Call Me E.D. Hirsch…

In the Moby Dick  v. Marvel Comics debate that is breaking out, Panic at the Pondiscio is pretty spot-on with his parody of yesterday’s New York Times account of a new approach to teaching literature — let kids read whatever they want.  (Times story here)  It’s not that students shouldn’t read things they like and chose to — of course they should.   Rather, the issue is whether that should augment or replace some defined curriculum.   I’m pretty firmly in the augment camp.  Here’s why:  First, there is shared social and cultural capital that it’s important for all students to be exposed to.   Ensuring that all students get this material is a key social equity and mobility strategy and it is intrinsically good:  It simply helps a person better understand the world around them.   Second, as a matter of teaching, there are ideas, themes, skills, and concepts we want students to learn in English-Language Arts and as a practical matter it’s more effective to teach those things built around common content than trying to do it across 20 or 25 books (or comics) all at once.  And thankfully, within reason, we don’t have to choose between shared content and encouraging students to read on their own. 

Kevin Carey stakes out something of an extreme position here.    He’s right about the first mover advantage of some books now commonly used, but that’s an argument for making some tough calls here around curriculum, not just throwing it out.

We should also step back and ask for a moment whether many of today’s students who are disengaged are because of the substance of the material, the quality of the teaching, or because they haven’t been taught to read so encountering challenging literature is frustrating for them?  Good stories have timeless appeal and as the Eduwife – a former high school literature teacher herself — likes to point out, if you can’t  make many of the classics, with their sex, violence, and foul deeds exciting for students then you’re in the wrong line of work…As with most education questions this one is bound up in some larger issues facing the field.

12 Replies to “Call Me E.D. Hirsch…”

  1. I’m with the Eduwife, but it’s also important to realize that you can’t unring this bell at a moment’s notice. Today’s teachers are as good as their training, and the Reader’s Workshop is simply How It Is Done, with not a lot of room for alternatives.

    What that means is that the damage is already done for lots of kids. You can’t just walk into a high school English class filled with poor readers and undereducated kids and say, “OK, class. Pride and Prejudice, Chapter One.” That would be torture for the kids and it wouldn’t work. But that battle isn’t won and lost in high school, it’s won and lost in grade school. We’re not giving kids the kind of education that would make them see great works of art and literature as relevant to their own lives.

    We need to start giving kids the broadest, richest, deepest education from kindergarten starting now – today – otherwise ten years from now we’re going to be having the same debate. Ooooh…Kids aren’t interested in great books! Of course they’re not. Why would they be? But they didn’t choose to have narrow horizons. We make that choice for them from the very earliest age. You don’t grow up on Captain Underpants and Sir Fartsalot and then wake up one morning at 17 and say, time for Shakespeare!

  2. There are two fundamental points that Andrew and Robert are missing here. First, the workshop model is catching on in middle school–not high school, and not college. And that is entirely developmentally appropriate. I mean, how many readers actually remember what they read in junior high English class? Far better to create life-long readers in 6th, 7th and 8th grade than continue the steady process of killing their love of learning and increasing their alienation from school.

    The second point is that this is not a free for all. Good ELA teachers are avid readers and experts on adolescent lit. Captain Underpants is not an option.

    I wish this model had been available to me at that age.

    And by the way, are we still arguing about the canon in 2009? I’m not picking that argument up here; it’s so 1985.

  3. if you can’t make many of the classics, with their sex, violence, and foul deeds exciting for students then you’re in the wrong line of work



    I was wanting to say just that myself but it seemed too disrespectful.

  4. And by the way, are we still arguing about the canon in 2009?

    Since neither parents nor the taxpaying public has a say in what and how ‘public’ schools teach, I for one am not ‘arguing’ about the canon.

    I am voting ‘no’ on school budgets and encouraging others to do so.

  5. In my urban, charter middle school, we use RW in our ELA classes. We have a double block of reading, so the one hour is spent on RW and the rest of the time on other reading strands (shared reading, read-aloud, etc. – we also have separate periods for writing, grammar, etc.) What RW allows our teachers to do is meet kids where they are in terms of reading level. We have new 5th graders reading on anywhere from a beginning of second grade reading level to a legitimate fifth grade level and anywhere in between. Having them all read a book on a fifth grade level or even a fourth grade level would be an exercise in futility. Developing readers grow the most when they are primarily reading text that is “just-right” for them, and occasionally working on easier and harder texts. We find that our lower readers at some point were passed by their classmates in other school and got frustrated with reading because it was too difficult for them. By getting them back to a reading level that is appropriate for them and building their confidence through fluency work, phonics and comprehension lessons, we find that they are able to make massive growth and in a few years get caught up to their grade level. I think a big part of it is that they read voraciously – a lot more than I did in MS as I kept up with the one book at a time method. We have kids who read 2-3 books a week. Some of what they read is fluff, but a good RW teacher helps to guide their students to material that they like but that is also more substantial than the run of the mill stuff.

    As our kids move into upper middle school, we transition our reading classes into a format that is more appropriate for HS, (i.e. reading whole class texts). At this point, most of our kids are on grade level or only one level behind and they can keep up for the most part. And yes, they are reading MS appropriate lit – The Outsiders, The Giver, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, etc. But we hope that by pushing major themes, they will be ready when they head out to college prep HS.

    Does this method work? At my old charter school, kids just had to pick a book for SSR and they read whole class texts in English class. Those kids were not nearly the readers that my current kids are, even though their initial skills were higher. Many of the lower level kids had no incentive to really read their books…there was a lot of pretend reading going on. My current school knows a lot more about the kids as readers and people than my old school. And my new school has some of the highest reading scores in the state, despite being 75% low income and 98% minority. I wasn’t always a believer, but given the right structures and teachers committed to making it work, I think RW is a great program.

  6. The word “education” comes from the Latin meaning “to draw out” and “to lead.” To me that suggests balance, rather than an either or position. Yes, the teacher needs to encourage her students to choose their own reading material. On the other hand, one of the main duties of a teacher is to lead the student toward new experiences of all kinds. That would include books.

    Now that I’m retired I have the time to read all day if I wish to do so. Most of the books I read are on the bestseller list but several times a month I read books chosen by people in my book clubs. Last month I read Ethan Frome for the first time in my life. I remember expressing gratitude that this wonderful novel had been selected for me because otherwise I would have missed it. Now I want to read a biography of Edith Wharton and try some of her other books. And that’s basically what education is about; it broadens us.

    So in conclusion I’d say that students should read books chosen by themselves and others.

  7. I’ll chime in as an historian, here, and try to avoid “arguing the canon,” as I agree with Sam that the debate is “history.” Hayden White, longtime philosopher of history and rhetoric made a career of reminding us of the “content of the form,” noting that histories were more often relevant for how they said what they said, rather than for what they said.

    The same issue plays out here with literature. That students should be required to struggle and engage with a set of texts in common is, formally, beneficial. It prevents them from wholly subjective interpretations of what they read, because they must come to a common understanding in the discourse of their classroom. Some form of this is developmentally appropriate at all ages.

    That said, we should pay attention to the lessons that RW offers us, about how today’s students read, and what they want to read, as we consider what they should read. We all too easily forget that the “canon” and “Greats” courses at Oxford and Cambridge were invented in the late 19th century to cement a bourgeois Victorian mindset among the governing class of Pax Britannica. Prior to that effort, Shakespeare was considered by many in Georgian Britain to be tired and dated prose. In much the same way, the canon of the American school system was set in the 1950s to justify the emerging Pax Americana and the New Deal economics that supported it. Understanding these lessons is historically important, regardless of whether the literature can be viewed as “timeless” or not.

    The 21st century still needs the “form” of the canon, because the “content of that form” is highly relevant to socializing students to literature. What the content, is, or should be, however, is part of the debate we call society. We teach the canon because we hope that students will be successfully socialized to engage in that debate and, if they are, we should not be surprised that students would want to change the content.

  8. Sorry Sam, but the model is catching on in high school, at least in a big way in my area. It’s part of the “middle school creep.” I’ve been seeing it creep its way up for at least 5 years now, and more and more new ELA teachers are going to the Reading Workshop workshops. What I have seen, as a student teacher mentor, is that many of them didn’t read the classics in their high school so they aren’t familiar with them, they don’t read them in ed school nor learn how to teach them, and they are intimidated by the prospect of engaging interest in material in the classroom they themselves aren’t familiar with.

    Luckily, I’ve also seen a number of incoming new teachers who do know their literature, and are wary of the full Reading Workshop model at the high school level. Many of the seasoned teachers I know have long provided opportunities for students to read both a selected canon and self-selected works.

    The only problem I have with the “full” program is that without reading a common book, students truly do miss out on what Tim mentioned – coming to a common understanding through discourse.

  9. Tim wrote:
    > I’ll chime in as an historian, here…
    > In much the same way, the canon of the American school system was set in the 1950s to justify the emerging Pax Americana and the New Deal economics that supported it.

    Tim, that is an intriguing comment. Could you provide some references that go into this in more detail (paper or online, your own writings or other sources)?

    I’m not trying to start a debate: I actually am genuinely curious about your point.

    Dave Miller in Sacramento

  10. I am a high school ELA teacher. The NYT piece struck me as presenting a false dilemma. I have always done some choosing and let my students do some choosing (within certain parameters). I just though that was good practice.

  11. Hats off to all of you who argue for a measured approach to this debate. While it’s easy to lose ourselves in the polemics, we must remember the urgency of this issue for our students: It is their literacy and thus, their ability to participate not only in our society but in their individual pursuits of life, liberty, and happiness. I, for one, am much more concerned about these latter pursuits. If we ignore them, what counts as great literature is pointless as it will never get read. Yes, all students need and deserve to be invited into the conversation that surrounds Great Books, but the conversation’s the thing, at least initially, certainly, not the book. As an avid reader from a young child into adulthood, I understand the power of books and literacy to help me not only get where I want to go in life but to survive, quite literally, by putting me in touch with the voices and and ideas of others whom I would not have met otherwise. Sometimes these were those of classic authors; sometimes they were unknowns. The point is, if my reading had been left up merely to teachers and adults–no matter how well-intentioned or informed they might have been–I would have committed suicide before ever reaching 21 (and I am speaking quite literally here). As adults and teachers, we cannot anticipate or understand all of the myriad needs that drive individual students to continue to read once they learn how. True, we can’t respond to all of these needs, but we assuredly can do better than we have historically. One size doesn’t fit all, not by a long shot. There’s room for a multiplicity of voice and choice in education in general and in the things students read. Teachers are in a privileged position to realize this promise. We must always remember to raise our consciousnesses and thereby ourselves and our students up.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.