The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers."... ...Wm. Shakespeare, King Henry the Sixth, Part II (Act IV, Scene II).

Commentary of the Day - July 20, 2003:  A Novel Idea.  Guest commentary by Beverly C. Lucey.

Shakespearean quotes are handy things.  One can toss them around in an argument, appear to be well read, and can completely avoid the context of the words much the way some people use the Bible as a bludgeon.

Lawsuits and legislation keep getting filed regarding ways to fix education.  Big Money is spent to convene Blue Ribbon Commissions that will study why our schools are (allegedly) failing.  More Big Money gets spent buying standardized tests that prove (allegedly) that while all children are equal, some are more equal than others.

It is decreed that No Child Shall Be Left Behind.

It is noted that many school systems are going broke, trying to keep up with unfunded edicts.

For now, let us look at some common problems in high schools that lead some people to toss their hands in despair and say, "Kids!"

  • They aren't doing the homework.  (What if homework isn't collected or necessary to the goings on in the day's lesson?  Teachers give up way too easily in making homework matter to the class work and course work.)
  • They don't keep up with the reading.  (What if the reading is not worthy and the vocabulary obscure?  What if there is no mechanism to discover this, in favor of the teacher 'going over last night's reading.)
  • They cheat on their book reports.  (What if teachers avoided the usual suspects with CliffsNotes and papers for sale.)
  • They complain the books are boring.  (Most text books are not known for their sterling style and provocative structure.)
  • They don't care enough about the standardized tests to put out their best effort.  (What if everyone in the legislature and the governor's councils had to take the grade 10 tests, and their scores published, before they were used in the schools?)
  • They just can't read anywhere close to grade level.  It's the Middle School's fault.  It's the elementary teacher's fault.  (What if we got rid of novels as assigned reading?)

What if we got rid of novels as class assigned reading?

Novels.  Big fat novels.  Time suckers.  Frustration causers.  Cheat magnets.  Tradition.

Why do we think it's a great idea to be sure that every kid has read: a Shakespearean play, four or five classic novels that might be starchier than an All Carbo Buffet, and just as heavy lots of poetry that contain the words 'doth' and 'prithee.'

It's not always the English teacher's fault, either.  It could be the county (or state) curriculum guidelines.  It could be the idea that all students should be aiming for college and need a head start on English 101.  It could be that the idea that we all need a Common Core background in (Western) civilization so that we can chat about The Scarlet Letter twenty years down the road at a neighborhood BBQ.

I suggest these ideas are fertilizer, and we are growing weeds.

We are nurturing generations of people who do not read for pleasure and who are unable to sort out bias and point of view when reading the newspaper.  We are a nation of perfectly intelligent people who get scammed on a regular basis, spread Internet hoaxes without checking the facts, would rather look at a picture than read a thousand words, and hated high school English.

In case you have doubts about my background, I can assure you that I have spent five whole weeks teaching Macbeth, and could have used more time.  I taught the Scarlet Letter.  That's how I know what 'ignominy' means.  Down the hall they were teaching Dickens and Jane Eyre.

Somewhere along the line I gave it all up in favor of short stories, editorials, and deconstructing advertising.  Anything to do with language that I thought a citizen, consumer, and culture glutton might eat, I tried to bring in to the classroom.

If you want critical readers and thinkers, perhaps short pieces are less daunting.  Most great authors have written short works.  You could use any Twentieth Century writer's short stories instead of their best known work.  You could certainly study them in depth.  If one story didn't spark half the class, then perhaps the one two days from now would.   Gone would go the lost month while a student who hated some huge book fell further and further behind.  Discussions would be easier, because it would be much easier to refer to the text in a five page short story.

Just like the weather.  You don't like it?   Wait a day.  It will get better.

Think of how much more material could be brought into the discourse.  Material is free on the Internet; we aren't tied to the one big Adventures in American Literature that is infested with silverfish in the book closet.  We can Xerox a My Turn Essay from Newsweek and work more on real world writing with students.

Standardized tests might show what students have remembered, but they don't reveal  the ability to compare and contrast, the ability to work together for a common goal, the ability to find and sort information.  Those tests certainly don't feature creative problem solving.

I don't want to burn the books.  I want us to accept that reading readiness has a lot to do with taste and student interests.  They will suck down a huge Stephen King tome on their own. Much of the material used in high school English curriculums is simply not age appropriate for most students.  Let's get realistic.  Let's get real.  Let's help students read for the real world out there.  The real world does not demand of us a working knowledge of Gulliver's Travels, even though a few students might enjoy knowing where Yahoo came from.

©2003, Beverly C. Lucey
Beverly Lucey is a career educator.  She taught in high school for decades and formerly was an instructor of education at Agnes Scott College.  She writes for and edits The Language

The Irascible Professor comments:  While the IP agrees with much of what Beverly has said, particularly her last paragraph, he also thinks that there is merit in including a novel or two in the high school English curriculum.  The IP knows that we have become a nation of people with limited attention spans.  We expect the diversion of a commercial or other interruption to our train of thought every 10 to 15 minutes.  Surely, a creative English teacher ought to be able to find novels that will capture the imagination of the average high school kid.  They don't necessarily have to be from the "classics".  There are enough other well-regarded literary works that would fill the bill.  Unfortunately, too many contemporary novels -- real page turners that would fill the bill -- aren't politically correct enough for many school boards, so instead they insist on dredging up works from the past that no one has read in a hundred years in hopes of avoiding controversy.  The novel can catch the imagination like no other form of written language.  It demands that one pay attention to the story and to the characters.  Every high school student of average intelligence or better deserves the opportunity to meet a real book up close, one that can't be put down until the last page has been turned.  If it doesn't happen during adolescence, it likely never will.


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© 2003 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.