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.