Monday, June 10, 2013
No Learning Without Feeling (repost)
Reposted from NY Times:
“IT’S sad,” the kid at the far table told me, “but it’s my favorite poem we worked on.” He was talking about “The Weary Blues,” by Langston Hughes, and although his emotional language was rudimentary, his response was authentic. “So we should read literature that makes us sad?” I asked. He laughed. “Well, sadness, Ms. Hollander, is something people pretty much feel every day.” He looked up at me and smiled incredulously. The connection was obvious to him.
I like it when my students cry, when they read with solemnity and purpose, when the project of making meaning becomes personal. My middle school students turn again and again to highly charged young adult novels. The poems and stories they receive enthusiastically are the ones that pack the most emotional punch. Just as teens like to take physical risks, they are driven to take emotional risks. For teachers, emotion is our lever. The teen mind is our stone.
Put another way, emotion is the English teacher’s entry point for literary exploration and for the development of the high-level skills outlined in the Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted in 45 states. Unfortunately, the authors of the standards are not particularly interested in emotional risk taking but rather in the avoidance of political risk. It is a rather bloodless effort.
Agreement on the skills American schoolchildren need to learn to read and write is much easier to arrive at than agreement on what they should read and write. For this reason, the Common Core’s list of text exemplars for English at each grade level is slender, a few lines in an appendix, and centers on safe choices, like “Little Women,” a novel dismissed as “moral pap” by its author more than a century ago. The authors of the Common Core standards have, however, exhaustively itemized skills required for reading and writing at each grade level. There is so much fine print that even the young teachers I know now need reading glasses.
I spend hours with my teacher-geek colleagues poring over distinctions between Common Core grade-level skills that have little practical import in the classroom. As one of my colleagues pointed out, it is more of a challenge to avoid teaching the skills enumerated in the standards than it is to be certain you are covering them all.
Language skills as we define them are useful fictions. Many types of knowledge and cognitive functioning are embedded in every skill area, and many, if not all, of the standards merely translate the obvious requirements of English work into wordy abstractions. What does it really mean to “analyze the impact of the author’s choices”? What else is there? A real checklist of all that is involved in the act of reading would border on the absurd.
The truth is that high-stakes standardized tests, in combination with the skills-based orientation of the Common Core State Standards, are de-emphasizing literature in the English classroom in favor of “agnostic texts” of the sort familiar from test preparation materials. These are neutral texts created to be “agnostic” with regard to student interest so that outside variables won’t interfere when teachers assess and analyze data related to verbal ability. In other words, they are texts no child would choose to read on her own.
There are already hundreds of for-profit and nonprofit providers of “agnostic texts” sorted by grade level being used in English classrooms across the country. There is also a lot of discussion among teachers over whether lessons align well with the new standards, but far less discussion regarding which texts are being chosen for students to read and why. In a sense the students, with their curiosity, sadness, confusion and knowledge deficits, are left out of the equation. They are on the receiving end of lessons planned for a language-skills learning abstraction.
The writers of the Common Core had no intention of killing literature in the classroom. But the convenient fiction that yearly language learning can be precisely measured by various “metrics” is supplanting the importance of literary experience. The Common Core remains neutral on the question of whether my students should read Shakespeare, Salinger or a Ford owner’s manual, so long as the text remains “complex.”
New teachers may feel so overwhelmed by the itemization of skills in the Common Core that they will depend on prepared materials to ensure their students are getting the proper allotment of practice in answering “common core-aligned” questions like “analyze how a drama’s or poem’s form or structure ... contributes to its meaning.” Does good literary analysis even answer such questions or does it pose them? Does it matter whether a question like this is tackled while reading an actual play, or will a short excerpt do the trick so long as the “skill” is practiced?
Language may compose who we are as much as we compose it. Language teaching, therefore, is unlike other content areas. Text selection is the most critical component of any English curriculum, but our educational leaders have avoided the discussion of what works of literature a national canon might include in favor of a curriculum that treats the study of literature as though it were a communication system unrelated to who we are as people.
My fear is that we cannot reckon with the difficult truths of real works of art, that the disturbance we feel when reading Alice Walker’s “Color Purple” is rated too disruptive to the analysis of student yearly progress to be read for a test. My suspicion is that the Common Core enumerates skills and not books because as a country we still feel that real works of art are too divisive. It is more comfortable to remain agnostic, to permit our teens to remain an education-product consumer group, fed skills-building exercises that help adults to avoid the hard truths our children have no choice but to face.
There are no agnostic texts on college campuses, but texts dense with philosophical, psychological and moral meaning. There are no state tests for college students. It is time to align our education system with college demands by opening a real discussion about what teens should read in middle school and high school. Tests given to adolescents need to be based on books students read in school.
Put this way, it sounds obvious, but it isn’t what we’re doing. Skills-based standards ignore the basic fact that language learning must occur in a meaningful context. The basis for higher-level learning — for philosophy, psychology, literature, even political science — is the emotions and impulses people feel every day. If we leave them out of the picture, reading is bled of much of its purpose.