Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home

Common Core Reading: An Exchange

Publication Date: 2011-05-04

If you aren't participating in the NCTE Open Forum at their Connected Community, you should be. This is from May 3-4, 2011.

I'd rather that Oliver Goldsmith be taught in every high school in the land--because teachers across America chose it as a favorite book--than to have teachers accept somebody else's list because they've given up any notion of self-determination and because they feel they aren't worthy of choosing their own lists.

John Knapp's view and mine represent two legitimate positions, both of which can be admired or shunned. Both positions are vulnerable to abuse. But whoever said that teaching was a safe place to be?

The tragedy here is that the current systematic and vicious assault on teachers has drained them of their collective self-confidence in teaching as a decision-making profession. I don't get the sense right now that teachers think they have any right to choose those "must read" lists for their own students, and I find this devastating.

As I've observed elsewhere, with its online courses, NCTE is helping teachers feel better about lining up for a Realpolitik that bases action on power-- proceeding with practical considerations rather than offering a position based on ethical [and professional] premises.

I call for NCTE to lead the way in helping teachers find a new collective self-confidence, one that will help them find the way to say "Hell, No!"

by John V. Knapp

Dear Susan, et al.,

I am shocked that YOU are shocked -- at such standard fare just a couple of generations ago as *The Sorrows of Young Werther* or poetry like Wordsworth's *Tintern Abby* or Goldsmith's *Vicar* all of which I taught myself as a HS teacher in a rural (i.e., non-elite) HS in upstate NY in the 1960s. Of course, teachers who do not themselves know (or read) basic works in British, European, or American literature will find such selections "unreal" but then, with the emphasis in many NCTE circles on Y/A literature primarily (if not only), of course these all look imposing. Whenever I hear a teacher say something like "my students couldn't (or wouldn't) read such stuff," I look first to the teacher's own education and literary skill level, and second at that person's willingness to continue the battle against an increasingly pop culture deluge. If *Werther* is properly contextualized and the class is energized by a knowledgeable teacher, then it becomes just another Bilduungsroman -- no more difficult in translation than *Jane Eyre* but verbally far more sophisticated than *Holes.* Somehow, verbal sophistication has become a negative these days, even among English teachers!!

I have been educating teachers for over 40 years and find one of the biggest obstacles to maintaining some level of literary sense among even a minority of our HS or college students to be the teachers themselves. While I fully appreciate the difficulties that every MS and HS English teacher now faces in an electronic-based culture, one where "Graphic novels" and their 5 word balloon-limited language keep creeping into literature classes, there is still no substitute for a well-read, well-educated, and enegetic person interested in sharing his/her knowledge with those younger. High stakes mass testing is a drag on such people but then so is giving up to pop culture, simply written Y/A fiction, and "classic" comic books.


John V. Knapp
Northern Illinois University
DeKalb, Illinois 60115 USA

by Susan

Although I regard argumentum ad hominem as the primary refuge of scoundrels, I did have to smile at being accused of being uneducated and incapable--just because I'd take a job at McDonald's rather than one forcing high schoolers through Vicar of Wakefield. Pompous as it is to say, I consider my "level of literary sense" quite adequate to the discussion and even adequate to my many years of teaching difficult students who thought they hated books.

I wonder about the Standardisto obsession that the only good literature was written by those long in the grave. I confess to grabbing every new novel by T. C. Boyle, Ann Tyler, Jonathan Franzen (though I didn't like the last one), Gail Godwin, etc. etc. I admit to enjoying the middlebrow Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, Ron Padgett, and a zillion poets featured every day on "The Writer's Almanac." I have two full shelves stuffed with their books.

Certainly I would take these poets to high schoolers. The novelists? Nope. I am very big on student self-selected work, with the teacher ever there pushing them a bit to expand their horizons. I used to impress kids in our alternative public high school, meant for the truly down-and-out kids. In Jack's words, "Jeez, Mz O, you have a book for everything!" For me, that's the highest accolade, finding a book for everything/everybody, not insisting on ONE BOOK FOR ALL.

I have a Master's degree in literature from UC Berkeley. At the time I received the degree it was the top rated graduate program in English in the country (for those that believe in rankings). I went into teaching as a second career, so all of my undergraduate and graduate courses were in Literature. Capital L I admit I hated Moby Dick in college--even though I was in awe of my professor. I discovered the book's brilliance when I tried it again at age 42. Some literature is meant for the maturity adults can bring to the pages. I don't know, though, I doubt I'll live long enough to embrace Milton. And Diane Ravitch has told me this makes me an inferior person.

Even though I exalt Katherine Paterson, it took me eight years to get up the nerve to follow her advice and read Middlemarch. Recovery from having taught ilas Marner to New York City high schoolers was long and slow. Yes, as a very green teacher in a high school larger than my home town, I was definitely at fault. But I declare that there was also a great something wrong with that book for those kids.

Nothing would get me to ever again read Vicar of Wakefield. The Sorrows of Young Werther. I have read War and Peace three times. And the highly lauded Pevear-Volokhonsky translation
has been sitting at my elbow for three years. I'll get to it.

Thirty years after the fact, a deaf third grader to whom I gave a large chunk of my heart found me on the dreaded Facebook. Later in e-mail she recounted her best memories, which were exactly what my best teacherly instincts would hope she'd remember. She recalled the thrill when Amelia Bedelia brought her to the realization that words can have several meanings. She also remembered the triumph of "getting" knock knock jokes, a big hit among her classmates. Her friend sat with her for hours, trying to explain them. And when Leslie "got" one and read it out loud, the class exploded in applause. And Leslie yelled, "Let me read another one!"

That's what I always wanted from students. "Are there any more?" I just wonder if anybody ever said that about Oliver Goldsmith.

When my 18 students in a working class school, segregated as the worst readers in 3rd grade, heard that a new Amelia Bedelia title was going to be offered by Scholastic book club, they ordered 52 copies. They wanted to spread the good word. They wanted copies for themselves, for their cousins. . . .

Oh my, I do get off-topic. But where are knock knock jokes in the Common Core?

Of course I have to admit I'm the kind of teacher who read Flat Stanley aloud to my 7th graders every year.

I'd be much more interested in a sound explanation how the literature on the Common Core enriches the lives of students than a wholesale attack on the verbal sophistication and energy level of teachers.

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.