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.