The following is the preface to our book, Method to the Madness: A Common Core Guide to Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literature.
The book was published in 2016 by Rowman and Littlefield, and can be found at…
Six years ago, we were each hired to teach a summer school creative writing course in our district. Our classrooms were across the hall from each other. There was no curriculum provided. No pacing guides. No mandated test. The course was designed to be credit recovery, full of kids who had failed an English class the previous year. By working collaboratively that summer, we created a course that was both rigorous and a lot of fun—for the kids and the grown-ups alike.
The students in our classes read great literature—both classic and contemporary—and analyzed the craft of that literature. And they wrote. A lot. And they shared their work and scrutinized their work and revised their work. We didn’t keep track then, but the following spring, when we duplicated the same units in our 10th grade classes, we did keep track, and those students (roughly 100 of them) collectively generated approximately 10,000 pages of original and revised fiction over the course of one quarter.
There was a third creative writing teacher that year in summer school. Her kids were, according to her, too noisy, not smart enough, just there to hang out, and quickly driving her crazy. What was she doing in class? Diamond poems, acrostic poems, poetry worksheets—the sorts of things you might expect to see at a second grade back to school night. That was when it began to become clear—what was the difference? Why were two of the classes that summer working—and working hard—and one wasn’t?
We had no previous rapport with the students—summer school wasn’t on our site that year—so these kids had never been in our rooms before. All three classes were populated by students who had failed English classes in the past. All three were full of students that were not necessarily fast-tracked for success. The difference, really, was strikingly simple:
We were teaching them things that were interesting—to us, as readers. And through our enthusiasm and desire to discuss—deeply, analytically—what we found interesting with our students, they became interested, as well.
Why, as educators—as people who presumably love learning—do we so often abandon what made us “nerd out” as students ourselves, and instead prescribe to our students boring and/or substandard reading—most likely prescribed to us by a school board or a publisher—to kids who are struggling with writing and reading? Taking an underachieving urban school, similar to the one we taught in at this time, you can probably count on a few things in that school’s textbook room:
- Big, thick, heavy textbooks that include everything the student will read (or will be assigned to read but won’t read) that year. First of all, who wants to curl up with a book that weighs about the same as a sandbag? Second, it has been our observation that such books include second rate (and safer, and shorter) works by really great authors. Finally, an anecdote: several years back, when districts spent a whole lot of money on textbook adoptions and teachers were subsequently expected to be spending every minute teaching those text books, the 9th grade English text included Act II of Romeo and Juliet. Just Act II. The notion then being that 9th grade teachers would initiate their often-below-grade-level students to the rich and varied world of Shakespeare by teaching Romeo and Juliet, Act II. Just Act II.
- A collection of short (and often short on craft) novels about a young kid from the streets who wants to be a basketball player, or something similarly cliché, the notion here being that the only way to get struggling readers who don’t want to read to read is to give them something they can relate to. Like the streets. Or basketball. If this seems in any way demeaning, we agree with you, and don’t believe for a second that the students aren’t aware of it. You know what’s even more relevant to their lives than the streets or basketball? Every play Shakespeare wrote, and it’s our job to show them how.
- Stack after stack of quality novels and plays shoved in a corner, gathering dust, because “these kids can’t handle books like that.”
What we have found was that when we spent time talking about and thinking about literature that personally affected us, we had a much stronger motivation to teach the skills associated with that literature, and teach them well. In contrast, it can be difficult to find the motivation to design an engaging lesson around reading an instructional manual.
Great literature—along with the skills required to read and appreciate it—is interesting to us, English Lit nerds, and through our enthusiasm it therefore became interesting to our student population.
The following year we were assigned to team teach at the 10th grade level. We took the opportunity to overhaul the reading list. Our criterion was books that students should read before getting to college—the books smart people will be talking about. That year, the list consisted of The Sun Also Rises, The Things They Carried, Slaughterhouse Five, 1984, The Great Gatsby, Death of a Salesman, and Macbeth.
We took that year to test our hypothesis: could you take 180 students of various ability and various backgrounds and find success by mirroring the type of work you would see in a college-level English class. We did our homework—a lot of homework, it turns out, which we used as an opportunity to model for the students. We would bring in our notes and a stack of literary criticism we’d pored through, and would show them that to prepare these lessons, we had had to study up. They appreciated that.
We used itunesU lectures from Yale and Berkeley and Harvard to demonstrate that the things they were discussing in class were the things that people were discussing at the top universities. They appreciated that, too.
Though not every student loved every text, by overhauling the reading list and creating a new syllabus that reflected a variety of different themes, voices, and styles, students were exposed to a plethora of choices for reading—something they’d never had before. That was also appreciated.
Turns out it works. That year, and those subsequent to it, have taught us over and over again that it doesn’t matter who is in the room. What matters are the teacher’s high expectations and thoughtful assessment. What matters is how you create a dynamic classroom when talking about books. And frankly, what matters is a thoughtful consideration of what texts offer powerful voice, complex ideas, and good story telling.
A word about student population. We are International Baccalaureate trained teachers. IB is a program renowned for its rigor and high expectations, but we have also taught non-IB college prep courses, English language learner courses, and intervention courses.
By reevaluating our delivery of instruction and the content used, students in those courses have been extremely successful. They weren’t going to become critical readers by reading travel brochures, as prescribed by some of the curriculum designed for them, but they did become better readers when given quality literature that was worthy of discussion.
In short, it shouldn’t matter who your student population is. You tailor your delivery to the students in the room, but that doesn’t mean you should condescend to your audience. They may do the work, but they won’t love it, and if we want them to be hungry for success, they have to believe in what they are doing.
We were fortunate to begin our teaching careers in a magnet program in which we were expected to design our own rigorous curriculum centered on literary works and designed to prepare students for rigorous essay-based exams. Meanwhile, many of our colleagues were held to the demands of state or district mandated pacing guides and standardized testing schedules, with little room for rigorous curriculum design by individual teachers.
With the onset of common core, with its emphasis on critical thinking and logically developed writing, we thought we may have some relevant experience to share. What follows is a breakdown of how we approached our English classes. Everything in this book we’ve used. Everything in this book we created. We believe that if English teachers would take up this challenge, allow this core class that all students are required to take be a lot tougher, a lot more rigorous, with a lot more writing, and if they would use good books—not just what they like, but good, quality, art—what we would have are scholars who (even if they aren’t bound to be English majors) will appreciate the choices artists make, and will be happy to discuss those choices with you.