I came across an interesting article from a summer 2014 edition of the English Journal entitled “Beyond the Stacks: Why High School English Teachers Should Be Talking about Books.” In it author Kierstin Thompson questions the relativeness of literature taught today. Her central concern has much to do with canonical literature taught in high schools. She queries whether strategies or the texts themselves are important, and she questions the texts (the canon, multicultural literature, nonfiction, young adult) used as well.
At the beginning of the article, Thompson points out that literacy coaches and specialists were placed into schools in 2001-2005 with the awarding of grants right after NCLB legislation, and Literacy Specialists began to provide professional development regarding reading and comprehension strategies. She argues, however, this created somewhat of a problem – that there was a pedagogical gap between literary instruction and reading instruction. Quoting Lisa Schade Eckert, Thompson contends that literary instruction is focused on “intellectually lofty, highly theorized definitions of literary interpretation” while reading instruction focuses on “repetitive, skills-based instruction.”
Now, the new Common Core State Standards have “Reading Literature Standards” that require the strategy of close reading along with the comparing of stories from different genres and eras (she points out standards RL. 8-10.9 and RL. 11-12-9). Thompson maintains standards such as these are more akin to literary interpretation rather than reading instruction, and as such, teachers will have to change the ways in which they teach texts; furthermore, the CCSS “might inadvertently encourage [teachers] to abandon the multicultural YA texts they’ve previously integrated into their classrooms.” I am not exactly sure what she means at this point, but there is the implication that such texts have no literary value, and if that is the argument, I disagree, and my disagreement will require another article.
After interviewing a gamut of teachers, Thompson found that teachers look at a text’s “genre, literary era, student interest, student ability, aesthetic value, and point of view” – the text’s “literary value” and “pedagogical potential.” She also claims, and this is unfortunate, teachers miss opportunities for students to see other perspectives or to think more deeply, for teachers shy away from books that are perceived as possibly contentious fearing “criticism, district reprimand or worse.” I find this highly problematic – the idea of self-censorship. By engaging in this type of thinking, we do a disservice to the students we teach. Literature is supposed to be provocative, and any educator know this as fact. A fellow NEH Scholar, Trina Williams, put it this way, “Literature transforms and transports kids in ways unimaginable, and it transfers to students the level of passion, realism that a teacher cannot provide” (paraphrased). Never should we not teach a text because of possible controversy.
Finally, Thompson writes that teachers should engage in professional development that focuses on literary literacy. And she offers some of her own professional experience:
- Read a text that stretches you as a reader
- Invite colleagues to read a book with you
- Ask to pilot a text
- Propose a professional development opportunity focused on literature
According to Thompson, reading and discussing a poem or short story is enjoyable for English teachers (even if determining curricular value is secondary). But most importantly, it also reminds us of what our students go through.
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