Considering canon…

Man, when English teachers see kids excited about a lesson, they get so excited they completely misread the room.

I didn’t realize this until recently. And, of course, I am guilty of this myself. But, our inability as educators to tell the difference between true love of a text or activity and our students excited because we developed then executed a truly engaging lesson plan is truly concerning.

Let me back up a bit.

I’m a member of a wonderful, large group on Facebook of enthusiastic, innovative English teachers led by a delightful, thoughtful educator who provides piles of free resources she’s developed. It’s fantastic. Let me provide with you a typical conversation that occurs in this group.

“Hi, amazing, wonderful, brilliant people! I’m teaching (insert grade level or text here) this year. It’s the (first/thousandth/fourth/haven’t done it in ages) time I’ve taught it and I’m looking for ideas. Help me, please?”

Then the outpouring of ideas flows forth like a mighty river. It can be overwhelming. The ideas move swiftly like the river’s current and can drown almost anyone. Often, the responses include, ‘I’ve done/read (insert activity or text here) with my students and they LOVED IT!!!!!’

OK, I’m exaggerating a bit on the response, but I’ve seen this pattern repeat countless times. Alarm bells started going off in my head when teachers kept saying kids love canon literary texts. Really? Most of your students fooled you into thinking they loved that book? That book that I have zero interest in reading? And I am an English teacher. 

Here’s why I don’t believe it when teachers say their students loved a text that has been in the English curriculum since the mid-20th century: few of my students ever tell me that. I know that when I taught honors 10 English, of the six sections I had over two years, probably three or four of those kids actually read ‘1984’ in its entirety. They faked it. And they were good at it. They told me after graduating they faked it.

Here’s the other reason I know kids don’t love the canon literary texts we drag them through – they tell me they don’t like them. They tell me, ‘Ms. H, don’t try to make us read at home. We won’t do it.’ Or they say, just like the honors students with ‘1984’, that they faked their way through literature in middle school and before they got to me. After five years (plus a semester of student teaching) of this kind of feedback from students, I am skeptical when any teacher says their kids loved whatever classic novel they assigned.

This skepticism also springs from all the reading I have done. Atwell, Kittle, Gallagher, Tovani, Beers, they all see the same thing. We destroy the love of reading with students when it comes to what we ask them to do in school. So, when we come up with brilliant, creative and engaging lesson plans for literature that kids buy into, it is easy to be fooled by that enthusiasm for our lessons and teaching. It is easy to turn and around and tell other teachers seeking advice that the kids loved that book.

The danger here is setting up false expectations for the children in front of those educators we gave that guidance to who will inevitably be disappointed when those texts fall flat or they later discover the kids faked their way through the text. Again. Because we have so thoroughly destroyed the love of reading they cannot see value in academic texts which devalues, in their minds, any other kinds of reading. If it’s not good enough for their English teacher, then why bother? And if it’s good enough for the English teacher, it’s never going to be interesting. ‘Readicide’ by Kelly Gallagher is the place to go for an in-depth exploration of this destruction of the love of reading.

Don’t be fooled, friends. Your teaching is great, but, until you recognize the difference between true love of a text (kid reads it on their own, with a flashlight at night under the covers, well ahead of your schedule) and highly engaging lessons (kids in class with heads down, working hard on whatever assignment you put to them, working collaboratively or alone, demonstrating practice then mastery of skills) please don’t tell your colleagues your students loved it. You’re doing everyone a disservice.

Next time, we should talk about how to truly foster this love of reading, and how I have yet to figure out a way to do this all year long while doing all the things my district, administrators and grade-level colleagues also expect me to do. I want kids to love ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ and ‘Brave New World’ and ‘Macbeth’ as much as I do. But, we have to talk about how to get there and the way we get there is not the way we traditionally do things. It’s a juggling act and, well, I never did learn how to juggle.

But, that’s for another time. Until then, please keep designed engaging lessons for your students. They do love that!

In trouble.

This is for all the teachers who see and recognize when the status-quo content/curriculum isn’t cutting it for our students.

We understand one path to transparency is to be just that: transparent. Speak up during meetings. Have our research to back us up. Challenge the canon and “the way it’s always been done.” However, sometimes our concerns, warnings, and expertise is ignored. Students are masters of seeing through dishonest instruction. Sometimes teachers mistake lack of motivation to “laziness” and the implicit racial bias that often accompanies that label.

So we have to go rogue.

We have to create curriculum that not only meets students where they are, but help them cut through the brush to their own learning.

We rogue teachers invite you to share your stories, thoughts, resources, success and failures when it comes to going off the known map. We’ve all had those “shake our heads” moments when the faulty logic behind curriculum adoption doesn’t make sense. We’ll share our stories and struggles, too, and share this space. And try to have a little fun in the process.