Missing the Mark

The other day, on the train to school, I overheard an extended conversation among three high school students (two girls and a boy) who were talking about their classes. They were bright, interested kids–and from their demeanor and journey it seemed that they attended a selective school in Manhattan. (I have a pretty good guess which school it is, but I don’t want to “out” them.)

They had to read Hermann Hesse’s Demian (or the first chapter) for English class. One of the girls had read it; she said it was very long. The boy began reading it on the train.

This was one of my favorite books when I was thirteen. I read and reread it. My writing was influenced by it. I read as much Hesse as I could. The book still has great meaning for me; I have brought in passages to my students over the years. (In particular, the break  between Sinclair and Pistorius has come back to mind many times.) I often think back on the prefatory words:

“I wanted only to try to live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self. Why was that so very difficult?”

For a few minutes, the boy seemed absorbed in the reading. His copy was an worn hardcover with a brown canvas cover–maybe a library book. He stopped talking and just read and read. I imagined reading it too, and in doing so, I remembered phrases, cadences, and details.

Then he looked up and asked one of his classmates, “What’s a mark?”

In the first chapter, Kromer,  a bully, tries to intimidate Emil Sinclair (the protagonist and narrator) into giving him two marks. Terrified, Sinclair breaks into his own piggybank on the sly and procures sixty-five pfennigs. Of course that doesn’t satisfy Kromer.

“I don’t know,” one of the girls answered. “I was confused about it too. I think a pfennig is like a penny, and a mark is like a dollar.”

“But they use euros in Germany,” the boy replied.

I held back from saying anything, but I found the conversation puzzling. First, how did they not realize that the book was written long before the adoption of the euro? Second, why did this particular detail stall them? Even if they weren’t sure what the mark was, couldn’t they “mark” that question and proceed?

Beyond that, why the attention to the mark and not to Sinclair’s struggle between two worlds? There is a dichotomy he can’t accept: between the pure, innocent world of light and the sordid, crime-ridden, unspoken world of darkness. He wants something besides these two worlds but doesn’t know yet what it is. Isn’t that something most teenagers can recognize: the longing for way of life that they haven’t found yet?

The mark is important, of course; Sinclair thinks he has to get the money but has no way of doing so without stealing. The incident seems to push him out of his former world. It matters that the mark is much more than a pfennig and that two marks is about three times his piggybank savings (which he does not even consider his own to take). To overlook these details would be to miss a great deal of the meaning. Yet the meaning exists beyond these details and gives them their proper place. If you understand what’s happening with Sinclair, then you figure out the significance of the mark, even if you don’t know German pre-Euro currency.

It would be wrong of me to blame what I saw and heard on the Common Core or “close reading.” I have no way of knowing whether it had anything to do with their instruction. Also, it was good to pick up on the mark; it is an important detail, after all. Still, something was amiss. How could these students have difficulty with the first chapter of Demian? Why did it strike them as “long”?

This may speak to a larger cultural tendency: a weakened capacity to relate to (or even imagine) other times and places, unless they are presented in a way that matches us. Curiously, a number of seemingly opposite educational tendencies play into this. The Common Core is in some ways a response to the extremes of Balanced Literacy, which emphasized “reading strategies” and personal connections to the text. Under Balanced Literacy, students were encouraged to make “text-to-self” connections, which immediately removed them from the text. The Common Core standards demand a focus on the text itself.

What’s curious is that students would even need help making connections between the texts and their lives.  When I was in school, that was the part that came easily. I could relate to just about anything I read, if it was good. The challenge lay in separating myself from the text–in seeing differences between the characters and myself, or between the text’s language and my own. The last thing I needed was practice in making a “text-to-self connection.”

But if I (and my peers) were too attached to what we read, too ready to find ourselves in it, today the tendency is toward detachment. (People read very little, or they read with quick and specific goals.) Like Balanced Literacy, the Common Core attempts to address this problem. But instead of encouraging students to connect the text to their own lives, the Core stresses the importance of reading and making sense of it. Find out what’s actually in it before you start connecting it with yourself.

Yet if people read with absorption and openness, then they would both take in the actual text and relate it (subtly, not crassly) to their own lives. They would need neither “text-to-self connections” nor laborious lessons in close reading. The reading would be the starting point; in class, they would discuss and probe the text further in a variety of ways.

This requires more than an instructional shift; it requires a shift of culture. We are trapped in the lingo of the latest–of updates and takeaways. Students learn to view reading as a form of possession; they must “get something out of it” in order for it to be worth their time. There needs to be more allowance for things that come slowly, for meanings that reveal themselves over time, and for stories that do not match us at first glance but may offer lasting correspondences.

The Blessing of Slight Neglect

Almost a year ago, I commented on William Faulkner’s Nobel speech. I focused on how the sprawl of our lives–the pressure to be available around the clock, the leveling and spreading of our intentions–tends to break down our sense of sanctity (broadly defined),* and how, without a sense of sanctity, we lose touch with what he calls the “old verities.” Today I would like to comment on a different aspect of his speech: the “problems of the human heart in conflict with itself.” I begin, though, with a change of direction. Last week, I started a post along these lines and ended up dissatisfied with it. I realized that there was great danger in implementing Faulkner’s words in a literal way.

From Faulkner’s speech:

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

One could nod vigorously and say, yes, we have forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself, and that’s part of the problem in education today. We look at social, political, economic problems–but not the problems each of us carries in our private minds: problems of love, loyalty, hate, betrayal, and their limitless combinations. Therefore, it seems that we should turn our attention again to these problems.

Yes, but how? The worst thing–and the thing likeliest to happen–if someone were to present this argument to education policymakers–would be for schools to mandate daily attention to the “old verities.” Teachers would be required to write an “old verity” on the board every day. When reading a work of literature, students would have to identify the “old verity” that it addressed. This is deadly and counter to Faulkner’s meaning–for he is speaking of fiction and poetry, not of dogma. (The links in the previous sentence point to the etymology of these words, which is interesting in terms of the “kneading” and “piling.”)

Something would likewise be forced and false about addressing “old verities” through so-called “informational text” (heavily touted in schools, even in English class). It cannot be done. Philosophy and history can tackle the central human problems–but to do so, they cannot rely on abstractions and information alone; they need insight and form as well. Insight and form belong to fiction and poetry, which in turn rely on a certain concealment, or a complex kind of revelation. That is, to see truths of this kind, you must also have room in your imagination for the unseen.

A passage from José Ortega y Gasset’s Meditations on Quixote sheds some light on this. (Note: These texts are among the shorter readings in the Epic course at the Dallas Institute’s Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers, where I am currently teaching. The past two weeks have been filled with the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Divine Comedy, and other works–all of these read in their entirety–and we will finish next week with Moby-Dick.) Here’s Ortega y Gasset:

There are things which, when revealed openly, succumb or lose their value and, on the other hand, reach their fullness when they are hidden or overlooked. Some men refuse to recognize the depth of something because they demand that the profound should manifest itself in the same way as the superficial. Not accepting the fact that there may be several kinds of clarity, they pay exclusive attention to the clarity peculiar to surfaces. They do not realize that to be hidden beneath the surface, merely appearing through it, throbbing underneath it, is essential to depth.

Maybe there’s a blessing in having Faulkner’s “old verities,” the problems of the human heart, overlooked in schools. Maybe a certain kind of overlooking is the best kind of honor. I think we can honor them through curriculum and general bearing, without pounding themes and messages into the students’ heads. Give students room to hear the works, to wade through them, to feel their pull and counter-pull. Show, through selection, intonation and gesture, that something worthwhile is there.

I think of these lines from the beginning of James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover:

The more I struggled to be plain, the more
Mannerism hobbled me. What for?
Since it had never truly fit, why wear
The shoe of prose? In verse the feet went bare.

One can go barefoot as a reader, too–and this means reading and interpreting in an unfettered way. Yes, one analyzes what one reads, often in great detail and depth, but one does not try to map everything onto a specific external meaning, method, or theory. One allows the literature its life, not all of which can be explained in external or technical terms. (Some of the most inspiring criticism is fiction of its own kind.) When one does this, when one enters literature with heart–in the Hebrew sense of “lev,” not our current sentimental sense–one will confront those verities willy-nilly.

There is a focus and clarity that comes from not fretting over what we are going to get from a given thing. Unfortunately, schools have been trained into a “customer service” mode. They are supposed to deliver a product to the students–who, for their part, are supposed to expect one. There is partial good to this; one does want students to learn and do concrete things. But one can accomplish this with recognition that it is not the whole.

Beyond this, I have started to think that certain kinds of “neglect”–not extreme or irresponsible kinds, but the kinds that let things hide just a little–may hold more good than we know. In the same way that a poem or essay revises itself when one steps away from it, so we, too, may take shape when others are not looking. We get to putter around and think things through. The neglect must be slight, though, and not self-justified. A world shrivels when it asserts that the things it ignores don’t exist.


*Sanctity: the quality or state of being holy, very important, or valuable (Merriam-Webster); I would add: the quality or state of being set apart from other things. (In the earlier post on Faulkner’s speech, I didn’t use the word at all; rather, I used terms that conveyed a similar meaning.)

Note: I made some edits to this piece after its initial posting.

Room for Debate: Balanced Literacy

The July 2 edition of Room for Debate (New York Times) addresses some of the controversy regarding Balanced Literacy. The panelists are E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Pedro Noguera, Lucy Calkins, Claire Needell, Mark Federman, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, and myself.

A few days later, Alexander Nazaryan’s op-ed on the subject drew impassioned responses as well. As I read comments on the various pieces, I saw a need for definitions and distinctions. For example, group work is often equated with collaboration, but the two are not the same. I explain the difference (or part of it) on Joanne Jacobs’s  blog.

A “Good” Common Core Lesson?

In a recent NPR article titled “What Does a Good Common Core Lesson Look Like?” Anya Kamenetz takes the reader through a “good” lesson as explained by Kate Gershon, a research fellow at EngageNY, which develops Common Core instructional materials for New York State. Unfortunately, this lesson exemplifies curricular confusion, misunderstanding of the nature of intellectual work, and a dogmatic approach to pedagogy. Kamenetz picks up on none of this; her reporting is unskeptical and cheerful

The lesson–the very first in the year for a ninth-grade ELA course–focuses on a short story by Karen Russell: “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.” Students begin by reading and discussing the pertinent standards–then spend most of class time circling and looking up unfamiliar words.

Russell’s story looks promising–but the rationale for its inclusion makes me shake my head. According to Gershon, it meets the standards’ criteria in four areas: complexity, “canon” (in that the author was a Pulitzer finalist), contemporaneity (the standards use the phrase “contemporary authors” in numerous places), and diversity. What about its inherent quality., though? What about its form and meaning? What about its relation to the other works in the unit or course?

To be fair, Gershon does mention that this is a “gorgeous text by a young, brilliant writer”–so it would be a stretch to say that she (or the curriculum writers) ignored inherent quality. But shouldn’t that be the first consideration: offering the students something worth reading and rereading over a lifetime? The other criteria–complexity, canon, contemporaneity, and diversity–should be subordinate to this first consideration. (In addition, one might include works for their importance–because other works allude to them, or because they do something unusual with their genre or form. That’s related to “canon” but not identical to it.)

Moreover, a curriculum as a whole should have coherence and meaning. A ninth-grade literature course may well be a survey course–but the works can still be selected to combine in interesting ways. I can’ say for sure that this isn’t the case here–but it’s curious that the article doesn’t touch on curriculum. Without a literature curriculum, a Common Core lesson quickly turns into a lesson on reading skills. That may explain why, on the very first day of the school year, the students begin by reading and discussing the standards, and then turn to their main activity of circling and looking up words.

If this were a literature course, the teacher would give an overview of the works, questions, and problems to be considered. The students might well read something on that first day–in order to start thinking about the substance of the course. The teacher might take them into a passage–reading it out loud, pointing out subtleties, and posing questions. Strangely, the current lesson is based on disparagement of such activity. It rests on the premise that the teacher is not supposed to present much at all, lest her “performance” make the students lazy.

This leads to the next problem. Underlying this lesson is a misunderstanding of intellectual work. According to Gershon and others, students will be hard at work under the Common Core. Teachers will no longer be making things easy for them, as they did in the past when they presented literature to students.

Speaking from her own experience as an English teacher, she said, the tendency all too often has been to instead spend class time “performing” literature — spelling out the subtext, defining tough words before students have a chance to puzzle over them, and advertising key plot points like the voiceover on a Bravo reality show.

That’s a caricature of literature instruction–and I’ll get to that in a minute–but what strikes me here is the assumption that if the teacher is explaining the literature, the students are doing no work. Now, this might be true, if the teacher’s explanation is reductive–that is, if she is handing students basic plot points and other takeaways. But there are many other ways to take students into a text, ways that will get them thinking.

Thinking should be  the essential work of the classroom. Students can and should look up words at home; in class, they come together to hear the teacher and each other, to pose questions, and to test out ideas. Of course, this can vary: there may well be days when the teacher has students write or work with unfamiliar vocabulary. But it takes discipline and concentration to listen, think, and speak in a whole-class discussion–and the classroom is the best place for such work and leisure. Students learn to discern when they do and do not have something to say; in the former case, they may speak up; in the latter, they may listen. Such discernment will serve them well in college and beyond.

Can the Common Core really claim to prepare students for college and career when it equates “hard work” exclusively with visible physical activity–such as annotating a text in class? What about the hard work of listening to the teacher and forming a question or challenge?

Just as the lesson misconceives intellectual work, so it misrepresents teaching.

Common Core advocates are zealously repeating the mistakes of their predecessors: they insist that in the bad old days (or backward regions of current days), the teacher stood at the front of the room and yakked, while the students passively took in plot points and didn’t learn to read. What forgetfulness! For years under Balanced Literary, teachers were told to be a “guide on the side,” not a “sage on the stage.” But teaching is much more complex than these crass oppositions allow. Back to the NPR piece:

[The Common Core’s emphasis on actual reading] sounds obvious. We don’t go to school to be able to recite the plot points of an arbitrary short story.

Yet in practice, English teachers often spend their time in conversation with “the three or four highest-performing students in the room,” Gerson says, while others, at best, passively absorb the main ideas of a text.


One major strategy the standards introduce is for teachers to get out of the students’ way and not to make it too easy on anyone. “It’s very common to want to protect, advocate, support and ensure the comfort of students that are struggling,” Gerson says. “What all the research is telling us is that we must create content where there is a productive struggle … where all students are being asked to work toward the same target as everyone else.”

Now, a teacher in dialogue with several students isn’t necessarily ensuring comfort at all. True, if she spoke only with those students for the whole year, a dreary kind of comfort could take over. But often a dialogue like that can inspire others to join. Or a teacher can involve others deliberately–or give them ample time to puzzle over difficult questions. A teacher at the front of the room may be giving students the challenge of their lives. Let us not assume that she should “get out of the students’ way” or that she takes anything away from them by teaching them.

In his essay “Former Teachers” (in his 1943 collection Philosopher’s Holiday), Irwin Edman recalls his English teacher Mr. Michael Kelleher, who “gave us the contagious impression of so liking poetry that he simply had to tell us about it.” Edman may not have known how blessed he was that no one told his teacher to get out of the way.


Note: I made some revisions to this piece after posting it. One of these is a correction: Karen Russell was a Pulitzer finalist, not a Pulitzer Prize winner.

Standards Count as Complex Informational Text, Says Leader

Green Lake, NY–In response to schools’ complaints that they have not yet received a viable, affordable Common Core curriculum with actual texts, district superintendent Mike Vnutri announced that the students should be reading the very standards. “It’s informational text, and it’s complex enough,” he said. “Plus I have it from higher up that everyone’s supposed to be reading the standards several times in every class, so you’re killing two birds with one stone. Sorry about that metaphor; I happen to like birds.”

In a recent model Common Core lesson for a tenth-grade literature class, students spent a lesson reading ELA standard RL.9-10.4: “Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language evokes a sense of time and place; how it sets a formal or informal tone).”

Although this is not in itself a literary text, every literary text should be paired with informational text anyway. According to sources, it is even acceptable to leave the literary text out. This standard satisfies complexity requirements; when fed into text analyzers, it shows an eleventh-grade level and could thus be considered a “stretch” text: too hard for struggling readers, but within reasonable range for many others.

In order to ensure that all students leave the classroom with an understanding of the text, teacher Ernesta Pourtous announced, at the start of the class, that the goal of the lesson was to understand all of the words in the standard, which she then read aloud. She then asked each student in turn to repeat the goal of the lesson. She noted where they stumbled over words.

“Now,” she said, “when you encounter an informational text that has difficult words, there are several strategies you can use. One is to look the words up in a dictionary. That’s not the strategy we’re going to practice today, because we don’t have dictionaries in the classroom. Instead, I am going to teach you a four-step exercise: Identify, Predict, Align, and Define. You can remember it as IPAD.” There were giggles in the class.

For the next activity, she had students copy the standard from the board and carefully circle the words they didn’t know The circles had to be complete (or they would have to start over), and any student who did not circle “figurative,” “connotative,” or “cumulative” would lose a point. She circulated the room, taking photographs so that she could document that every student was hard at work. At the end of the ten minutes, she told students to hold their sheets of paper in the air. Circled words abounded.

Next, she took a minute to touch base about how it felt to succeed at an activity. Tessie Moran, a tall girl with dark bangs in the corner of the room, spoke quietly about how she now knew that she could do it. (There were hidden microphones in various locations.)

After this, Ms. Pourtous instructed them to turn to their partners and predict the meanings ot the words. “At this point, you are allowed to say what you think they mean; there are no wrong answers,” she told them. “But I do want to see everyone talking.” Soon the room was filled with noise. Five minutes later, she called for silence again. A student raised his hand.

“Yes, Jose?”

“Why aren’t we reading a sonnet or something?”

“It’s no use reading a sonnet if you don’t have a Common Core-aligned goal. The purpose of this lesson is to help you get your goals in place. That will make you college and career ready. If you want to read sonnets, you’ve got to do the hard work. Which leads us to the hardest part of the lesson: alignment.” She explained that now their task was to align their definitions with those of their classmates. First, they would compare notes in small groups. Then they would rotate to other groups–three times. Once they had completed all of these alignments, everyone would have an identical list of definitions. Through group influence, she said, these definitions would become more accurate over the course of the activity.

She then circulated as students conferred excitedly on the meaning of “connotative.” “I think it’s like a suggestion,” one student said; the others nodded and copied him. “Now, how do you turn that into an adjective?” Pourtous asked the group. Once they arrived at “suggestive,” she moved on.

At the end of the class, she had them all post their identical definitions on the walls. They had defined “figurative” as “imaginary,” “connotative” as “suggestive,” and “cumulative” as “piled up.” The room was now decorated with words and their approximate meanings.

“You see,” said Superintendent Vnutri, after displaying the video at a principals’ meeting, “every single student was involved in this lesson, and every single student walked out with a better understanding of the standard. Do you see how it was all in their hands? This is vastly more productive and student-oriented than having a teacher stand at the front of the room and yap about Shakespeare, or engage in dialogue with just three or four students.”

“I’d like to hear about the Shakespeare, myself,” a principal ventured.

“Sure you would,” Vnutri retorted. “You’ve just got to remember that this isn’t about you.”


Note: I made some edits to this piece after posting it.


Literature Class Is Not Reading Class

The StudentOne of my greatest concerns about the Common Core is that it will do what so many other reforms have done: drag everything toward an average, be it a high or low one. This may well happen if literature class is turned, once again, into reading class.

Reading class emphasizes the process of reading. The Balanced Literacy versions focused on “reading strategies” and “just-right” books. A Common Core version goes something like this: During class, the students read a “complex text.” Then they answer “text-dependent questions.” Then they write an argumentative piece that uses concrete textual evidence.

In reading class, the teacher is not supposed to give presentations—or, if she does, she is to keep them brief. Instead, she assists the students as they read and write. Class time is work time.

In literature class, by contrast, students do the reading at home and come to class to discuss it. The teacher does give presentations, the length and substance of which will vary. Class discussion may focus closely on certain passages or relate different passages to each other and to the whole. Questions may move from simple to complex, and they may also take unexpected directions. For the most part, basic comprehension is assumed;  the class discussion focuses on interpretation. Of course there are exceptions; certain texts present exceptional difficulties and must be read slowly in class. On the whole, though, one assumes that the reading has been done and that the class can now tackle the subtleties of the text.

In a literature class, it is understood that the teacher will offer knowledge and insights. She presents context, background, interpretations that illuminate class discussion (without taking anything away from the students). She poses questions that build on each other and that draw on past discussions. She uses judgment in this regard, weighing the good of presentation against the good of elicitation. The proportion will vary from lesson to lesson, text to text, and course to course.

That’s how it works in college courses (in literature, history, and philosophy). You don’t spend time reading in class, unless you are focusing on a particular passage. Nor do you expect the professor to refrain from offering knowledge. Some professors choose to talk very little. Others give extended (and brilliant) lectures even in seminar. The different styles provide different angles on the subject. Certain lecture courses and lecture-style seminars are continually oversubscribed because (gasp!) the students value what the professor has to say.

Now, many students in grades K-12 (and even in college) lack the practice of reading for class. They may benefit initially from classes where the main task is to read and write. Yet this is a state of disrepair. In a more robust situation, students (from middle school onward) would be responsible for poring over the reading, on their own, until they understood it. Where, when, and how they did it would be up to them. True, many students don’t have a quiet place to study. Yet it isn’t that difficult to make quiet places available (in libraries and even in the schools), provided students shut off their devices and actually study.

Poring over the reading! That is one of the most important things a student can learn how to do. I have had English-language-learner students who made drastic progress in a single year, mainly because they had grappled for hours with difficult texts at home.  Every day they came to school with more vocabulary, grammar, and grasp of idiomatic and figurative language. This enhanced their speaking in class; they were thoroughly acquainted with the subject of the lesson and could thus join the discussion.

Maybe schools need two kinds of classes: reading classes for those who don’t have the practice of reading on their own, and literature classes for those who do. If this is so, then there should be a sturdy bridge from one to the other, so that the students in reading class don’t get stuck there.

After all, liberal education involves the exchange of ideas. You can’t exchange ideas until you have ideas about something. To have those ideas about something, you need to have spent time thinking about the subject. To think about it, you must know what it contains. Not all of this can take place during class time—so, for students to exchange ideas in class (in a way that isn’t superficial), they must study more on their own.

Independent, “unscaffolded” reading—one of the end goals of the Common Core—should be the starting point, whenever possible. Provide the “scaffolds” for those who aren’t there yet, but don’t make the advanced students descend.

P.S. (June 15, 2017) People continue reading this post, four years after I posted it. Please feel free to leave a comment.

Knowledge vs. Nonsense

Rarely does an article make me cheer as did Shannon Rupp’s in Salon (about the benefits of studying philosophy). Here’s one of my favorite quotes:

I’ve long thought that the debate about whether universities should be offering trades training or educating citizens is something of a red herring — the discussion should be about whether to study knowledge or nonsense.

A treasure! Thanks to Joanne Jacobs for bringing it to my attention.

It brings me back to my first year of teaching, when I wrote a letter to the New York Times about the misguided focus on “strategies,” especially reading strategies.

“Strategies” of that kind make me queasy (unlike chess strategies, which I enjoy). Yet I fear that the “strategy” nonsense is now being supplanted by other kinds of nonsense (or even wrapped up inside it). At least there are people calling out the nonsense! Here’s another quote from Rupp’s article:

I spent a semester defining ordinary things. Hats. Chairs. It’s harder than it looks. And I remember a classmate’s resistance to it. He kept ranting that it was stupid — everyone knows what a chair is! — before dropping out.

Of course, everyone only thinks she knows what a chair is. Or social justice, for that matter. Politicians, CEOs of questionable ethics, and all PR people count on exactly that. They will say something vague — I find the buzzwords du jour all seem to have some reference to “social” in them — and leave us to fill in the blanks with whatever pleases us.

Voila: we hear whatever we want and they get away with whatever they want.

Yes, and the same can be said about “strategies.” What are they? In many cases, they are methods of evasion. When I taught elementary and middle school, I saw students dutifully look at the picture on the cover, read the blurbs, make predictions about the book’s contents–before even opening the book and reading. They had been taught to do this. Then, once they started reading, they continued dancing around the text–making “text-to-self connections,” using pictures to help with word meanings, and so on. I encouraged them to pay attention to what was actually there.

But now the focus is on “close reading,” and while that’s an improvement, it might get taken too far. For instance, you do need to understand certain things outside the text in order to grasp the text. Try a “close reading” of Aristophanes without any knowledge of mythology, ancient Greek literature, or ancient Greek history! You might as well try to boil a turnip without water (or other suitable liquid).

Also, reading is not always linear; the mind goes here and there, drawing connections and imagining things. When you read Crime and Punishment, for instance, you start to feel the presence of Svidrigailov and Porfiry Petrovich. You can cite textual evidence, of course, when describing these presences, but it’s also good to take them in less rationally, to imagine them in the room. This requires close reading, but not of a strictly analytical kind. Similarly, when reading a poem (such as Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence“), it’s as important to take in its mystery as it is to notice its structure, syntax, and tropes. (This goes for literary nonfiction as well; if you try to read Emerson’s “Experience” in a strictly analytical manner, your mind will end up in knots, and the text will fly away.)

How should one read, then? Well, the thing one reads will often lead the way. If it’s good literature, it calls for careful, thoughtful, imaginative reading. If it’s nonsense, well, then, it calls for the “spot-the-nonsense” strategy, which requires some background knowledge–of philosophy, literature, and other subjects–as well as a salutary allergy to buzzwords and overpuffed ideas.

Teacher Reprimanded for Assigning Book

Genomsnitt, MN—A high school English teacher faces public scolding and possible dismissal for assigning a book to her students, Superintendent Harry Billiard announced on Friday. “Let this be a warning to all,” he said. “To assign a book is impositional. The kids aren’t there yet. Plus, how do you know they’ll like the book?” Billiard explained that the specific book (To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf) wasn’t the issue; the problem lay in assigning any book at all.

According to anonymous sources, the teacher had assumed presumptuously that a literature course should feature works of literature. Moreover, she had fickly concluded that, since the current Common Core standards emphasize the importance of reading complex texts, she should actually include them in her curriculum.

“Students should read them, yes, but that doesn’t mean teachers should assign them,” explained Billiard. “Students should be empowered to make their own choices. Then, if they don’t, the teacher will be held accountable for the situation.” Students are expected to read at least twenty complex texts, of their own free will, over the course of the year. If they fail to do so, it means the teacher has neglected to incorporate best practices—in particular, the software.

“What software?” asked the teacher, who requested anonymity for the time being, knowing that her picture would be plastered over the papers within the next 24 hours. “I didn’t know there was software for my course on modernism, and I’m not sure I’d want any.”

“There isn’t software for modernism yet, that’s right,” Billiard responded. “But there’s software for the skills that students would be using when reading something modernist like, um, who’s a good modernist writer? I’m drawing a blank right now.”

If the teacher had been doing her job, she would have had the students practice their skills during class time with the aid of the software, which would provide a variety of short texts geared to their interests. After they passed a multiple-choice test at a given level, the software would recommend further reading on the basis of their preferences and performance. “That way, you’re letting them get creative,” said Billiard. “They have some ownership of the books they read. It isn’t just some teacher telling them ‘you’ve got to read this,’ when it’s got nothing to do with where they are.”

“I’m kind of glad we did start to read To the Lighthouse,” countered Jeremy Pembek, a senior. “When the father says ‘it won’t be fine,’ it’s like everything crashes down on me, because I know that voice. I wanted to read more in class, so we could discuss it.”

“You can’t take Jeremy seriously, or at least you can’t let him distract you from best practices,” commented Hilda Moran, a literacy coach who had started to observe the literature classes at the school. “He’s obviously from an educated family, so he’ll read books like this on his own. It’s the other kids we’ve got to worry about. That’s why we’ll be installing the software next week.”

“I’m glad we’re ditching that book,” concurred Betty Neznam, Jeremy’s classmate. “I totally could not relate to it. I didn’t even get past the first sentence. ‘Up with the lark?’ Who talks like that? Why are they making us read this stuff? I mean, I’ve got more important things to do. I’m down with skills, though. I know I need skills.”

If the renegade teacher complies with the mandates, uses the software in every lesson, and abandons all discussion of literature, there will be no further disciplinary actions taken against her, Billiard said. “We’re about goodwill here. We recognize that teachers can change. But she’s got to start doing what works.”

Testing official Vance Verveen noted that, according to readability formulas, To the Lighthouse scored well above the post-college-graduate level. “We’re all for challenge,” he said, “but this was beyond the pale. You can see for yourself,” he added, displaying an interface on a screen and pasting in the novel’s second paragraph. “You see that the Flesch-Kincaid grade level—which is research-based, mind you—comes to 26.7. Twenty-six point seven! And we’ve got kids three years behind grade level. Granted, it’s an honors class, and those kids are more advanced, but still, they’ve got to be made to feel successful. That’s what our tests are for. I wouldn’t feel successful if someone made me read that.”

To feel successful, according to Verveen, students should take daily multiple-choice tests at their current level, which gradually increases as they practice the requisite skills. “You’ve got to let them know that they’re good at what they know how to do,” he said. “That’s the ultimate message. Then you coax them into doing just a little more, and a little more. Little steps toward big gains,” he said, patting his pocket. “Little steps.”

Literature Courses and the Common Core

Will the Common Core State Standards push schools to emphasize “informational” over literary text, even in English class? Many educators worry that they will. The CCSS document states that, by grade 12, the proportion of informational to literary text in the curriculum should be 70 to 30—just like the ratio in the 2009 NAEP Reading Framework. Granted, this ratio applies to the entire curriculum, not specifically to English Language Arts. Yet English teachers in many districts have been told to include more “informational text” in their courses.

Carol Jago’s piece “What English Classes Should Look Like in the Common Core Era” (The Answer Sheet, Washington Post, January 10, 2013) offers a refreshing view of the matter. She begins by clarifying this matter of “informational text.” No, English teachers are not supposed to stop teaching poetry, drama, or fiction. Instead, they should teach more of all of this, as well as literary nonfiction; students should get used to reading a lot. They should read attentively at home, so that they can take part in lively class discussion:

To reverse this trend [toward heavy entertainment media use in place of reading–DS] we need to make English classrooms vibrant places where compelling conversations about great works of literature take place every day. They need to be spaces where anyone who didn’t do the homework reading feels left out. … I’m not talking about force-feeding students but rather inviting them to partake of the richest fare literature has to offer. One thing I know for sure. The teenagers I taught were always hungry.

In addition, according to Jago, students should read history books and write research papers for history class. They should not only become adept at reading different kinds of texts, but also come to understand why these texts are worth reading.

I applaud these ideas, yet I have some qualms as well. First, if the point is to introduce students to compelling literature, then shouldn’t curriculum and courses take precedence over standards? A curriculum specifies the actual literature; standards do not. A curriculum need not be uniform across schools, districts, and states—but it holds more meaning and coherence than generic standards do.

One standard reads: “Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.” That is fine and well—but it matters a great deal what the text is. Ambiguities and uncertainties in Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge are quite different from those in James Merrill’s “Lost in Translation,” yet here they are treated as one and the same. A student’s “growth” in relation to this standard could be uneven, yet he might be learning a great deal.

Second, the standards bring a spate of new assessments that we have not yet seen or tried. What happens if the tests conflict with good curricula? Will teachers come under pressure to defer to the tests? Will the technology companies start hawking software that supposedly helps students boost their scores? Will teachers be expected to use it? Teachers are understantably anxious about the new assessments; much will ride on them, yet we do not know to what degree they will reflect the contents of a literature or history course. The sample test items available for scrutiny (for example, a “task” regarding Ovid’s “Daedalus and Icarus,” from his Metamorphoses) offer little if any assurance; the Ovid passage is full of meaning and suggestion, yet the multiple-choice question does it poor justice.

Third, how will schools foster the sort of environment that Jago envisions (and that I support), where students come to class eager to discuss the texts? Many students will do this right away. Others will resist at first but will eventually come around. Still others will resist for a long time—maybe all the way through school. Jago suggests that the students who come to class unprepared, or unwilling to participate, will recognize that they have excluded themselves from something exciting. This is possible when the course has integrity: when the works selected for the course are inherently compelling and combine in an interesting way, when the teacher takes students into these works with verve and care, and when neither the standards nor the assessments distract from the  daily practice of delving into the texts. Students must care about more than their grade and test score; they must take interest in what they are learning, or at least glimpse something of importance in it.

In essence, Jago is talking about cultivating an intellectual environment. This comes when the teachers’ and students’ attention is not continually deflected toward peripheral things. It matters much more what John Stuart Mill says about the danger of squelching unpopular views, than how much On Liberty counts toward the “informational text” ratio, or even (after a certain point) the “growth” that students supposedly show or do not show on a test of reading skills. Of course students should be learning things that are testable (as well as things that are not), but will these tests capture what they have learned in a good class? If not, will we all be expected to set aside our better judgment and bow to the test?

Standards, too, can distract when held up too high. What standard can hold a candle to the following passage from Mill? What standard approximates a discussion of it?

But it is not the minds of heretics that are deteriorated most, by the ban placed on all inquiry which does not end in the orthodox conclusions. The greatest harm done is to those who are not heretics, and whose mental development is cramped, and their reason cowed, by the fear of heresy. Who can compute what the world loses in the multitude of promising intellects combined with timid characters, who dare not follow out any bold, vigorous, independent train of thought, lest it should land them in something which would admit of being considered irreligious or immoral?

The answer: none. Standards can serve as reminders and gauges; they can help us see areas of excess or deficiency. But the substance of the courses must come first; students should be reading a given work not because it meets grade-band complexity criteria, not because it is “informational text,” not (primarily) because the reading of it will help them address standards X, Y, and Z, but because it is worth reading and pondering, and because this reading and pondering will help them think on their own. Any standards, any tests should be subordinate to this principle; the Common Core can help direct our efforts but is not our ultimate guide.