Is It the Text or the Teaching?
Michelle Kenney (“Of Mice and Marginalization,” fall 2013) makes compelling points about the pressures of choosing texts for her classroom. When her students were presented with the task of reading Steinbeck’s “classic” Of Mice and Men, they stopped reading, left class, or otherwise “checked out” of the learning process. I, too, question the idea of a canon that excludes people of color, women, gay people, and others. Materials, curricula, and environment of any educative space should be representative of the young people in the room and relevant to their concerns, ancestry, history, and promise. However, locating this disengagement solely in the choice of material is too simple.
“Teaching on instructional cruise control” may have been a bigger culprit than the material itself. Kenney admits to using cookie-cutter worksheets from the internet. There is room in teaching a text like Of Mice and Men for students to “talk back” to the text through the development of new characters, persona poems in the voices of people who are otherwise silent, or essays that analyze sexism (or power) in the novel. Maybe if the unit had been framed with an eye on critique and argument, and had been buttressed by creative assignments, students would have re-engaged with the novel. After all, A Raisin in the Sun is a classic text as well, and Kenney found ways to frame conversations and give students choice and agency via dialogue journals and essay topics. Locating the problem in the choice of material obscures the fact that, even if we have the “right” text, we can still fail to teach it within a youth-centered, social justice framework.
There is something precious and necessary about young people learning to push past whatever challenges they encounter with a piece of literature. Stamina for reading is essential to the journey to being a lifelong learner. As students we are often required to read books that are not of our choosing, and the focus required to sit down and read a book is not a skill that is cultivated in our fast-paced, technological society.
I worry because my students do not have the luxury of “checking out.” I wonder: How we can provide both safety and risk in our teaching practice—opportunities for our students to experience boredom and figure out what to do next, to focus, and, most importantly, to feel continually emboldened to “talk back” to whatever disquiets them? This is our good, good work.
Bronx, New York
Michelle Kenney responds:
Ama, I appreciate your commentary on my article, and I agree that curriculum can make or break student interest in a unit, particularly for novels like Of Mice and Men. Nevertheless, I have to take on the notion that you can mitigate the impact of a sexist and racist novel by getting students to “talk back to the text,” even using the creative and inspired activities you suggested. Like many teachers who struggle to choose texts for the classroom, I have tried this before with other novels. In my classes over the years, many students have produced work “talking back” to the sexism in The Crucible, Death of a Salesman, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, among others. They have done many of the assignments you suggested, including persona poetry and essays that analyze sexism and racism in these works. But, to tell the truth, I have had more success engaging students with texts like A Raisin in the Sun, with fully developed characters to help younger high school students connect with big ideas, and develop their identities as they develop educated voices to talk back to the sexism and racism of the current day.
I also find it difficult to wrap my mind around the expectation that teachers need to develop reading “stamina” in their students, especially for books and materials that kids don’t find meaningful. Grit has become the new buzzword in the so-called education reform movement today: the idea that stubborn, deliberate practice—in the face of setbacks, crushing poverty, school budget cuts, and overwhelming class sizes—determines a student’s success. How did we let education, and the education of our neediest students in particular, become such a joyless marathon? Like you, Ama, I have many students who can’t afford to check out, but instead of getting them to tough it out, I would rather entice them to read by offering them rich and relevant literature.
Thank you for the feedback. Although we don’t agree on a couple of points, this is exactly the sort of productive and relevant conversation I enjoy having with other teachers.
Too Harsh on Charter Schools?
Although I am neither a proponent nor opponent of charter schools en masse, I have some issues concerning Stan Karp’s recent article (“Charter Schools and the Future of Public Education,” fall 2013):
1. Noting that charters have shifted away from “community-based, educator-initiated local efforts designed to provide alternative approaches for a small number of students,” Karp highlights the efforts of national charters (e.g., KIPP, Mastery, Green Dot); he does not take into account numerous local, community-based charters that do have the best interests of their students, parents, and teachers at heart. He also does not note the increasing number of charters that are unionized.
2. If education advocates want to reduce the influence of high-stakes testing, why do they insist on using it as a metric to either praise (rarely) or critique (more often) charter schools? There are other relevant metrics, including parent satisfaction, college acceptance, and student safety.
3. Charters were never created to “take over” school districts (New Orleans is an exception). It is more appropriate to view charters as one mechanism in the toolbox of school choice, which also includes magnet schools, gifted programs, and alternative schools for pregnant girls. Why do we spend so much effort critiquing when we should be looking at best practices from all types of healthy, performing schools?
4. Most people have a visceral response to the word “segregation”: images of Little Rock and vitriolic white parents hurling rocks at black children. Today, however, there is a significant difference between state-sanctioned segregation and self-selection. If schools are designed to serve neighborhoods, it is imperative that we have an honest discussion about the racial and socioeconomic structure of neighborhoods.
5. Finally, poverty seems to be the progressive go-to issue for critiquing educational choices. But poverty of the mind, of options, and of expectations for children are more problematic than the distressing financial poverty many students face. This attitude is disrespectful to the sacrifices of hardworking parents who want positive outcomes for their children, despite their own economic distress.
We need to recognize the choices parents are making. If there is a proliferation of charters and those charters are turning away students, we have to ask why. Yes, it could be an influx of external forces, but it could also be community-driven. We must have conversations about both the inorganic and organic forces of school choice in a more honest and respectful manner.
Stan Karp responds:
My article does acknowledge there are “some excellent individual charter schools,” but argues that the hope that charter reform would be a strategy for improving public education is belied by the real impact of rapid charter growth in cities across the country. At the level of state and federal education policy, charters are providing a reform cover for eroding the public school system and an investment opportunity for those who see education as a business rather than a fundamental institution of democratic civic life. It’s time to put the brakes on charter expansion and refocus public policy on providing excellent public schools for all.
Rhoden says New Orleans is an “exception,” but Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities all show that rapidly expanding charter privatization is bad for public education.