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No Anglo-Saxon Classic Left Behind

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Readers of this blog know that I promote reading a wide range of materials in the classroom, and believe that all sorts of books are inroads to meeting curriculum goals. I believe that students, under the guidance of informed librarians and teachers, should choose their own reading materials. This philosophy is the cornerstone of my teaching, and one of my secrets for motivating young readers.

While I have been waving my banner of free choice reading around, the Texas State Board of Education has debated mandates that effectively take those decisions away from my students and me.

Irony--It’s what’s for dinner.

For the past two years stakeholders, including teachers and experts in the literacy field, have worked to rewrite Texas’ content standards for teaching English Language Arts and Reading. In February, this group finalized plans to present their revised standards to the Board and develop a timeline for implementation.

Two days before the implementation hearing, a conservative faction of the Board presented a “substitute amendment” which in affect threw out the standards created by the committee charged with writing them, in favor of an antiquated set of standards that included recommended texts for each grade level. Here is what a reading classroom would look like under the new proposed standards:

Primary students would read a time capsule of Newbery classics from the World War II and Eisenhower years like The Courage of Sarah Noble (1954) and The Matchlock Gun (1941). Intermediate students would read Robinson Crusoe (1719), poems by Emerson and Longfellow, and The Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). In sixth grade, students would have the choice to read the most recent title on the suggested list, Across Five Aprils, written in 1964.

Even the most outdated school library in America includes authors like Judy Blume, Jerry Spinelli, E.L. Konigsburg, and Gary Paulsen, and yet not one book by these revered authors made the list.

Welcome to Texas- where it is 1950 all over again!

The suggestion that students read only from a list of outdated Eurocentric literature continues in middle and high school. In spite of language that indicates secondary students should “read independently books of various genres from accepted fiction and non-fiction lists,” not one book from the standards’ own lists was published in the last thirty years. Seventh graders would have been advised to read Born Free (1960), and eight graders, Kon-Tiki (1950). Juniors would explore the history of American literature from 1600 to the present with Arthur Miller, Martin Luther King, Jr., Bernard Malamud, Anne Tyler, and Larry McMurtry as the only suggested contemporary authors. Seniors would study the history of British literature which apparently ended with Dylan Thomas and George Bernard Shaw.

While you are laughing and shaking your heads, may I remind you that we planted the seeds for NCLB right here in Houston. Texas is one of the largest purchasers of textbooks in the United States and has a great deal of influence over what gets put in them.

In early March, teachers and advocates from the minority community, pointing out the absence of texts by African-American and Hispanic authors on the suggested lists, were patronized by revisers who scrambled to throw in a few multicultural titles. African-American students would have enjoyed Ananszi tales and Bre’er Rabbit as part of their rich literary heritage. Marquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera and Cisneros’ House on Mango Street would have apparently been enough for the 2 million Hispanic school children in Texas, who would have had to wait until high school to read these influential works.

On March 28th, presented with the third revision of the standards in two months, the State Board abandoned recommending titles altogether and agreed that practitioners should make decisions on what is best for their students when it comes to selecting materials to teach the curriculum.

While we Texas teachers breathe a sigh of relief, I can’t help thinking about the dangers of any agency or school district that recommends reading lists to its teachers. After all, such a list is instantly out of date no matter how current or inclusive the document is when created. Texas standards are updated once every ten years, automatically excluding the subsequent decade of books that will be published after the standards are adopted. Furthermore, policy makers can call a list “suggested” or “recommended” all it wants to, but we all know that these lists morph into required lists when textbooks, standardized tests, and purchasing decisions are shaped around the perceived recommendations from a state body.

The argument for making book recommendations to teachers is that these lists will serve as a guide for teachers who are new or who need help choosing books that show specific examples of the standards to be taught. A noble goal, but one doomed to fail when the lists deny teachers the opportunity to choose materials that meet the interests, needs, or backgrounds of the particular students served by that teacher. I know that many states and districts create such lists.

What are your experiences with recommended lists? How have these lists supported you or limited you when making instructional decisions for your students?

9 Comments

All states seem to really be focusing their curriculum around standardized tests but from what I've heard, Texas seems to be the leader in adapting curriculum to fit a test. I wish more schools focused on Response to Intervention rather that state standardized tests.

I think that all classrooms should be filled with multicultural literature, however, with Texas' proximity to Mexico it seems that they most certainly should include Latino literature within the required trade books for school! I only wish that the people who ran the department of education in each state actually had experience as classroom teachers- 10 years minimum!

Before any group formed to select texts that teachers should be teaching from, there have always been teachers who teach the same book every year. This problem was here before this committee.

Teaching from certain texts always becomes dogmatic, and the teachers begin to sound like they are going through the motions or like they may have had a great interaction with one particular classroom and they are desperate to recreate that experience with all their classes -- a fatal teaching mistake which leads down a dismal path of failure.

But what's the solution to this problem? How did a small conservative group almost take over and make a last minute change? When I read up on this stuff, it almost sounded like I was watching a reality TV show where people form alliances and try to bump others off the program. It's disturbing.

I ignore the lists. The rule at my district applies to whole-class novels, so the loop hole is that I allow kids to read whatever books they want to read. I teach a reading concept present in any book, and a student's job is to show me they can find the concept and how it is being used.

As Texas goes, so goes the nation.....shiver and a huge sigh. :(

Would you want someone from that slice of Texas running the country?

Love your thoughts. So glad you are being forced to share them with us. (-;

Alissa

I don't understand why a "recommended" book list is so bad. I don't believe that "recommended" means that you can't have your students read other literature or authors--it is merely a list of books that a committee of teachers chose as worthwhile works. I see nothing wrong, either, with having students read some "outdated Eurocentric" authors. When a teacher can make those authors come alive students can truly be exposed to the way life was in other cultures and times. Modern authors should certainly be included but let's not throw the baby out with the bath water when selecting literature. I can't imagine a world in which children, at some point during their education, do not experience Dickens, Shakespeare, Hemingway, and Steinbeck.

It's been my experience that "recommeded" reading lists quickly become mandatory, especially when they are attached to the state curriculum. Local administrators are sometimes wary of teachers who veer to far from what they know has the blessing of the State Board of Ed.

As a school librarian, I understand your frustration with recommended, ie, required lists. In the twelve years since I became a librarian I've been asked by parents to provide a list of books for their children to read over the summer. My usual response to parents suggests taking their kids to the library and letting them read books of their own choosing. I also suggest that if the selected book is too hard for the child to read alone that they might make it a family experience. I can't think of a better way to keep kids out of the library than forcing them to read what someone else perceives as the best book for them. I also fight the battle daily when teachers bring their classes to the library and tell the kids what to check out. "Get a really thick chapter book." "Read a paragraph to me so I know it is just right for you." Just right books might be the correct choice for the classroom, but kids generally know what is just right for their own pleasure reading. Coming to the library for a book should be an enjoyable experience. Perusing the pictures of sharks, snakes and spiders is just as important to the reading process as reading the words. We should be building interest in reading by allowing free choice. Life long readers all report that their childhood was full of pleasurable hours with self selected books.

There is nothing wrong with recommended reading lists as long as that is what they stay - recommended. Ironically, today of all days, I spent a huge amount of time on-line trying to find such lists. As a special ed teacher, I have taught just about every subject out there, whether I felt qualified or not(I now feel like a jack of all trades). I will start a new position in the fall - high school LD English; one I am extremely excited about. But not having taught English in several years and now being charged with ordering EVERYTHING for a brand new school (9-12), I wanted to make the best decisions possible. Why reinvent the wheel?...but I certainly don't want to be locked in.
Again, today of all days, while in a book store, my daughter chose a book mainly because she knew that the "gifted class" had read it. She is not gifted (and living with a brother that is) and is self concious about it. When I went to check on her at bedtime, she told me she was only on page 2, it was really hard. Luckily, it was a night I wasn't too exhausted myself, so we curled up and read the first chapter together. By the time we were done, she was beaming and I had been able to share my 2 passions with her: Reading and History, all while reading a classic...The Witch of Blackbird Pond. It's all about balance. Share your passion, while letting your students find theirs.

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  • Mary: There is nothing wrong with recommended reading lists as long read more
  • Booklady00: As a school librarian, I understand your frustration with recommended, read more
  • TeachMoore: It's been my experience that "recommeded" reading lists quickly become read more
  • kathy: I don't understand why a "recommended" book list is so read more
  • Alissa: Love your thoughts. So glad you are being forced to read more

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