanic!).


Students don't read the whole book, writes Huskie. They're asked to read three to 12 poems, depending on the teacher. As Kotsko writes, "these are the types of passages likely found on standardized tests, so we’re going to train for the tests."


English teachers aren't supposed to teach content any more, he writes. They teach “skills” (e.g. “how does the author’s use of figurative language develop the central idea of the text”). "The rationale is that we don’t need whole books for skill-development, and that more time needs to be spent on 'analysis' than wasted on simple things like understanding the plot of the story.” 


As it turns out, writes Huskie, "the strategy of 'not reading' somehow doesn’t produce effective readers, writers, thinkers, or test-takers." In 2022-23, his school ranked in the 5th percentile on the state's English Language Arts exam.

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Bruce Smith
Bruce Smith
Feb 24

The English language & literature exam I made earlier this week, based on the harmonized assessments in use in European schools at the Secondary 10 level, and aligned with Oxbridge university press and assessment and the English National Curriculum, assumes that Macbeth is the third play by Shakespeare that students have read, that they have also read an anthology of 15 poems since 1789 in Secondary 9 and a like number by Robert Frost this year, and that they understand plot, figurative language, and themes, and can prove it via a 20-page exam that lasts two hours 15 minutes, and requires around seven pages of writing in response to four texts, some chosen from among the seven works read over…

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m_t_anderson
Feb 23

How Old School was my fifth grade teacher who maintained a book review card file for her homeroom class? Whenever we finished an unassigned "outside" reading--much of which was "junk lit"--we'd write a 50-word report on a 3x5 card (our name, title, author, writeup) and put it in the file. I never quite understood the grading effect, but I recall one other student and I were neck-and-neck in sheer numbers of reports.

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deirdre.mundy
Feb 23

But all good lasting stories do have universal themes—- Enders game (especially the trilogy as a whole) echoes Oedipus in the dangers of not knowing—- there’s a theme of what do we owe to our government, of Justice v Mercy, of War and honor….


Enders Game has themes and they’re the same themes that are woven throughout western literature and that’s part of what makes it a good novel. Card may not have been thinking about them as he wrote, not because HE was brought up on the great stories, they’re in his story too, because the themes in fiction are truths about humanity.

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superdestroyer
Feb 23
Replying to

But one can do to something like TVTropes.org and piece together almost any novel as being nothing more than a set of tropes. How would this be any different than analysing any novel as being a set of themes?

https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Literature/EndersGame


In the 21st century, what is more important, knowing the story of Oedipus and discussing whether it applies to a certain story or understanding what a redshirt is and how it drives storytelling from movies, tv shows, novels, or even video games?

https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/RedShirt

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superdestroyer
Feb 23

The point should be that teachers have always been bad at teaching literature. As an example:


See http://www.hatrack.com/questions/


"QUESTION: Several readers have asked this question: What is the theme of Ender's Game?

Orson Scott Card Replies:

I can't help you at all, because, in my opinion, a good novel won't have "a theme." That's what essays have. Novels have a STORY. If your teacher is asking you to find themes in a novel, to me that makes about as much sense as looking for gears in a fish. So how can I possibly help you find "THE theme"? You can quote me."


Yet, one can find the internet full of discussion on the themes of Ender's Game and how to…


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PikeBishop65
PikeBishop65
Feb 24
Replying to

That and the bar scene in "Good Will Hunting" are two of the best examples of just what "cattle excrement" most of higher learning is.

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