Education Roundup: Is the Common Core Killing Literature?, Banning the Bard, 96 Valedictorians, and Dangerous Teachers

I’ve always wanted to do more writing about education issues on the blog, but knowing it’s not the primary interest of the readership here, I’ve always struggled with how to include it, including a couple of failed efforts to write a full-time education blog. For now, I’ll probably limit myself to weekly digests, and see about moving the education posts that aren’t about Montana politics over to their own home somewhere on the site.

Is the Common Core Killing Literature?

In a piece about how English classes have transformed in the Common Core Era, the New York Times includes a quote from an administrator who seems to have embraced exactly the wrong response:

“Unfortunately there has been some elimination of some literature,” said Kimberly Skillen, the district administrator for secondary curriculum and instruction in Deer Park, N.Y. But she added: “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.”

As well as anything I’ve read, that encapsulates the reasons some teachers feared the demand for more “informational text” in the Common Core, the fear that administrators would embrace teaching chunks of novels as a means of skill transmission, rather than as works of art that help humanize our students and teachers. I’m not sure what “skills” reading To Kill A Mockingbird is meant to teach, but I’m quite certain that skipping over parts of the novel to cram in more non-fiction text will diminish the impact of a book that has probably resonated more powerfully with the students I’ve taught than almost any other.

The Times piece also addresses two other common issues with the inclusion of non-fiction texts: ham-fisted efforts to jam a marginally related non-fiction essay in with a work of fiction and having students spend time with interesting, but low-level texts.

Too many of the textbooks that have labelled themselves as compliant with the Common Core standards seem to have fallen victim to the first problem, with too many examples of marginally related historical documents being attached in a collection with an engaging piece of fiction.

I’d much rather have my students read an interesting novel than one of my blog posts, for God’s sake, but Mark Baurlein, professor of English at Emory notes that the latter might take precedence, saying the informational text “very easily slides into blog posts — it shifts over to topical contemporary discussions of things.”

I absolutely believe in teaching non-fiction, and even have a class that consists of 80% non-fiction readings, but we need to make sure those non-fiction texts are included because they are relevant, engaging, challenging, and yes, of literary merit.

Must We Teach Shakespeare in English Classes?

English teacher Dana Dusbiber made some waves with a post picked up at the Washington Post, in which she argued that “not only do I dislike Shakespeare because of my own personal disinterest in reading stories written in an early form of the English language that I cannot always easily navigate, but also because there is a WORLD of really exciting literature out there that better speaks to the needs of my very ethnically-diverse and wonderfully curious modern-day students.”

While I am quite sympathetic and even supportive of the argument that the literary canon needs to better include the voices of those other than dead, white men, I’ve always found the argument that we should reject Shakespeare somewhat facile. It’s not true, as Dusbiber argues in a terrible strawperson, that “a long-dead, British guy is the only writer who can teach my students about the human condition,” but it’s hard to argue that there are few authors who approach the human condition with the sophistication and insight Bill brought to the stage. I think we also need to be careful about arguments that suggest students are incapable of understanding his complex writing, because that may suggest that some students, because of economic background, just aren’t capable of understanding complex texts.

Long live the Bard! Just don’t forget all the other excellent voices and perspectives out there.

Be Careful, Teachers! Don’t Tell Jokes

It’s hard to underestimate how well this piece by Jay Matthews captures the mentality that infects so many school systems, where teachers can become suspects for meaningless infractions, and where administrators can seize on those minor infractions to punish or control their teachers. In this case, award-winning teacher Rafe Esquith has been banned from his classroom since March because he made an innocent joke while having his fifth graders read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: a joke that led to no complaints from parents, but only from a fellow teacher.
The real story, of course, is a teacher in a school in a high poverty community teaching his kids to love literature through hard work, high expectations, and absurd fun.

In a world where conservatives decry the practice of tenure, discplinary processes like these, which don’t afford due process or even a timely resolution of charges, are far more significant threats to quality education.

As Matthews argues at the end of the piece, “if you work hard and show administrators how much better our schools could be if they took their responsibilities seriously, you are going to become a target for abuse.”

Time to Retire the Valedictorian?

In my time as a teacher at Helena High, the number of students who have been named valedictorian has steadily climbed, but nothing like this school district in Ohio, were three high schools had 222 valedictorians, with just one honoring 96 of them. The district’s chief academic officer argues that having a more selective process might create a “hypercompetitive environment that’s not healthy for kids,” but I’m not sure that making the award of valedictorian meaningless is the answer.

Book Recommendation

It’s an older title, but I highly recommend Education as Enforcement: The Militarization and Corporatization of Schools, edited by Ken Saltman. Written in 2003, it offers a prescient look at how the culture of accountability and corporatism are transforming our schools. There are a number of excellent essays in the book about the role of the military and corporations in our schools, as well as the impact of high-stakes testing on our students, but this quote particulary resonated with me:

“The emphasis on discipline includes tightened curricular constraints such as federally, state-, and locally mandated curriculum guidelines, and more standardized curricula geared toward the reduction of teaching as an intellectual endeavor. In the current climate, top-down constraints surpass even the most traditionally stifling, instrumentalizing controls on teacher work. We are beyond the era of Frederick Taylor and into a whole new realm of anti-critical, thought-squelching tactics.”


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  • WHAT? Not Shakespeare too?! Incredible that an English teacher was unable to teach Shakespeare, for I have never tired of reading his works or watching his plays. We would do the kids a HUGE disservice by removing him from the classroom. His wit, humor, story telling and insight into the human condition are unmatched in any other literary figure.

    But it is hard to teach Shakespeare, for you see, most kids come to Shakespeare with a preconceived notion that it is boring, hard to understand, tedious, and therefore they have already decided that they are going to hate it. Thankfully, these preconceived notions can be overcome. And I’ll tell you how.

    I was lucky when I was teaching to have much academic freedom. Of course, we had to do Romeo and Juliet freshman year, but I wouldn’t start with that play. I would take a week or so and do Much Ado About Nothing first! First, we would watch Kenneth Brannagh’s movie about the play, and then we would quickly read the text. The kids were hooked! As is everyone who sees this play in movie form. It’s impossible not to like this play even if you miss a little of what’s being said. The kids were overwhelmed! The no longer hated Shakespeare. In fact, they loved him!

    From then on, they were hooked!

    The Brannagh movies did a masterful job of making Shakespeare accessible to all.

    I dare anyone to watch the movie and not be hooked! Even kids from different backgrounds can enjoy the play. Hell, there’s even black people in the movie!

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Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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