Thursday, August 23, 2012

"The Death and Resurrection of a Coherent Literature Curriculum: What Secondary English Teachers Can Do," an Up-Close Review

Despite the structural problems in Sandra Stotsky's book-length follow-up to her 2010 literacy report in which she chided teachers for privileging reader response to close reading (New Criticism) techniques, she makes some important points about English teacher's responsibilities and English curriculum in The Death and Resurrection of a Coherent Literature Curriculum: What Secondary English Teachers Can Do, an unfortunate title because it's just not very easy to remember. Stotsky's multifaceted premise is this: The secondary English curriculum is incoherent. English teachers are "the only ones" who can fix the lack of coherency in the English curriculum.  

By incoherent Stotsky means the curriculum lacks increasing complexity from one grade to the next, that there is too much inconsistency among grades in terms of the types of texts taught in various English classes, that the curriculum is based on skills acquisition rather than great literature, and, perhaps most importantly, that literature from one grade to the next doesn't provide proper connections in scaffolding that allows students to make connections across genres and grades as they read more complex texts. That is, literature is too often taught in isolation rather than as part of a unified whole. 

Stotsky offers several causes for the problems she notes, including these: NCTE's policy and standards; the move from junior high to middle school that resulted in generalists rather than English majors teaching English in 6-8th grades; the organization of schools into semesters and elective courses that gave students more choice rather than a required literature curriculum; and poorly trained teachers entering the profession, which she blames on university education departments. Finally, Stotsky chides English teachers for abandoning texts with complex syntax and higher reading levels for contemporary and YA fiction that she cites as having more simplistic syntax and lower reading levels.

 Even the Common Core fails to escape Stotsky's criticism. She critiques the CCSS for basing its standards on skills rather than advocating a coherent English curriculum, although she does offer some praise for the supplemental appendixes that offer text suggestions. Unfortunately, Stotsky doesn't say anything about the loopholes in CCSS offered with the three-pronged triangle that suggests ways teaches can continue to teach texts with lower reading levels.

Perhaps Stotsky doesn't intend to castigate English teachers, but I can't help but feel defensive when a writer uses hasty generalization such as "only" in arguing who should fix the literacy problems many students and schools face. English teachers, arguably, reacted to changes in social and cultural norms as early as the 1960s. Moreover, English teachers have little to no say in the organizational structure and hiring practices in schools. Stotsky lets principals, et al. off the hook when she opens the book with off-putting language targeting English teachers.

Indeed, Stotsky's push for close reading may be a moot point with the adoption of CCSS, which she rightly says emphasizes close reading strategies.

Moreover, she privileges AP teachers over other English educators. As a non-AP teacher but one with a MA in English and National Board Certification (renewed), I'm offended by this. I have seen many first-year teachers and other early career English teachers posting online requests for help from veterans because they don't know how to approach the AP and honors classes they have been assigned to teach.

Yet Stotsky claims these teachers are the only ones trained to instruct students in close reading techniques inherent in New Criticism. That's sheer nonsense. Stotsky misses an important opportunity to take the College Board to task for abandoning it's requirement that AP teachers have subject-area MA degrees or National Board Certification.

Perhaps the most problematic argument Stotsky makes is that eleventh grade English teachers should devote significant class time to teaching primary documents such as the Federalist Papers. Certainly, primary documents have a place in the English curriculum and can serve to inform imaginative literature, but to insist that English teachers become endorsed social studies teachers without at least chastising history and government teachers for abdicating their responsibility to teach seminal primary documents is unconscionable and offensive.

A scholar intent on attention to detail should do her due diligence to ensure her information is accurate. Two glaring errors appear in the book, both of which make me wander about other information. First, Stotsky gets Native American author Sherman Alexie's name wrong. She calls him "Alexie Sherman."

Secondly, she uses a teacher's lesson on Jonathan Edward's sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" as an example of how to teach close reading. There are several problems with the example: First, Stotsky claims the text is in an anthology and that students listened to a recording that "sounds" like Edwards. Edward's sermon is over seven hours long; no anthology at the high school or college level includes the entire text. It's impossible to know that Edwards "sounds" like since we have no recordings of him; all the recordings I've heard characterize Edwards as a "fire and brimstone" rhetorician with a booming voice. He was not. Edwards had a soft-spoken presentation persona. He did not shout. Indeed, his speaking manner and sermon content appear incongruous with one another. The recording the teacher used prompted one student to say, "That's creepy."

I'm all for using classroom teachers' lessons as models when the teacher cited gets it right, but Stotsky's example doesn't. We have all made mistakes in our teaching, but we're not all elevated as models of teaching to emulate. These teachers must be held to a higher standard, one we should all strive to achieve.

Another problem with Stotsky's book is her failure to define coherence early in the text. Instead, she does this toward the book's middle. Had she defined what she means by coherence early on, she could have then built her argument in a less off-putting way. After all, English teachers are the target audience, and as a road-weary group, many English educators won't be open to reading a book that begins with finger-pointing.

Even though I had difficulty putting aside my emotions, I still think English teachers should read the book and respond to Stotsky both with praise and questions. I gave the book **** on Goodreads. 

More importantly, Stotsky should make the rounds of conferences principals and superintendents attend and make her case to those who actually have control of policy. Too many principals don't get that there is a difference between an English teacher with an endorsement based on having a minor in English and an English teacher with a MA in English.

Telling English teachers that they need strong subject-area credentials is a bit like preaching to the choir, albeit a shrinking one with a waning chorus.


  1. I'm reading this one now, but with a chip on my shoulder. Stosky annoyed me in the introduction when she used the phrase "there is no research" when she means "I am ignoring the research." I'm curious to see how the rest of the book unfolds. My personal feeling is that English teachers are at an even more critical point than other teachers and that the wrong choices here (such as "returning" to a classical model) will guarantee our extinction.

    1. I'm interested in the research Stotsky ignores. Please share. Also, I'm not opposed to teaching classics. I love them and teach them, but I also believe in making room for contemporary voices. Thanks for your thoughts, Ramona.

  2. A thoughtful, thought-provoking revierw, Glenda. Aloha!

  3. I have one issue with the review. Near the end you make the following statement: "Too many principals don't get that there is a difference between an English teacher with an endorsement based on having a minor in English and an English teacher with a MA in English." This statement would make it seem that those with MA degrees are better teachers than those with lesser degrees. Experience has shown me that the degree one holds has nothing to do with his or her teaching ability. I know people with doctorates that are horrible teachers...knowledge of a subject area is a different beast than teaching ability.

    1. Subject knowledge is owned when one studies intensely and writes based on that study. This rarely happens w/out extensive grad-level work in one's subject, which in this case is English. I am not discounting pedagogy, and I don't care for alternative routes to certification. However, the best English teachers I've seen are those who have an investment beyond the basics in their subject. One of the points Stotsky makes is that the middle school paradigm has shifted generalists into grades 6-8 and that the shift has harmed the teaching of literature. I agree. I think it's pretty impossible for teachers w/out grad-level English degrees to understand the point of how valuable and how different the experience is because they just haven't been down that road. Would you trust a bridge designed by a lay person over one designed by an engineer? I wouldn't. Why do we insist on the best specialists in almost every other field but not in our own? If you don't know the subject, what do you do w/ the pedagogy? Conversely, if all you have is subject knowledge, how can you know how to teach it? Yet our profession, I'd argue, gives much more privilege to pedagogy than to subject knowledge and does so to the detriment of student learning. The first NBCT standard states that English teachers know their subject and know how to teach it. Thank you for you comment.

  4. I am all for teaching difficult texts--I teach more difficult texts than most of my colleagues--but much of the problem is that students are not able to read difficult texts. This presents a problem. Students won't be able to read difficult texts unless they read more. It is virtually impossible for students to improve their reading ability without reading a lot, but they are not going to read a lot of texts that are too hard for them. If we assign the Federalist papers as reading, or even the Scarlet Letter, we are going to get a lot of kids who don't do the reading but use sparknotes or the equivalent. I think the real problem in English is that kids need to read more and are often not helped to do so in the hundreds and hundreds of hours we spend with them in class.

    1. I agree w/ this. I don't think focusing on "standards" and "strategies" is the answer either. These things ruin the love of reading. At all levels we need a shift in priorities. I actually think Stotsky should have addressed the ways students experience reading at the elementary level, too. For example, leveled reading buckets. Really?

    2. I agree that leveled reading buckets aren't very appetizing; on the other hand, I think we high school English teachers can learn a lot from the way elementary and middle school teachers run their classes. In my own school, I am pushing as hard as I can to increase the ratio of independently-read texts to whole-class texts, and one of the advantages of more independent reading is that kids can read books at their level and at their own pace, which is often FASTER than the rate at which we teach whole-class books (for instance, I just took two weeks to get through Gatsby!).

  5. Glenda,

    While you are critical of the Stotsky book for many good reasons, I agree with her on many of her points. It seems there's many (not sure about most) English teacher who think YA lit is more important than the classics and who not do assign any slightly challenging books. Also, I know lots of teachers who not only focus on touchy-feely reader-response approaches to reading but who seem to only care about creating a "fun" and "supportive" classroom--rather than focus on deep ideas and academic skills. I realize there are challenges to teaching more difficult ideas as some of your responders have noted, but like you mention in another post on Readicide, I too have many students who tell me what we read in class (Beowulf, Invisible Man, Siddhartha, J.B., Brave New World, Catcher in the Rye, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, Song of Solomon, The Great Gatsby, and others--these are books I teach at many different levels) are some of their favorite books.