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.