California English Journal
Kermeen "Punky" Fristrom…
I consider Punky
the heart, soul, and conscience of CATE and our local Greater San
Diego Council of Teachers of English. I would like you to contemplate
the generations of lives this man has touched in some highlights
of his remarkable career…
Punky has been a board member of our local San Diego affiliate for thirty-six years, at various times serving as vice president, president, and treasurer. At the state level, Punky has served CATE for twenty-three years on the board in many positions from president to parliamentarian and convention coordinator, attending thirty-five consecutive annual CATE conventions and planning nineteen of them.
At the national
level, Punky has served NCTE as the local general chair of the 1975
annual convention and on the local committees for the 1995 and 2003
conventions. He has served on standing committees and chaired special
When the National Assessment of Educational Progress released its most recent “report card” on writing achievement, the results provided some bragging rights for states like Massachusetts and Connecticut, but in general educators found little new or especially alarming. The only possible exception was the persistent disparity between white and African-American students. It was a one-day story—if that.
Yet tucked among the tables was a stunning statistic. By the 12th grade, male scores were on average 24 points lower than female scores—and almost three-fourths of this gap had been opened up by grade four. To put this difference in perspective, it equals the gap between African-American and white students at the 12th grade. While the racial gap is caused by a perfect storm of social inequities—poor housing, resegregation, poverty, and a legacy of discrimination—there can be no such explanation for the gender gap. We’re talking about the difference between brothers and sisters.
These results lead to compelling questions that are only beginning to be raised in American schools—what social or education factors are powerful enough to produce this result? And what can we do about it? Here are some observations to open this discussion.
As the reading material grows more complex, they feel overmatched by long words and long books which often pose no difficulty for the more “natural” readers—often girls. As Victoria Purcell-Gates has noted, in US schools the train leaves the station very quickly. The young reader, struggling with picture books, may well sit beside someone devouring Harry Potter. To hide their difficulty, many boys become adept at “fake reading” where they appear to be reading these longer more grown-up books.
In their book, Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys, Michael Smith and Jeffrey Wilhelm put a slightly different twist on this resistance. They claim that it is not literacy that boys are resisting but school itself. To openly and enthusiastically engage in school tasks can be threatening to ones image of masculinity – for African-American students it can be perceived as acting “white.” It is often risky even to admit “studying” for a test because that would show a too-close identification with schooling.
There is usually a moral agenda, a preference for books that develop personal sensitivity and ethical awareness (Tuck Everlasting is a good example). Similarly in writing, young boys are steered away from action and adventure plots to literary realism that focuses on character development and human relationships. In the post-Columbine era, boys are often prohibited from using any violence in their stories, a form of censorship that has been imposed without any protest from watchdog organizations like the National Council of Teachers of English.
This bias toward literary realism and social significance causes teachers to dismiss the powerful attractions of popular culture—cartoons, TV shows, rap, video games, action movies, and humor. In many cases, female teachers find the popular culture enjoyed by boys to be repugnant or at least foreign. Consequently it is treated not as a resource for literacy work, but as an ENEMY which school literacy must contend against. . There is even a reluctance to treat nonfiction as a serious literary form, though surveys show boys tend to prefer nonfiction. A book like Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air (a favorite among males of all ages) rarely holds a place beside “quality fiction.”
Man and Machine.
I suspect that many boys are willing to place their bets on computer learning which they see as more efficient and more in line with the learning environments they will meet outside of school. This bias was captured in that anti-school classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off where Ferris is working on synthesizers and reprogramming school computers from his home, while poor Ben Stein is droning on about the Hawley-Smoot Tariff. In other words, Ferris is working on machine-mediated literacy while schools are stuck in a 19th century mode of transmission.
But I keep coming back to another less comforting movie, The
Full Monty, which opens with unemployed steelworkers walking through an
abandoned plant in Sheffield England, their muscular strength no
longer needed while their better educated wives (an ex-wives) are
the ones earning the money. The rules of the economic game, without
their noticing it, have changed.
In my first year
of teaching I met this resistance in an all-boys high school in
Boston. I called my dad that first night in a panic.
How could I make it through a year when students refused to read
the anthology (and a few used them as projectiles). He asked me the
simple question, “What will they read?” I explained to
him that I didn’t think there was anything in the musty book
closet that they would voluntarily read.
After some hesitation, I said that they might read Sports Illustrated.
“Well, tomorrow morning you buy every Sports Illustrated you can find and take them to class.”
I followed his advice, raiding all the news stands in my neighborhood. I remember one drug store manager’s reluctance to sell me all of his Sports Illustrateds, but I had the money and there was little he could do to stop me.
The students did read the magazines, and later read some more contemporary books that I managed to buy. It was not a miraculous Dead Poet’s Society turnaround, but a good step in the right direction.
Gee, James. 2003. What
Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. New York: Palgrave.
The data are alarming. Research from this country and abroad clearly establishes that boys under-perform girls on a host of literacy tasks. In fact, one large international study found that in all 32 countries studied, boys under-performed girls to a significant degree on all the literacy skills tested with the sole exception in 18 countries of workplace related literacies (Elley, 1992). The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement investigated writing achievement across 14 countries and found that "gender by itself or in combination with certain home variables was the most powerful predictor of performance, particularly with academic tasks" (Purves, 1992, p. 201). More recently, Newkirk (2000) points out that the gap between the girls and boys is "comparable to the difference between whites and racial/ethnic groups that have suffered systematic social and economic discrimination in this country" (295).
Our concern for this disparity is what motivated our research on boys and literacy, research we report in detail in "Reading Don't Fix No Chevys": Literacy in the Lives of Young Men (Smith and Wilhelm, 2002). As we argue in that book, we believe that educators have a moral responsibility to understand and address educational underachievement by any group. So it would seem that our belief in that moral imperative might lead us to embrace the No Child Left Behind Act. But it doesn't. Although we applaud the motivation for that act, our study has raised concerns about two of the most significant details of that act: the emphasis on standardized testing and the definition of a highly qualified teacher. We'll address each of these concerns in turn, but before we do, we'd like to take a quick look at the major findings of our study
A Quick Look at Our Research
Our work proceeded from the assumption that while some boys might
be having difficulties with their literate engagements in schools
there were areas of their lives in which they were successful and
which they found fulfilling. We sought to find out why boys like
what they like and how these interests might be related to their
literate lives both in and out of school. To do so we interviewed
a very diverse group of boys from a very diverse group of schools,
asking them to talk to us about their favorite activities, to respond
to short stories that centered on boys' embracing and rejecting literacy
in different ways, to think aloud about their reading of various
texts, and to keep track of everything they read, wrote, watched,
or listened to both in and out of school. What we found was that
every one of our boys talked passionately about at least one activity.
Their passionate interests varied widely: gaming, skating, rapping,
photography, drawing, sports, car repair, tagging, weightlifting,
and many others. But all of them had a passion. And many of those
passions had literacy related components. Justin regularly went on-line
to find out about the films of Quentin Tarrantino; Mark read a magazine
to help him hit a golf ball farther and
Csikszentmihalyi (1990) helped us account for what motivated these passionate interests. His research has focused on what he calls flow, "the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter" (4). In our book we detail how our participants' activities and interests could be explained in terms of five conditions of flow: a sense of competence and control, an appropriate challenge, clear goals, a focus on the immediate, and a relation to the social. These last two themes are what gives rise to our concern with No Child Left Behind.
A Focus on the Immediate
(1990) contrasts flow experiences with "the
feelings we typically have in the course of life. So much of what
we ordinarily do has no value in itself, and we do it only because
we have to do it, or because we expect some future
Csikszentmihalyi's research resonates with Dewey's theories of education. In Democracy and Education (1916), Dewey argues,
A look back at the examples we just gave about the activities our
informants loved illustrates this point. The boys' favorite activities
were those that gave them an immediate enjoyment. They engaged for
the very doing of the activity, not to
The texts to which the boys most gravitated also indicate the importance of the immediate. The Simpsons was by far their favorite television show (48 of the 49 boys designated it as a favorite show). Why? It made them laugh. The pleasure of getting a joke is an immediate one. (Think of how flat jokes become if someone has to explain them to you after the fact.) In addition, the boys saw the themes of the show as being immediately relevant to the world around them. Drake, for example, indicated that he loved The Simpsons because "it's a satire, man.‰ When we asked him what he meant by satire, he said "It's when you make fun of something to make it better." Yet he had hated his reading of Jonathan Swift, which he identified as a "stupid satire." When asked the difference between The Simpsons and Swift, he indicated that "The Simpsons is about real stuff. It's about real stuff that you could actually do something about." He did not understand the "Irish problem" of the 18th century, nor the implications of Swift's critique of social policy that led to the writing of "Tale of a Tub," and so he resisted it. It had no immediate personal relevance or social significance to him, and was therefore „stupid‰ and solely schoolish.
The boys also gravitated toward mysteries and thrillers in their reading and viewing. Why? They explained the delicious experience of finding out "whodunit." The boys wanted quick and visible signs of accomplishment that immediately rewarded their engagement. Frost offers a fitting aphorism that summarizes their attitude: "Only when love and need are one/And work is play for mortal stakes/Is the work ever really done/for heaven and the future's sake" "Two Tramps in Mudtime," ll. 69-72). In short, our research, coupled with the research and theory we've discussed above, maintains that if we want kids to have passionate engagements that will make them willing to learn, our focus needs to be on the present.
What Happens with high stakes tests?
But consider what happens with an increasing emphasis on high stakes standardized tests. Hillocks (2002) maintains that educators have "come to equate test scores with education" (1). His work demonstrates that it is not standards, but assessments, that are driving current educational trends. The problem is that "testing programs tend to restrict the curriculum to the kinds of knowledge and skills that are easy to test. They are likely to generate drill and worksheets in classrooms" (12). Our worry is that nothing that we ask students to do in school is for the enjoyment of the doing. Increasingly, what students are asked to do in school is for the instrumental purpose of passing a test, often one in the distant future, instead of doing something for immediate purposes that provide intrinsic satisfactions.
Hillocks's (2002) work shows that under the pressure of high stakes assessments all instruction moves to the impersonal, decontextualized, and the formulaic, the opposite direction from the highly-situated activity to which the boys gravitated. He demonstrates at length how standardized writing assessments reduce rich conceptions of the writing process and genre into easily tested formulas. For example, rich models of argumentation based on Toulminian logic become a five-paragraph essay where students state a topic, write three supporting paragraphs and restate their topic. This makes argument into a simple list, where the crucial issue of warranting data to connect it to a claim and to convince an audience to share the writer's value about the data has been entirely lost. Argument, as it is currently taught in schools under the pressure of assessments, does not exist in the real world nor does it connect to the lives of students. It is entirely a “schoolish” versus a “toolish‚” and useful pursuit. Instead of being taught to do healthy work, students are being taught to do school. In this way, our focus on preparation for the future is unmasked. We ask students to be successful on assessments that have no connection to the healthy work people do in the world they are supposedly being helped to inhabit.
Hillocks maintains: "We know that children and young people can and do think systematically and persistently about highly ambiguous, intractable and frustrating problems with energy and a kind of joy" (7). Our boys did. But that joy faded when they encountered the kind of standardized and formulaic teaching that so often accompanies teaching to the test. As one of our informants, Yuri, told us: "I can't stand writing if I've been put on a line and if I walk outside of it something happens. I like to be able to just kind of go off in my own little rampage of self-expression." In summary, the effect of education's emphasis on standardized testing, an emphasis promulgated by No Child Left Behind, is clear: The current situation undermines motivation and the opportunity to learn in ways that would support transfer of what has been learned to new situations in the world.
A Relation to the Social: The Contract to Care
of our data also revealed the extent to which our informants‚ engagement
with literacy is social. Students read and wrote to maintain and
develop relationships with authors and characters, friends and family.
They also read and wrote
- My teacher will try to get to know me as an individual.
We've come to identify this contract as the contract to care in classrooms. Interestingly, most of our boys felt that most of their teachers reneged totally on this contract. This in turn made them much less willing to work in that classroom or cooperate with the teacher. The boys clearly saw teaching and learning as relational pursuits. When this important facet of the process was ignored, the boys often expressed a notion akin to Herb Kohl's famous book title: "I Won't Learn From You." As Buda asserted: "If [the teacher] won't bring her game to school, then why should I bring mine?" Obviously an exclusive focus on the material to be learned and tested leaves the human element out of the equation. But our data convinces us that many students will not be motivated to learn, nor will they be able to learn, without this relational element.
Another way in which the provisos of No Child Left Behind stand
in contrast to our research, then, is the way in which it leads to
teacher expertise being identified and discussed only in terms of
subject matter knowledge. We fear that No Child Left
Clandinin and Connelly (1988) have conducted fine-grained longitudinal studies of teachers' personal practical knowledge, that is, the knowledge teachers use to teach. They argue that "it is teachers' 'personal knowledge' that determines all matters of significance relative to the planned conduct of classrooms. So 'personal knowledge' is the key term" (4).
Shulman (1986, 1987) and Grossman (1990) have helped delineate what
this personal knowledge might be composed of. Shulman lays out a
knowledge base for teaching that highlights not only general kinds
of teaching knowledge, but specific kinds of
1. Knowledge of the subject to be taught.
Shulman's first kind of knowledge is consistent with no Child Left Behind. But he moves far beyond it. Grossman (1990) has found that teachers without such a rich knowledge base are unsuccessful and tend to leave the profession. Therefore, the stakes of oversimplifying what it takes to successfully teach are very high. Our boys provide another warning. They told us again and again that what mattered most to them was teachers' knowledge of and belief in kids. Being a highly-qualified teacher, our boys told us, means far more than having subject matter knowledge. It means being willing and able to understand students and to craft instruction that will both appeal to them and help them learn.
Thinking of Possibilities
We want to make it clear that we do not believe that standards in and of themselves are a bad thing. As professionals, we need to articulate our goals for students and we need to prove that progress is being made towards these goals. But we do want to offer a critique of the impact of offering a too-narrow vision of what learning is and what teachers ought to be.
We think of teachers in one of the schools in our study, teachers who stood against the tide of reductive teaching to the test. One teacher organized her curriculum around inquiry and I-search papers. For example, when studying the post-Revolutionary period, students were asked to play the parts of the Marshall court and the Jefferson administration. They were given information about particular historical cases and were asked to engage in debate and make decisions about the case. They then compared their decisions to those made by the Marshall court, writing papers about how their decision would have changed the history of our country. The students constructed understandings and then used their knowledge of how judicial decisions shape our country's workings, values and future, and some students made unasked for connections to the Powell court. Students also composed several I-search papers throughout the year that related to various curricular topics.
Students compiled portfolios of their work on each project that included reading logs, journal writings, work required to pursue the projects, and copies of the projects themselves. In the terms we offer in this article, they demonstrated their competence for the future in the healthy work of the present. Interestingly, in her school, this teacher was the favorite of every informant who had taken her class. The students knew they had engaged with substantive ideas in personally relevant ways. They were also confident that they could explain and provide evidence of how they had met learning standards to any one who might ask them.
In that same school, a ninth grade instructor organized a Romeo and Juliet unit around the inquiry question: What makes a good relationship? During the unit, students created a video glossary of literary devices for the play. Small groups of students were assigned a particular scene and literary device. They were asked to create a video that defined the device, to reenact part of their scene that used the device, and then to provide an interpretive commentary of the scene with an explanation of how the device contributed to the scene's meaning and effect. After studying the play, students self-selected groups to pursue an inquiry topic of their own choosing around the theme of relationships. Many of these topics were inspired by their reading of the play; others were inspired by current events or personal interest, for example, how and why dating rituals have changed over time. Students read, interviewed, created surveys and did other research to collect data.
They then created short video documentaries about their research which were shared with the class. To conclude, they wrote a brief reflection that coded their achievements to the state learning results.
This may sound like schoolish work, but the provision of some kind of choice and the chance to make something that had social value encouraged students to become engaged; to learn about scriptwriting, moviemaking and iMovie software; and to connect what they were learning to issues of personal relevance and social significance. The activities therefore became toolish in the way that our informants reading and writing outside of school was. That is, they were able to apply their literate activity immediately to do work that they valued.
In both of these examples, teachers had to walk a tightrope to achieve the delicate balance between meeting students' immediate needs and preparing them for the future in a way that met the demands of current standards and assessments. They used their rich and complex domains of knowledge to devise instruction that would engage students in flow experiences. Even as we embrace the commitment to attend to all of our students, we have to resist attempts reduce the complex activity of learning to passing a test and the complex activity of teaching to preparing students for those tests.
Michael W. Smith is a professor of Literacy Education at Rutgers University's Graduate School of Education. His research, which focuses on how teachers can help students have more meaningful transactions with literary texts (an interest he developed during his eleven years as a high school English teacher) has appeared in a wide variety of articles and chapters, three monographs from the National Council of Teachers of English, and two books.
Wilhelm and Smith won the 2003 NCTE David H. Russell Award for Distinguished Research in English Education.
I love maxims. I love clichés. And I love aphorisms, one-liners, proverbs, saws, witty sayings, clever references, chestnuts of wisdom, mottos, adages and truisms. If they be short and they be shrewd, they be of interest to me. Most English teachers, the lovers of language that we are, would concur.
Try this one. “That joint’s more played out than the R. Kelly vid of him tappin’ that Juv-ee.”
You understand what I’m speaking about, don’t you?
Well, for those of you lacking the literary skills to deconstruct this allusive and elusive sentence (remember, there may be a quiz to follow), it is a satirical reference to the contemporary methodologies currently employed by most California educators in regards to their language arts curriculum in secondary classrooms.
Don’t worry, be happy, take a chill pill. Like a bowl of Campbell’s soup, I’ll spell it out for you.
At the heart of the issue I am speaking to is the fact that a MAJORITY of our public high school students read below grade level. Some significantly so. It is no longer a percentage of our students; it is the norm to read years/grades beneath your grade level in school. (And what a shame!) A dialogue with my contemporaries on this subject tripped into the realm of overcrowding, immigration, family culpability, a crisis of cash, ELL and social promotion (a practice implemented in many urban school districts. For the Board of Education in an overcrowded, inner-city community, they absolutely do not want 17 years olds in the same class as 13 year olds, regardless of whether or not the 17 year old has the academic skills to be in the higher-level class. It’s not about scholastic meritocracy; it’s about fundamental safety. Prudence, in this scenario, trumps warrant.)
Obviously, the ills are many and there are very few areas upon which the subject of poor literacy skills does not touch.
But what about that line of gibberish above that has more holes in it than a poorly knit blanket? Hang loose a moment, Dude. I promise, the piper will be paid.
As we stare down budget cuts that are gruesome and skills levels that are gruesome-er, I believe more than ever that a breath of fresh air has to be blown into the curriculum of modern schools. Especially, the English curriculum. I was recently a speaker at a California high school educational conference in San Francisco and the degree to which these ideas were warmly received was astounding. It illuminated to me more clearly than ever that contemporary, relevant, accessible, reading needs to move towards becoming a staple of our state language arts curriculum. As it stands now, contemporary, relevant, accessible literature is, at best, on the fringe of assigned reading lists in even the most progressive of classrooms.
Why are we so obsessed with reading centuries old “classics” of literature when our students predominantly lack the skills (and the motivation) to tackle the weightiest of all literary weights we can hurl onto their underdeveloped mental shoulders?
That’s right, the emperor has no clothes! I dare to ask, “Why?”
Is there something we have to prove? Is it because we had to do it ourselves? Is it because it’s “good for them”? (Which it is not. It promotes a palpable hate of reading, which concurrently lowers students’ sense of academic self-esteem perpetuating an “I stink at school” mentality most unnecessarily.) I mean, you would never ask a student in flight school to attempt to fly a rocket ship and yet we find it perfectly reasonable to ask borderline literates to thematically analyze Dickens.
Why do we feel compelled to ask our students to principally, if not solely, study literature that is virtually devoid of all of the most prominent elements in their world that are most important to them? Books that include the internet, rap music, athletics and references to contemporary issues such as violence, racism, drugs and teen pregnancy are the issues that they themselves are facing in their own universe outside of the classroom. Can't we piggyback on those themes to at least begin teaching the core elements of literature such as foreshadowing, grammar, characterization, plot, personification and parallelism? After all, isn't that what we use the "classics" for in the first place?
Yes, I know, I know. Contemporary, relevant, accessible writers make for incredibly poor literary examples in the classroom. I mean John Grisham has the audacity to use onomatopoeia. Amy Tan has the pluck to use irony. And Stephen King, the most villainous of all, has the gumption to use proper punctuation in his paragraphs. Infidels! Heretics! A Pen! A Pen! My kingdom for their pens!
Critical pedagogy, transformative theorists, blah, blah, blah, have all written scores on the needs to be reflective educators but I care little for think tanks and academic ivory towers insulated from real classrooms. What I do care about is finding some sort of means to improve the literacy levels of California's youth. Every piece of data one can study leaves me feeling dejected. How in the world does Louisiana have a higher literacy level than California? For goodness sakes, their whole state only cost something like $14. My paperback Chekov cost that much. Have we no state pride?
Now, please, before you shoot the messenger, don’t misinterpret me. I am an AVID fan of classic literature. (After all, I'm an English teacher. And I'm a writer. To me, being locked up with Voltaire is an awesome thing.) Yet, if you are familiar with Luis Rodriguez's book Always Running, Monster by Walter Dean Myers or The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, you know that students greatly enjoy these types of works. The only thing I have to do to get my students to read Go Ask Alice is to make arrangements for them to pick it up from the library. Why-oh-why can't we begin to teach some traditional elements taught in our English classes through contemporary novels such as these? I am not saying to scrap Emerson and toss out Shakespeare - that would be ridiculous. But isn't there an inkling of room for books we know the students "want" to read to augment and build a bridge to the current curriculum? This is (Can you hear me, Mr. Paine?) common sense. By not utilizing the time tested strategy of using sugar to wash down the medicine I feel as if we are behaving much like stubborn school marms that laugh in the face of brilliant sayings such as, "If the mountain will not go to Mohammed, Mohammed must go to the mountain."
We must go to the mountain.
Do we not see the sense and sensibility in not using Sense and Sensibility as the primary means by which we encourage teenagers in our contemporary classrooms to embrace reading? Have you taken a look at Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde lately? While the tale is virtually a cliché, the language of the novel is virtually unreadable to the modern generation of student sitting at our desks. (I know, I know, it’s their fault.) And… fasten your seatbelts cause here comes, “Blasphemy!”… The Invisible Man’s appeal as a novel to the regular ole’, run-of-the-mill, statically average Joe or Jane, high school sophomore (college bound or not) is, gulp, invisible.
There, I said it. String me up from the treetops. Burn me at the stake. Jam me in a class with a ratio of 41 to 1 in a school that is overcrowded, under-funded, under-performing and on the verge of imploding due to befuddlement, aimlessness, cynicism, apathy and frequent outbursts of perpetual and mind-boggling incompetence. (Oh, you already did that.)
The truth will set you free and if you want to know the real Sojourner, there are more students who would rather spend their afternoon at the dentist than with Ralph Ellison.
And they do not care whether you like it or not. True is true. Es verdad?
Now, am I a Ralph Ellison hater? Do I have a problem with Robert Louis Stevenson? Does Jane Austen’s writing lack persuasion for me?
What difference does my opinion make? Really.
My student’s are the ones in need of an education. Am I so intractable that I will not listen to their overwhelmingly overt feedback? If the majority of them could, they’d misspell it out for you. They have no taste for the meals coming out of our English kitchens and like petulant four-year-olds at the dinner table of school, we simply cannot make them read just because we have spent a long time (centuries) preparing this meal. For whom does this bell toll?
I understand it is intellectually convenient for some “old school educators” to tattoo a scarlet letter on me as a proponent of feeding toddlers cotton candy for breakfast and permanently denying them access to the fruits and vegetables of fine literature that make for a nutritious diet. Hogwash! I am of the firmest belief that there is no finer literary meal one can dine on that ole Billy Boy Shakespeare himself. Yet, I am also of the firmest belief that if a student in my classroom lacks the skills to successfully negotiate a book such as A Tale of Two Cities, or has yet to discover the most wonderfully supernatural enchantment of a book like The Hobbit, getting that student to want to lend me their ears for the double fortnight it takes to teach Julius Caesar is a task for Sisyphus. No offense, but it takes an idiot to assign The Idiot to a student who feels like an idiot when it comes to reading.
And I completely understand.
Let students discover the joy of reading and solidify their ability to read before holding high expectations for Great Expectations. Students will be grateful to us if we do. Then, after one is hooked on books, there is no turning back. All of us are a testament to this. But if you don’t chum the waters, how do you expect to catch any fish? Books are the drug upon which most English teachers are hopelessly addicted yet we provide no gateway access to the hardcore stuff that really gets us off. Our heroin needs marijuana. Our cognac needs beer. Our Milton, for better of for worse, needs Christopher Pike.
Maybe, you do not agree. Well, our state tests scores are all the proof in all the Pudd’nhead Wilson you should need to see. And sorry, but it’s not a recent phenomenon either. Our language arts scores have had the scent of Denmark for well over a decade, yet we still press on with 1984 as if we were not preparing to enter the school year of 2004. Are the core elements of classroom literature so untouchable that, should my students to fail to grasp their essence, they deserve to flunk out of high school? Is there no middle ground?
Will the driver of this sputtering yellow school bus please pull into the garage for a much overdue tune-up? The fumes from the exhaust are choking the children.
Yes, I admit, there are thousands of high school students that drink up the classics like a Department Chair slurps down coffee. Some students take to great books like a duck to water. But, in almost all cases, that’s because they came to the pond with the experience of knowing how to paddle. What about the hundreds of thousands who didn’t? Are we only catering to the upper echelons of ability, talent and skill? Does the crème de la crème become the only part of the cream that matters? If this were an animal farm, I would say that kind of thinking is Bolshevik!
Let me say it again. There is nothing wrong with “classic” books. I love them. They are the best of the best. Yet, if I had the chance to let a majority of the students in our state discover the magic of reading at the expense of the classics, I would instantly turn Fahrenheit 451 on the pillars of a typical classroom curriculum. The reason is that these tomes of genius do not need you, me, nor the California Department of Education to ensure their survival. Galileo’s excommunication didn’t change a darn thing about the heliocentric nature of the universe and English teachers thinking they are the last bastions of classic literature before the complete and total relegation of great books to the trash heap of history is preposterous.
Yet, isn’t this how we operate?
Think in terms of aptitudes. If you’ve ever been seated in the cab of an 18 wheeler (a trucker’s truck) you understand that just because you can drive a light blue Honda Accord through the suburbs doesn’t mean you have any sort of a prayer of hauling a container full of used office furniture through a downtown Byzantine of businesses while amped up on No Doz pills. On the other hand, no one who can haul Moby Dick (literally) through the tiny streets of Our Town in a semi does not know how to operate a simple four door family sedan. We crawl before we walk. That’s Mother Nature’s rule, not mine, and if the sequence is violated, poor results occur.
Wake up! We are a multiethnic, multilingual, multicultural state with a multitude of personalities performing in a singularly horrible manner. If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got, and when it comes to fostering literacy in our youth, we… let me find a nice, fancy word here… STINK!
And it’s your fault.
And it’s my fault.
And… oh, forget about faults. How about us doing something?
Wait, I have the cure. It’s a modest proposal but maybe we should give swimming lessons to our school kids the same way we teach literacy to them. Then, being a coastal state, we can take all of our students to the ocean for a CAT6, SAT9, CAHSEE test day swim exam. By the time the tests are over the state will most assuredly have eliminated at least one major classroom problem: overcrowding.
I put this question to you in a very simple manner. Are you a teacher who is using relevant, accessible material in your class that parallels the abilities of the majority of the students in your room yet offers a means by which they can be challenged to grow as both a scholar and a person? If not, why? Is it a mandate from above? (Are you a sheep listening to the mindless dictates of people who know less than you about what works in your own classroom? Baaa!!) I promise, James Joyce is not going to roll over in his grammarless grave should you abandon Ulysses for The Bluest Eye. And if he does, tell him he should’ve thought about the California Language Arts Standard Reading and Writing 2.8 if he wanted to remain anthologized.
Finally, as for the real interpretation of that sentence at the beginning of this article, well, why don’t you go ask one of your students to translate? Though it’s written in English, it’s also written in a language that you probably don’t understand.
But they will.
Get my gist, Mohammed?
The call for manuscripts for this issue of California English invited teachers to explore the particular needs of boys in English Language Arts classrooms. “Books for Boys” clearly touched a nerve, and the journal was flooded with excellent manuscripts on this topic both from California teachers and from researchers across the country. What you hold in your hands is a sampling of the very best thinking on a stubborn problem.
As Jeff Wilhelm and Michael Smith explain in their article, “A High-Wire Act: What Research on Boys and Literacy Says about No Child Left Behind,” underachievement by males is ubiquitous. What they and other contributors posit is a re-evaluation of how we think about literacy. In Misreading Masculinity, Thomas Newkirk argues that “…too many of our schools are failing too many of our boys, particularly in the area of reading and writing. By defining, teaching, and evaluating literacy in narrow ways — even under the banner of “choice” and a student-centered curriculum—we have failed to support, or even allow, in our literacy programs the tastes, values, and learning styles of many boys.”
If you are in any doubt that this problem is real, consult the latest NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) scores. While standardized test scores may not tell the whole story, they do tell us something, and educators ignore that something at our peril. In 2003 female students scored higher on average than male students in reading by 7 points at grade 4 and by 11 points at grade 8. By 12th grade male students scored 24 points lower than female students in writing. Rather than narrowing the gap, school practices may be responsible for its widening. Contributors to this issue of California English offer suggestions to help us move in the opposite direction.
Reading these manuscripts caused me to reflect on my own son’s reading habits. Though he is now a successful college student who reads voraciously during vacations, when he was a little boy I used to have to pin James down on the couch in order to get him to read for 10 minutes. Without physical constraints (don’t worry, I didn’t tie him up but just sat beside him with my arm firmly round his shoulder), James would pop up to run around the room. I thought about the dozens of untouched books on his bedroom shelves, every one lovingly and carefully purchased by mom to match his interest at the moment. Why did it take 18 years for the reading seed to germinate?
I hope this issue of California English will provide both insight and inspiration to teachers intent upon planting that seed.