Sunday, April 03, 2005

"The Passage" As A New Literary Art Form

The Boston Globe has a regular Sunday Feature that is called, "Ask The Teacher." It is written by Ron Fletcher, who teaches at Boston College High School. This is a school that is operated under the auspices the Jesuits, who are noted for their high-level of academic standards.

This week, a reader asks:
How do you get students to make reading literature a part of their everyday lives?
I found Fletcher's answer to be intriguing:(the emphasis are mine)

A few weeks ago, in lieu of the usual homework assignment, I asked a class of seniors to take a break from Dante's ''Inferno" and spend an hour reading a book of their own choosing. They said they would honor my request to select a title of literary merit and be ready to say a few words to the class about what they read.

With the exception of the student who chose Parade magazine, the results were encouraging. Most students selected books they regretted not having more time for during the academic year. Kerouac's name surfaced a few times; one intrepid soul decided he would dive into the opening pages of ''Finnegans Wake."

Fletcher goes on to say that many of his students picked-up books that their parents had recently put down.

That, of course, is the critical point that Fletcher is making:

If you want your kids to read, then you need to model reading yourself.
I very much like Fletcher's weekly column, but the students that attend Boston College High can hardly be thought of as typical of those that are found in the Boston area. To begin with, Boston College High is not a public school. It is a privately-controlled institution, and as such, it is free to accept (or reject) students as the school sees fit.

As a classroom teacher in a public junior high school, I am envious of the fact that Fletcher's students get the opportunity to read entire novels and not just passages from novels, as do junior high school students here in Middletown, California.

That is the norm, at least here in the public schools of our district. The reality is that our elementary and junior high school students no longer get any opportunity to read any novels as part of their core academic experience.

Gone forever are the days when every student at Howard Taft Junior High School would study works like Shakespeare's "Macbeth" and Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man And The Sea as part of the core English curriculum. There are no longer any school-wide efforts involving such novels as I, Juan De Pareja, or Julie of the Wolves which were tied into a variety of cross-curricular activities involving all subject areas.

An entire generation of Middletown's kids are moving from kindergarten through eighth-grade without reading a single novel as part of classroom instruction.

Why don't students in Middletown's elementary or junior high study novels or dramatic works as part of their curriculum?

The reason lies in testing, and the relentless drive to increase students' test scores. Nowadays, students only study passages from works of literature because short passages, not novels, are the items that appear on the now-mandated annual tests in reading and mathematics. (And
soon to include science, too.)

So the schools of the Middletown Elementary School District, who are under ever-increasing pressure to continue raising reading and math test scores, have abandoned the novel in favor of a new literary form, not seen before the advent of high-stakes testing: The Passage.

In the Middletown Elementary School District, the evaluation of a classroom teacher's effectiveness is based upon the test scores of his or her students. The district does not hesitate to compare one teacher's test scores with other teachers at the same school.

So, even among teachers, there is an almost-hectic sense of competition. They have become willing (or unwilling) collaborators in the universal adoption of The Orthodoxy of The Passage in our elementary district.

Are the students of Middletown's Senior High School District studying novels? Apparently, some teachers continue to hold-out and insist on teaching novels to their students. The superintendent of the high school district, Dr. Beenthereforever, isn't nearly as obsessed with test scores as is our Superintendent, (of over 10 years) Dr. Evil.

We are sure that as soon as Dr. Beenthereforever retires, his successor will root-out those heretic teachers that continue teaching the novel and impose The Orthodoxy of The Passage on them as well.

Teachers that refuse to convert to The Orthodoxy of The Passage will be burned at a stake with a fire that is fueled by forbidden copies of JD Salinger's Catcher in the Rye.
An Invitation: All writers and readers of education-related posts are invited to contribute to the ninth edition of The Carnival of Education. Please send your submissions to: owlshome [at] earthlink [dot] net. We should receive your contributions no later than 10:00 PM (Pacific) Tuesday, April 5, 2005. The Carnival midway will open here at the 'Wonks Wednesday morning. Get the easy-to-follow entry guidelines here. View the latest edition of the Carnival there.

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