NCTE and dead white males

Had you been following the #ncte11 twitter feed on Friday morning, you would have seen a number of messages coming out of the session I was in. Convened by Jim Burke, and following a rousing call-to-arms from Linda Darling-Hammond in the General Session, the panel boasted some big names in the field: Carol Jago, Sandra Stotsky, Judith Langer, and Arthur Applebee.  An NCTE Featured Session, it was entitled “Preparing Today’s Students for Tomorrow: Reports, Reflections, and Recommendations from Recent National Studies.”

Carol Jago presented on a more well-rounded approach to the idea of text complexity: focusing not only on the quantitative pronouncements of “grade level” (beyond the Fry Readability test of counting syllables).  She suggested that there is a qualitative understanding of a text that we intuitively understand: the amount of figurative language, allusions, and the like. She also discussed the relationship of the reader with the text and stressed the importance of providing books that were in the zone of proximal development for a young reader. “Kids should be reading two books at once: one that they devour and one that is in their ZPD,” was the message from Carol Jago.

Next up was Sandra Stotsky, the only name on the panel that was unfamiliar to me. I now know why. Conservative in the extreme, she rose to the podium to begin with a study that examined how the number of English teachers using canonical texts (The Scarlet Letter, The Odyssey, MacBeth, etc) has decreased since 1989. My bias was such that I didn’t at first understand that this was a bad thing. Her other studies showed that Readability of texts (presumably determined by the very Readability formula that Jago had stated not moments before was not sufficient to determine text complexity, but let’s go with it) was between a 3rd and a 10th grade level, some folks were only assigning one text in a High School grade and they certainly aren’t teaching New Criticism.  Of course, those of us in schools know that part of this is due to the unyielding pressure of the standardization movement, where English teachers feel as if they have no choice but to abandon longer works in favor of succinct readings that can be read in 6 minutes, followed by 4 minutes of answering questions (ACT allows only 8 minutes for reading a passage and answering questions, so maybe I’ve been generous). No matter: the point stands that the English curriculum could use some coherence. I am totally on board with that. I just know that I, along with many folks I know, struggle with what coherence looks like. Especially when you are developing READERS, readers who may need remediation for a whole host of reasons, often associated with the fact that we do a really bad job of supporting the 1 in 4 children living in poverty in this country. But I digress. What Stotsky then presented was what made my blood boil. Two sterling examples of the most dry, inappropriate curriculum that featured Grade 6 reading the Book of Genesis and the Odyssey and culminating  with Grade 9 reading Sonnets (I’m guessing Shakespeare), Chaucer, MacBeth, Pride & Prejudice, and more. I found two female authors on one list, one of whom was Zora Neale Hurston, who also represents the only minority voice on the list (unless you count Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which was assigned for summer reading). The other comprehensive curriculum sample she presented did a better job of more women and minority authors, until one hit High School where it dead-white-male-ville.

I fail to see how this develops readers, represents complexity, or prepares students for increasingly global workplace wherein our students will have to negotiate different cultural norms. How does reading The Scarlet Letter (sorry to pick on this, but it is a representative example) help students negotiate this world better than say a slew of other even 20th century authors and voices? Why the crowding out of women and minority authors? Does a comprehensive curriculum mean that the only voices we hear are those that replicate the power structures of oppression so shameful in our history? This is troubling in the extreme.

In the end, it is up to us to make sure that voices like this don’t prevail. It already feels like a struggle to do what is best for our learners. If we select a non-dead-white-male text, we have to explain its complexity, advocate for it. If we select a dead-white-male text, we have to understand that it must hold value beyond its canonical significance and use it in a way that still empowers the voices of our students.


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12 thoughts on “NCTE and dead white males

  1. I don’t think I could have sat in that crowd without booing. It enrages me. Stotsky was discussed at length on the English Companion Ning last year after her report came out. This narrow vision of the study of literature and the developers of reading is laughable if it weren’t so scary. We are not in the business of preparing future English teachers and Lit majors. We are in the business of preparing kids for college and careers and most importantly and idealistically, meaningful adulthood. Stotsky is the recipe for losing another generation of readers.

    I like what Jago has to say though (based on your blog post). That coherency should come from local decisions (town, district, grade level, classroom level) based on the populations of kids. Kids should engage in meaningful inquiry into thematic questions and use a number of texts — poetry, nonfiction, fiction, media, texts in common and texts independently chosen, texts that are at students’ reading level and texts that are in their ZPD — to pursue this course of study.

    Lastly, my AP Lit Seniors are reading Emma right now. We are making it through but it is a struggle. A struggle, in my opinion, that does not justify the effort. Language and storytelling has evolved for a reason — we don’t study chariots for insight into more efficient and effective automobiles. And I think this desperate need for some shared cultural literacy pales in importance to our need to develop able and willing readers and writers.

    • Thanks for this comment, Joel. Carol Jago’s discussion was much more nuanced and responsive to the lived experiences of both students and teachers in the contemporary English classroom. Your comment about the evolution of storytelling is so, so important, too. What a powerful way to approach the teaching of our content: as evolution. I really appreciate your thoughtful response.

  2. In many ways, we’ve already won. The influence of new voices in students’ lives is a direct result of teachers going with what they know and believe. I firmly believe that the text itself is less important than what students do with it. The Scarlet Letter, while overall a good book, has the single worst first chapter ever written. (Okay, maybe I exaggerate, but not by much.) And there are books that do things the Scarlet Letter can’t. I like the book, but I never teach it any more. It has more to do with what I want than what students need.

    One thing about your experience that gives me a lot of hope is that the conservative was the minority voice. Another that makes me happy is that you posted this and others will read it.

    • I can’t believe you are maligning the chapter about the PRISON DOOR?!? Okay, just kidding. I think I’ve been traumatized by that damn door. At any rate, I concur with you Brian: in most circles, this is not an argument, but a recognition that this is the way it USED to be. And we shake our heads, glad that those days have passed us by. Except. Except for I see schools in my state that stubbornly adhere to the canonical works championed by Stotsky. This is what worries me. When someone who doesn’t understand the complexity of our subject sees an expert on the stage at a featured session of NCTE spouting these opinions, I worry about its impact. I worry about the impact of the Common Core’s gigantic hammer advocating for the same. This is why I can’t let this moment go by without comment.
      As always, Brian, I so love to hear your thoughts and I very much appreciate you sharing them here.

  3. When are we going to get an AP women’s lit or AP Hispanic Lit or AP Black Lit course of study? When will AP and, in general high school English/LA curricula, abandon it’s almost exclusively white male-centric canon and present a balance of literature that learners in the 21st c should consider as worthy of deep study. We educators need to own that just because white male literature was valued BC or in the 16th, 17th 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, it does not mean it’s pertinent to what young people are driven to read today. It doesn’t make the kids “more educated” or more “middle class” to read the canon as some would want us to believe. As a result of reading “great books”, they will no more embrace reading or critical analysis or synthesis of ideas, opinions, philosophical perspectives, and key concepts than they would using a balanced offering of global historical and contemporary literature. Pick a few older generation books that offer potential for young people to find relevancy to their own world and add a few that represent their current world and near future. Remind yourself that “great books” simply represent our own nostalgia for the good old days of high school English that turned generations of young people off of reading. Understand that our own entrancement with literature perhaps is more relevant to our lives than theirs. And, remember that what young people read is less important than the process of reading, discussing, debating, and coming to understand big ideas that exist within a multitude of choices of diverse authors who have produced extraordinary literature in all corners of the world and today as well as yesterday.

  4. I also like to think about the statistic Donalyn Miller shared the other day in a presentation I attended in Buffalo. I can’t remember the exact statistic but it related to the amount of reading adults do. 1/4 of all adults in our country did not read a book last year. The statistics weren’t that impressive for the other 3/4 either. Assumably the majority of these adults went through classrooms where the canonical text was the thing and where did it get us? We are a nation of dormant readers. I went to a canon worshipping high school. As a result, I didn’t read.

    Kids read and develop literacy skills when they are doing work they see as valuable and are in a community they value.

    • Thanks for this, Joel. The differences you are highlighting here is in our intention as educators. Are we wanting kids to be just like us? Or have them grow as readers? And when we want them to be just like “us,” what do we mean? Whose voices are we privileging? You say, “Kids read and develop literacy skills when they are doing work they see as valuable and are in a community they value.” I would only add that the community needs to value them as well. By only privileging the canon, we miss so much.

  5. Hi Andrea, I was also in that session and have to say that I was encouraged the next morning at the Alan breakfast when author Jacqueline Woodson discussed her first year in college. She said that “among the cannon [she] was invisible, dishonored.” I’ve joined the NCTE commission on racism and bias in response and we are working on something . . . we don’t know what it will look like yet though. Peace to you.

    • I was a very lucky girl once to sit next to Jacqueline Woodson at a breakfast, too. You quote her articulation of the problems with the canon, and she provides an eloquent response to the likes of Stotsky, who may not even realize that in the zeal for comprehensive curricula, an over-reliance on voices of privilege perpetuates the hegemony that has proven so detrimental to young people. I am thrilled to hear that you’ve taken some action and please let us know how to support you and the commission as you move forward.

  6. Thanks for a brave and important post!

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