Holiday over, work continues for #edreform

What should children read?

Interesting question. My knee jerk reaction: whatever the hell they want. An opinion-maker for the NYT blog opens with this, on recognizing reading improves writing, on that point I agree:

Malcolm Gladwell, author of “The Tipping Point” and a New Yorker staff writer, told me how he prepared, years ago, to write his first “Talk of the Town” story. “Talk” articles have a distinct style, and he wanted to make sure he got the voice straight in his head before he began writing. His approach was simple. He sat down and read 100 “Talk” pieces, one after the other.

Gladwell is a gifted writer. But for the rest of us, all this example boils down to is imitation. We should thus have no original thoughts, just imitate the work of others? Well, actually, this fits in well with the current tenor of the curriculum debates. To wit:

David Coleman, president of the College Board, who helped design and promote the Common Core, says English classes today focus too much on self-expression. “It is rare in a working environment,” he’s argued, “that someone says, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.’ ”

Ah, yes, in his words, no one gives a sh*t what you think. So, he doesn’t hide his motives: public education is about job training, preparing obedient workers to fill out their TPS reports. The opinionator continues:

As an English teacher and writer who traffics in factual prose, I’m with Mr. Coleman. In my experience, students need more exposure to nonfiction, less to help with reading skills, but as a model for their own essays and expository writing, what Mr. Gladwell sought by ingesting “Talk of the Town” stories.

To the author’s credit, she is a teacher, so that’s a start. I don’t see anything here that acknowledges how reading literature can improve writing. Seems like our kids are preparing to write technical manuals, memos, and a fantastic cover letter. Kudos!

The lesson here is genius:

What schools really need isn’t more nonfiction but better nonfiction, especially that which provides good models for student writing. Most students could use greater familiarity with what newspaper, magazine and book editors call “narrative nonfiction”: writing that tells a factual story, sometimes even a personal one, but also makes an argument and conveys information in vivid, effective ways.

Magnificent! Not more, but BETTER! Why the hell did I not think of that? Holy crap! More genius:

Models of narrative nonfiction are everywhere, on programs like “This American Life” and “Radiolab,” in nonfiction books for young adults, like “Sugar Changed the World” (which is about slavery and science in the pursuit of the food additive), and even in graphic nonfiction works, like “Persepolis,” which tells the story of a young woman who grew up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. Each has a personal angle that students can relate to but is also a genuinely enthralling narrative. Adult titles, like “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” already have young readers editions, and many adult general-interest works, such as Timothy Ferris’s “The Whole Shebang,” about the workings of the universe, are appropriate for advanced high-school students.

Omigod. Now I feel like I know everything and I’m totally on board with the common core. Do you notice my sarcasm because I’m laying it on pretty thick.

Look. I agree with this author in many places. I’m not learning anything new here. But here’s the problem. There is this infuriating assumption that the common core has somehow given teachers explicit permission to teach in ways they might have always wanted to teach had they not buckled to test prep pressures. Well, screw their permission, no one needs to give us any permission to do anything.

The same folks hard selling us the core are the same ones who ruined education since NCLB.  They are the ones who pushed atomistic reading skills, the National Reading Panel, and test driven curriculum. They are the ones who pushed for years the reading of passages and answering questions, while kids learning nothing. Decodable books about nothing, stories with no story. Now all of the sudden this core thing redeems us? No thanks.

How can these profiteers be trusted? Why give them the opportunity to grant educators the permission, especially when the chief architect of this new-old movement has explicitly stated that market analyses should guide how we teach writing? Moreover, Coleman suggests that all creative writing entails is our childhood memories or whatever, that that’s the only creative option, that expository writing, kind of like stereo instructions, is necessarily more rigorous than a good story.

Well, in a world that will prepare compliant workers, then yes, expository writing is utilitarian, but not rigorous necessarily by any means. But again, nothing new from this opinionator, just a thinly veiled fluffing of the common core. Thanks.

1 Comment

  1. It’s not to frame Walter Winchell in the Times or Paul Harvey’s editions of “The Rest of the Story.” Good writing, reading is good as far as it speaks to the voice that is great within us. (And I stole that “voice that is great within us” from somewhere and it keep resonating in the ether like, well, like routers pinging).

    When I taught a class on 19th Century poets, my syllabus was a sampler. I let them read whatever the hell they liked. It was an upper division class for majors only, but, hey, if they didn’t like the Romantics, then choose something else. Thing is, there was a lot of slippage in that syllabus so that everyone might find something that sang to them.

    This schooling business is getting out of hand. Maybe it’s time to tune in, turn on, and drop out of schools void of unlimited voices. School kids of America unite !!! pity this busy monster manunkind


    You are now free to read whatever the hell you want to read. Hey, I like that.


Comments are closed.