The following is a speech given to the Delta Kappa Gamma sorority by Elizabeth James, co-author of Method to the Madness: A Common Core Guide to Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literature:
Method to the Madness is, in essence, a return to the old school way of teaching English. It argues for an increase in the quantity and quality of student writing.
Nowadays, it is not uncommon for students at the high school level to read only one or two texts a year in their core English class. This means a student can have been exposed to ONLY FOUR texts by the time they graduate high school, which is, of course, completely unacceptable.
This is because of
- Attendance issues—teachers can’t get through material because students are not consistently all in the room at the same time.
- Reading the book in class—a problematic exercise that results from not trusting students to read on their own or not trusting students to return to school the next day with their books.
- Focusing primarily (sometimes exclusively) on plot, therefore sluggishly turning pages and taking chapter quizzes, sometimes at the cost of having a classroom that feels urgent and fast-paced.
Here’s the problem: though I can understand each of the above reasons, they create an environment where not enough reading is taking place and that which is taking place is designed to feel like a chore. It is a design that does nothing to create readers. People who love to read don’t read like that: one book a year, waiting for everyone to catch up so they can turn a page, days between reading sessions.
So here’s the first step to the silver bullet we’ve all been missing: we should teach literature the way we came to love literature ourselves. When I think of how books and storytelling and later analysis and criticism became fascinating to me, I have no memory of worksheets. Or plot diagrams. Or vocab homework.
I remember characters, and life changing teachers who spoke with passion, and hearing or reading something that–all of a sudden–made the world make a bit more sense. This is what we should do for all students.
Often, school districts and the powers that be (rightfully so) start searching for avenues of access for the struggling students. How, in a district with high levels of poverty, low levels of academic achievement, and high levels of teacher turnover, can we get below grade level students up to speed and competitive?
In practice, this often becomes the moment when we start deciding what THESE KIDS can handle, and that’s the problem. As soon as we have decided that THESE KIDS need something different from high achieving students, these kids are being taught as problems, not solutions. This manifests itself in several poor teaching exercises. Giving low readers pamphlet excerpts about Yosemite National Park won’t make them better readers. Having units entirely designed on how to design a resume for Blockbuster won’t make them better readers. Bubble tests won’t make them better writers. Buying truckloads of condescending, POORLY WRITTEN fiction designed for struggling students isn’t any good, and does more harm than not. I’ve taught these classes and worked with these students and been given this curriculum, and the first major lesson is as soon as we treat them like struggling students they perform like struggling students. You can’t have some students in 10th grade doing a unit on Shakespeare, and some 10th graders doing a unit on resume writing, and have them not know what their school thinks of them. They know. And that’s when they stop trying.
Why don’t we flip the paradigm, here? Why don’t we teach struggling students the EXACT same way we teach high-achieving kids? Why aren’t the struggling students being asked to read more, write more, think more, just as we challenge our students in our top classes to do? Why is our instinct to make the subject matter as boring and sometimes even offensively transparent as we do? Why don’t we provide thought-provoking, high stakes literature? And trust them to write about and create their own? And why don’t we teach students who do not yet know the love and comfort of the written word the same experiences that brought us to that love?
The second part of this silver bullet is simple. Increase the amount of critical reading and writing your students will be exposed to. For this, I would like to create the argument for the inclusion of the contemporary short story.
Short stories often don’t get taught because they aren’t in the book room or in the textbook—what is there is often the watered down, lesser work of great writers. The exclusion of short stories in our syllabus, however, ignores what the texts offer:
- a variety of written voices and authors—women (!), different ethnicities(!), perhaps even people who are still alive!!!! Think back to the idea that lots of American high schoolers are graduating with diplomas after being exposed to just four books. That’s four authors. That’s four potentially different styles/genres/etc. However, chances are they will meet four white writers from the Romantic or modernist age, probably in novel form. That’s fine, those texts are amazing, but if you are a student who is constantly receiving the message that they aren’t very good at “this stuff”, it isn’t helpful to also message that “this stuff” sounds like a hundred years ago (minimum) and it’s their fault if they don’t get it. Again, why on earth do we meet struggling students with such a limited example of what storytelling means to them? Ridiculous.
- great literature that attendance and pacing issues no longer affect. Many of these stories can fit on a page or two, and therefore, reading in class becomes no problem. Missing a class doesn’t mean you cease to understand what is happening in the text.
Let me provide an example. A couple of years ago in my first-period class, I had a student who was perpetually twenty minutes late. This is because she had to take her little brother to his school in the morning before she could make it to her class. This was, of course, problematic in a sixty-minute period, and was a larger problem that needed to be addressed. But in the immediate sense, she was a student trying extremely hard who always was a little behind everyone else. Instead of missing twenty minutes of reading time, when we were in the short story unit, she could take two or three minutes and know what everyone was talking about. She could participate meaningfully in the class. She could jump in when she got there and contribute and challenge herself. Her external situation was not interfering with her internal participation and learning.
Students who are often late or absent are not necessarily excluded from the enjoyment and study of the literature. It becomes less about keeping up with the reading, and more to do with engaging with the reading—a much higher level skill.
You can teach all the skill without losing momentum by turning pages. Need a unit on figurative language? Subtext? Inference? Word choice? Characterization? You don’t need a novel to get there. Junot Diaz or Lori Moore can do it in ten pages. And the level of writing is stunning to students of all abilities.
A quick note about that. A few years ago, I was team-teaching with my husband, and we did a really immersive short story writing unit. It was a way to make students practice those standard words that so often come up on exams: voice, inference, dialogue, theme, etc. Instead of merely recognizing the strategies, by writing their own fiction they had to create these terms in their original stories. At the end, we offered the winner of the best short story collection (chosen by a panel of teachers at our site) a Barnes and Noble gift card and a copy of Junot Diaz’s Drown. That collection of short stories has been purchased by our household no fewer than four times because every time we read from it to our classes, it gets borrowed (or, at least once, lifted) and the students can’t bear to give it back. This has never happened to me in the case of Harper Lee or Huckleberry Finn. It’s not that those aren’t just as good—of course they are—but they don’t surprise the hell out of students the way Junot Diaz does.
Don’t misunderstand me; this silver bullet of contemporary short fiction doesn’t end with the replacing of traditional reading lists or the elimination of anything pre post-modernism. Of course not. I would argue Hamlet is just as relevant to a teenager’s life than any contemporary short story I could offer. That’s why they are the great works of fiction: they transcend time and place and continue to speak to us. I only offer the possibility that the problem here, in large part, is the need to change the paradigm of expectations. Struggling students must be reading and writing so much more than they are expected to right now. And that expectation of them must be met by us, the teachers, with the commitment to provide them interesting, challenging works of art that will show them just how important it is to know how to tell their story.