Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Stop Apologizing for Prescribing Curriculum, English Teachers

Would a math teacher tolerate a pedagogical philosophy that endorses allowing students to design the algebra, geometry, or calculus curriculum?

Do science teachers offer students control of which biological, anatomical, or zoological concepts they'll learn?

How much control do history teachers offer students in a mandated survey of American history course? Do we allow students to choose to skip Reconstruction so they can spend more time reading about the history of baseball, for example?

These and other questions about who controls the curriculum have weighed on my mind recently following a conversation with a neighbor who proclaimed, "I liked English until the teachers started telling me what to read."  

Comments such as this often put English teachers on the defensive, which explains my response to my neighbor:

"Why do we criticize English teachers for telling students what to read when we wouldn't think to question the math teacher who requires students to learn specific mathematical concepts?"

I've been on the pro-choice reading bandwagon since discovering Kelly Gallagher's seminal Readicide via the ECNing book study. I have promoted the 50/50 approach to required reading Gallagher advocates and have embraced a "first do no harm" approach to assigning texts.

I still believe in choice, but I'm uncomfortable with the hit my curriculum has taken by giving students more choice in both reading and writing (more on this in a forthcoming post). I'm not convinced that capitulating to the "I don't like to read" and "I don't like this book" complaints really serves students all that well.

Only in English classes do we argue that students should have so much control over the curriculum.

We may be doing students a grave injustice by marginalizing classic texts while we promote more student reading choice.

Yesterday a student contacted me to share his summer reading experiences. During our chat, the student, a recent grad, revealed that he doesn't care much for YA lit but prefers to read classics. Next on his TBR list is George Orwell's 1984 and Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.

The conversation makes me question the pedagogical shift I've implemented in my classroom, and I wander what makes this student thirst for the classics. Perhaps it's the same thing that make them appeal to me: sophistication of language structures, timeless themes, archetypal elements, etc.

Certainly, what we read depends so much on personal taste and interests, but it's time English teachers question the questioners who challenge our classic curriculum choices. The long tradition of English literature deserves respect from students, parents, and mostly from us.

I'll continue to offer students some choice in their required reading, but I'll make no apologies for also insisting that they study literature from the Anglo-Saxon period through postmodernism as part of the required curriculum.


  1. I couldn't agree more, Glenda. You may be interested in reading this blog posted on the Canadian Education Association blog expressing some similar sentiments -> http://www.cea-ace.ca/blog/bruce-beairsto/2012/07/2/teaching-and-type-two-ignorance

    The conversation that you had with your student is one that I've had with my own children - both my son and my daughter - many times. During their adolescent and teen years, they both preferred the classics to contemporary YA literature. In university, they continued to study classic literature as philosophy, religion, and humanities majors. Would they have become so enamoured with the classics had their teachers not introduced them to Dickens and Shakespeare and Vonnegut and . . . ? Would they have found these authors on their own? Even if they did, would their independent readings of these books been sufficiently rich as to make them crave more?

    BTW, I feel that in general we are apologizing about being teachers with a capital T far too much these days.

    1. I think there's a subtext at work when we refuse to teach and require students to learn the classics: We don't think our students can handle the difficult texts; we don't know them ourselves; our subject isn't as important, etc. I'll be sure to check out that blog.

  2. I mostly agree with you, Glenda. I worry about the emphasis placed on YA lit. Don't get me wrong; I like some of it, but some (most?) is pretty bad. I also think that oftentimes students don't really know what they like and don't know how to choose, or they like a choice book about as well as something we read in class. It's possible that choice as an empowering tool is overstated.

  3. Thanks for a very interesting post. I agree with you to a certain extent, but I'm probably overall in the other camp. Here's why:

    I started teaching at HS (public school, wealthy town) 11 years ago with a very pro-classics attitude. I have taught American Literature to 11th graders during most of my career, and I have given my students one of the most traditional American Lit. courses ever offered at my school. I go through the literature chronologically, from Bradstreet and Edwards and Franklin and Wheatley through Poe and Twain and James and Fitzgerald and Cather and so on. It works pretty well with my Honors students. But there are two problems:

    The first is that most of my colleagues DO prescribe books but do NOT prescribe classics. Many of the books that are assigned and required at my school are contemporary and are not, in my opinion, of particularly high quality. The Kite Runner, for instance, is a book I really don't like, and also a book that seems to me of pretty dubious literary quality. Few people are going to argue that Shakespeare or Henry James are not masters of their craft, whether you like their works or not, but nearly all of the contemporary authors we read are MUCH more debatable. A mother I know was just complaining to me last week that her daughter was assigned "junk" in her 10th grade class. If there's not choice in the curriculum, it better be inarguably important, and much of our curriculum just isn't. This is different from the other subject you discuss, math--though a guy just wrote an op-ed in the NYtimes arguing that we shouldn't bother teaching algebra anymore, and my own son often complains about how boring the strict math curriculum at his school is, since he already knows how to do it all already!

    The second reason a required English curriculum may not be a good idea is that different readers are at very, very different levels. My ninth grade students, who are not honors students, are simply unable to read many of the books that I am supposed to assign. Henry James and Shakespeare may be worthwhile, but not if you can't read them!

    Anyway, thanks for the interesting post!

  4. Thank you. I was trying to articulate the same to another group of teachers. Now, I'll just whip out this blog post!!

    1. Hi

      I read this post 2 times. It is very useful.

      Pls try to keep posting.

      Let me show other source that may be good for community.

      Source: Math teacher interview questions

      Best regards

    2. I will keep posting. I was out of town on a long road trip for a couple of weeks. Thanks for reading and commenting.