Can We Handle the “Truth?”

Yesterday, Grant Wiggins took a good sized whack at a hornet’s nest(Be sure to read all of the comments, too).  He boldly stated that fiction should be removed from ELA curricula:

No, I am not kidding. I think it is absurd that the bulk of reading making up the ELA curriculum involves fiction. There are few good reasons for retaining so much literature and many good reasons for dumping most of it. Plato famously banned poetry from The Republic. And who is the author of the above quote who agrees with me? None other than Thomas Jefferson.

The responses appeared across various networks faster than you can say Huck Finn.

I give Grant credit for raising the point in such a way.  If you’ve been in English departments in America over the last few years, the topic of including more non-fiction is one that we’ve been discussing at length.  Additionally, there have been myriad studies that show how we’ve created a void for male readers through our adherence to certain titles within the canon.  However, there is something that bears mentioning when we talk about the types of books we read in schools.

The person working with the students.

I work with a group of English teachers now who I know get students, both male and female, into the literature they read.  Could we do better at providing choice to them and providing access to texts that would suit them more perfectly?  Absolutely.  But recently, we asked our students what they thought about their English classes and an overwhelming majority came back to say that they really enjoyed the novels because of the teachers.  And, to further counter Grant’s point, 56% of our respondents were male.

Mary Beth Hertz wrote about this last night, in what I thought was a clear counter-argument that contained both an appeal to our emotions–because let’s face it, great fiction should create empathy within us– and a sober look at some of the things we can do to make our ELA classes more accessible to those we feel are disaffected by the canon.  She also pointed to Nick Provenzano’s post that looked at the yearly reflections on his curriculum:

The one thing that is really tough about being an English teacher is that ever year, the curriculum gets old. As it gets older, the students are slightly removed from it. In the curriculum for my district, the “newest” piece is Death of a Salesman. That is now over 50 years old. I think Death of a Salesman is still relevant to students today and the Dustin Hoffman movie is a great performance of the work. I still love teaching The Crucible and the kids cannot get enough of Holden and The Catcher in the Rye… It’s Twain and those crazy Romanticists and Transcendentalists that are losing the power they once had on students. Many kids cannot see the connection of Huck coming of age and Thoreau writing that people should be who they are no matter what others think. What next?

What Nick points to is clearly something, from my conversations with English teachers over the last few years, that is on the mind of those in the classrooms.  Can I still use the tried and true novels we’ve used and help students make connections between themselves and the characters?  Can they access these?  What I liked about Nick’s post is that he details some of the changes he’s made in his curriculum by including a class on the Graphic Novel, or Pictorial Literature, and other elements like pulling in new material to teach things like satire.

Strangely, though, as I conclude this and think about the words I just read and wrote about Nick’s practices, it goes back to the initial point: it’s the person working with the students that makes all of the difference.

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Aha!

Take a quick look at this video:

It may be contrived, it may be produced by a major publisher, but notice they didn’t try to sell anything.  Also notice that the students were honest in their assessment of their reading habits before and after choice.

Do we underestimate the power of choice in student reading?  Do we accept that students must read certain books regardless of whether or not they are ready for them or want to read them?

Look, I understand the Broccoli Effect, but if you asked me whether or not these students learned more about the skills they will need to become lifelong critical readers through a teacher-paced dissection of TKAM, or what they did through reading books of choice, I am going to say that the choice ruled.

This is perfect timing for me as we have been analyzing where we lose our students when it comes to reading, and how we can correct this.