Friday, August 12, 2011


In graduate school I heard about (but never seriously played) a game called "Humiliation." In this game, players would take turns naming the canonical works that they had never read. And, of course, rather than being "humiliating," the greater the scandal--Renaissance scholar who had never read Hamlet, expert on naval writing and whales in literature never reading Moby Dick, etc--the more triumphant the confessor.

This piece in Slate has writers confessing to some of their biggest sins, in the form of Modern Library Top 100 books that they DON'T LIKE! Though a couple of authors skirt the charge, naming Saul Bellow's third-best book or Finnegans Wake, there are plenty of great jabs, especially at Gravity's Rainbow and (my favorite book to hate) Catcher in the Rye.

But the best remark, from Jonathan Rosen, bears repeating: "Hating great books just isn't that fun when there's nothing you are required to like or read, and perfectly smart people keep telling you that The Wire and The Sopranos, excellent television shows, to be sure, have replaced the novel."

Hear that, English teachers? There's nothing you are required to read. And, horror of horrors, perfectly smart people are saying that television has replaced the novel.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

On the classics: not teaching the canon does not mean not being intellectual

I spent the past weekend with two old college friends who both studied literature (one drama, one English) in college. I love both of these women dearly and value their opinions above almost everyone else's. The last two times we've gotten together, we've gotten into hot debates about my stance on reading canonical texts. This past weekend, they really made me think a lot about my position on this issue. I worry a lot about sounding strident. Also about sounding anti-intellectual. So I wanted to try to rehash a few points here (mostly for myself, as this blog is mostly for myself.)

The first and most important is that I DO absolutely believe passionately in liberal education. I'm an English teacher, for crying out loud!! Of course I want my students to read critically, to read difficult texts that challenge their thinking and their use of language, and to think about themes that are, if not universal, then nearly universal to modern human life.

The second thing is that we actually do miss a lot about modern human life if we only teach what the majority of English teachers still call "the classics," books like The Scarlet Letter, Romeo and Juliet, and Huckleberry Finn. These are three of the top ten titles in a study conducted in 1988, in the midst of the culture wars, about the most commonly taught books in American high schools. High schools are like the Alps of the culture wars--they didn't encroach very far. Now, granted, 1988 was a long time ago, but more recent studies in some regions have produced similar results. In 1988 the top ten book-length texts taught in high schools had barely changed from what they were twenty-five years earlier. There was only one book by a woman on the list. There were no books by people of color. Now, you may be saying, but that's only the top ten. I bet all of those schools have books by people of color on their syllabi, just not the same books. But that kind of proves the same point--even books that are practically canonized like Their Eyes Were Watching God or The House on Mango Street or, inscrutably to me, Black Boy still do not appear on these lists. I happen to love To Kill a Mockingbird, but its racial politics are not unproblematic. If that book is the only book featuring African American characters that students across the country read, then we have a problem.

The third thing (which I will try to make the last) is something I worry a lot about now: many English teachers have been persuaded that students should be able to read books that are not "classics," books that include young adult literature and lots of urban fiction. But these same English teachers still create a stark divide between these texts and "classics." It's true that students require more help reading difficult texts and so these texts are better taught as whole-class texts than read independently. But let's not reproduce the old distinction between "high" and "low" literature. Let's instead teach our students that the criteria of literary merit are not set in stone. They are, in fact, always changing, if ever so slightly. If we maintain this high/low divide--especially if we continue to teach the old "classics" while allowing students to read books that "mirror their experiences" by "lesser" authors, then what message are we sending about writers of color? There certainly are great ones out there. Let's teach them, too.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Distinction and Education, or, what really happens at cocktail parties?

Pop quiz: How many times in your life have you ever been at a cocktail party and heard someone make a hilarious or highly sophisticated reference to Hamlet or Great Expectations?

I ask this question because it is exactly the scenario that someone always brings up when you start trying to get people to talk about WHY we teach "the canon" or "the classics."

So, has it ever happened to you? Did you get it? Understanding a cultural allusion feels good. It makes you feel like you're part of the "in" crowd. It makes you feel smart.

What if you didn't get it? Did you feel dumb? Did you say that you didn't get it? (If so, you're very brave!) Did the people talking to you at the hypothetical cocktail party make you feel dumb? If so, then they were using their cultural capital in order to create a distinction between you and them: they're in, you're out.* In other words, they were being elitist. Most of the time, we Americans think that elitism is downright anti-American.

But, for some reason, good ol' anti-American elitism is alive and well in the halls of English education. And your English teacher wants you to be prepared. When she imagines the cocktail party, she imagines that the next thing that the people at the cocktail party are likely to do after making you feel stupid is to malign your high school English teacher, and teach you to curse her name. This is the fear that keeps people teaching The Scarlet Letter and Walden year after year after year. They think about those college professors who will sneer at their students' public school educations when they learn that the student can't correctly identify the author of Pride and Prejudice or The Jungle. And I can tell you, of the four titles mentioned in this paragraph, I, scholar of literature lo these many years, sure as hell hated three of the four when I read them in high school. Can you guess which one I liked?

You were right, it was Jane Austen. Because it's a romantic comedy!

Yes, we all know that it's not our job to make the students like school--it's our job to torture them--but here's the thing: there is ample evidence that assigning texts that kids don't like to read and that aren't interesting to kids is likely to cause them to read less and less over time, and to believe that they are not capable of critical reading. In fact, high school students on average read FEWER books per year than middle school students. And trust me, it's not because the books they're reading are longer.

For the record, I certainly don't think that being intellectual is the same thing as being elitist. I want my students to read widely and think deeply, to have an awareness of the world and of a variety of societies and cultures. I also think that there is absolutely something to be said for being part of a community of readers that shares background knowledge and stories and traditions. But then let's be clear: we're talking about something else there, not about what one needs to read. (This is where I would insert a clip of one of those Jay Leno street-ambush things where we go through Times Square asking people who wrote Romeo and Juliet and they all get it wrong.)

I'm not going to stop teaching Romeo and Juliet. Know why? Students LOVE Romeo and Juliet. They also LOVE The Odyssey. And these older texts have themes that speak to them and to our time, and lead us to have amazing discussions. But these are the questions we should be asking when we decide what texts to teach. We should not be worrying about the curses that will come down on us from future cocktail parties and college professors.

Do I hope that my students go off into the world quoting Shakespeare at cocktail parties? No, because let's be honest. That's super nerdy.

*the words "cultural capital" and "distinction" come from the work of the French cultural theorist Pierre Bordieu. Google him.

Thursday, June 23, 2011


As you may have guessed from the barrage of posts, the school year is over! I made it! I have a whole list of topics on which I plan to write over the next weeks, but I wrote the one about testing before this one because it's the word I want to end the school year on: joy.

One of my students asked me if I liked being a teacher, and because she's the most thoughtful 15-year-old I know I gave her the long answer, which is yes, because. I had not even had this thought before, but when the words came out of my mouth I felt as if I could not have made a truer statement: This has been, without a doubt, the best year of my adult life. 


-I love students. I love their passions and their frustrations, watching their bodies and ideas and brains grow. I even love how narrow-minded they are (most of the time), how conservative they are. I think that's one of the most fascinating things about them. I love cracking their brains.

-It is intellectually challenging in a way that motivates me and gives me energy, unlike my previous job, which was certainly intellectually challenging, but without the other part. I love turning over teaching challenges in my mind. I think about teaching in the shower, on the drive home, and when I'm walking my dog. The best lessons come about in a eureka! way--your brain approaches them from the side, when you're not looking.

-It makes me love my content more, not less. I have read more novels this year than in any other year I can remember since college. I'm grateful to grad school for making me a great reader, but teaching adds yet another layer to reading, because I have to read with two or three sets of eyes and two brains--my own brain, the brain for which these ideas and words are unfamiliar, and the brain that wants to create a bridge between the two. I actually actively look for examples of rhetoric, or figurative language, as I read. It's crazy. Plus, I have come back to the aesthetics of reading in a way that I have missed for years. I take joy in reading. Something about being around adolescents all the time puts you more in touch with your adolescent emotions. I cry more, reading, at movies, and watching TV. As I've written here before, most people think that teachers are cynical and burned out, and I certainly am both, and often. But teaching has rejuvenated me in amazing ways too.

There's this joke in education: elementary school teachers love kids, high school teachers love their content, and college teachers love themselves. I've done all three, and I think all three are true about me.

This is what high-stakes testing feels like, revisited: elation, heartbreak, embarrassment, fury, frustration

Elation: When I found out that my students' scores on the Explore (the 9th grade version of the ACT) went up across the board, I was thrilled. This, I thought, would prove that my practice produced results without drilling, without biweekly practice tests, with student choice and class time for pleasure reading, writing things other than persuasive essays, all of it.

Heartbreak: Then I found out that our school had given a test WITH THE ANSWERS IN THE BACK OF THE TEST BOOKLET. Widespread and massive gains in scores indicated that many students had availed themselves of these answers.

Embarrassment: Why was I even excited about the scores in the first place? If I believe that the scores are not an accurate measure of achievement, why do I buy in when they score well? Is it because I feel subversive? Because I feel like the strategies I use--already supported by research--are validated?

Fury: It gets worse. Much worse. Emails and letters were sent out expressing our "disappointment" in our students' "lack of integrity." Students whose scores went up 3 points or more (a significant gain) were informed that they would need to re-test two days later, on a Friday, technically a student attendance day, but in practice a day when students picked up their report cards and did not attend school. After the last day of school. After grades had been turned in. If students did not show up to re-take the test, they would not be promoted to 10th grade. Finally, they were told that we need accurate data for their own sake, so that we can plan their instruction effectively.

This is wrong for so many reasons. First, to impugn our students' integrity when we made the temptation to cheat and the stakes for cheating so great that cheating outweighed doing the "right" thing. As most teachers know, cheating is usually evidence that students have been given a task for which they are unprepared. And then to question our students' integrity as if we are the authorities on integrity, we who do all kinds of things to "massage" our numbers. Second, to hold students' promotions hostage in exchange for a test that has no codified effect on, and bears little relation to, their qualifications for promotion. Third, to present this to students who did well as if they are guilty until proven innocent, and to threaten then with punishment if the scores they earn after the end of the school year do not match their earlier scores. Last, to tell them that this is for their own good is the worst of all, because I can't find a way to construe it that isn't a lie. Their scores will not determine placements for next year (those decisions have already been made); they will take another practice ACT in September to serve as a new baseline. Their gains are only being used to demonstrate the success of the school. The school actually calls EPAS scores "the gain that matters."

Frustration: My students came to me to pick up their report cards after the test, obviously frustrated at the sour end to their school year. I can't tell them that I agree with them, and that I think it's bull shit, that the whole testing regime is the foul, stinking river of shit that they must swim across just because they don't have money and are trying to get somewhere in their lives. After all, I am their Chiron, their guide; I wish that I could say that my classroom is a raft, or at least that I pass out life vests at the shore. But jobs are at stake. Reputations are at stake. I'm neck-deep in it too.

The Article That Everyone Interested in School Reform Should Read

Brilliant and sensible.

Thursday, May 5, 2011


To the four people who recently read my blog and responded to me, thank you for inspiring me to write some more!

This is what high-stakes testing feels like, part two

A student asked me if her score went up, and when I had to tell her no, her face fell. There were tears in her eyes as I told her that her score had gone up a lot between September and January, and that she had made a lot of progress. More heartbreaking than her tears was the brave face she put on as she smiled and nodded.

I feel reassured when the literacy coordinator not only tests them, but also gives them a survey with questions about their reading habits. In that class, students who came in saying they hate to read are leaving saying that they love it.

I was looking at the comments to see if there are any (there are not), but I was happy to see this old one from my brother: "One good teacher inspiring even one kid for a year can make a lot of difference."

Thanks for reminding me.

This is what high-stakes testing feels like

I couldn't fall asleep last night. I did what you are not supposed to do: I kept looking at the clock--10:30, 11:30, 12:30--and thinking about how much sooner Steve Inskeep would wake me up. 6 hours of sleep. 5 hours of sleep. 4 hours of sleep. If I get up and take half of a Tylenol PM, will I be groggy in the morning? Will I have time to drink extra coffee tomorrow morning so that I can make it through the day on 5 hours? 4 hours?

I teach what my mentor has called "both ends of the spectrum" at this school. This morning, the seniors in AP Literature are taking the AP exam. Last period today, the 9th graders in the "struggling readers"* class are taking a reading assessment. In 10 days, as a sign tells me when I walk in to school, all 50 9th graders I teach will take a practice ACT test.

Since my AP class meets first today, followed by a prep, I have 3 hours free this morning. I am wandering around my classroom, flitting from one task to the next--I keep getting distracted and thrown off course. This is, I admit, my normal mode, but it is turned up several notches: I take the longest route to get from point A to point B. While teaching yesterday, I would walk to the back of the room and forget what I had gone to retrieve. In the supermarket I turned my cart 270 degrees counterclockwise instead of 90 degrees clockwise. Then at the checkout I discovered that several items were not ones I had picked. Someone put stuff in my cart by mistake! No, wait, half of my items are missing--I took someone else's cart.

I decide to clean the desks (a weekly task--teens can be smelly), and I discover that dust has collected on the countertop where my homework in- and out-boxes and supplies live. I start to actually dust the countertop, then stop myself. I really do have a lot to get done with this free time.

When I taught at a private school, I never worried about my students' performance on standardized tests. But now, only seven months into teaching at a "reformed" public school, I have already experienced the thrills and frustrations of student "data." Today I feel the familiar excitement of performance anxiety, the eagerness to be measured, that I have felt over many years of test-taking. But mine are the feelings of a high-achieving student. What do my 9th graders feel? I saw the trepidation on their faces yesterday. Will I be good enough this time to get out of this class?

At the private school, standardized tests were a chore, a capitulation to the college admissions regime. We submitted, but it was widely held that these tests couldn't really measure our students. It never even occurred to me that my students' performance might be tied to the "effectiveness" of my teaching, and thank goodness--even now I feel ten times the teacher I did then. Why, then, did my ineffectiveness as a teacher (and lack of certification) not result in low "achievement" for my students, in that notorious half-year of "growth" that builds into the achievement "gap"?

Yesterday I talked to a colleague who also teaches struggling readers. "It never goes away," she said.

We came back from spring break just ten days ago; the dread that has been with me ever since makes it feel like a month. But for the last two days my mood has been lighter. The thoughts keeping me awake last night were not nightmares of stricken students, but dreams and ideas for all that I will do with the seniors in these four glorious post-AP weeks.

*Students who scored at or below a 7th grade reading level at the beginning of the year (on a norm-referenced test) were placed in an English class whose focus was geared more toward intensive reading development, rather than literary study.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

On irony

OK, I haven't posted in a long time! I am not making any promises, but I have had several post ideas and I'm going to try to roll out a few of them over the next few weeks.

This one is brief. When I was in high school, I had an English teacher who I loved and who really taught me a lot about how to analyze literature, how to write an expository essay, and how to be a journalist. The year I finished high school, he left teaching to become a full-time editor for a newspaper, and he always gave the impression that teaching was something that he didn't really want to do. What he really wanted to do was talk about books. (More on that another day.) The other thing about him is that he was absolutely hilarious, and that his humor depended largely on his deftness with sarcasm. In fact, many of my favorite teachers were the ones who were cynical and funny. The cynical teacher whose #1 tool is a wit that depends almost entirely on the use of sarcasm has become a common stereotype in our culture--we see it all the time in movies, on T.V., and in literature. (Think Tina Fey in Mean Girls, Paul Giamatti in Sideways, etc, etc)

It was surprising, then, when I learned that Charlotte Danielson (THE Charlotte Danielson), in her exhaustive rubric of teaching, "Framework for Teaching," lists "sarcasm" as among the attributes of an "Unsatisfactory" teacher. But here's the thing. Adolescents really don't get sarcasm. I teach both freshmen and seniors, and neither group can reliably and predictably detect irony*--the seniors are an AP group and they still have a really hard time identifying irony. Irony requires us to understand language or ideas on multiple levels simultaneously, and most adolescents are only beginning to develop the ability to think abstractly when they begin high school. It's really amazing to watch this happen. But what it also means is that they just don't understand sarcasm.

For adolescents, sarcasm is likely go to one of two ways. 1) The child understands from your tone that you're being mean or insulting, and her feelings get hurt, or 2) The child doesn't understand that you don't mean what you say, and takes your statement at its face. (A student asks you to go to the bathroom, and you say, "Well, OK, I guess you really want to get a bad grade.") Either way, it's not doing what you want it to do. And, chances are, you really are being mean. Adolescents have really thin skins. That's not their problem, and it's not our job to make their skins thicker by hurling darts at them. It doesn't mean we have to stop trying to be funny, but maybe we should try to invent better ways.

*Irony, by the way, is when (1) you mean the opposite of what you say, as in "Yeah, Einstein was a real dummy," (2) when you know something that the people in the story you are reading don't, and they really need to know, as when Romeo doesn't know that Juliet isn't dead, or (3) when what you expect to happen is the opposite of what happens, like when you get a free ride when you've already paid.**

**This is the only situation in the catalogue presented by Alanis Morissette in her song "Ironic" that is actually ironic.