Posted by Joseph Knippenberg
There was some discussion about that at the conference I attended this past weekend. I missed this depressing article, to which George Leef called our attention.
If students don’t read or write much in high school, they’re surely not prepared for college-level work. Does the article ring true to those NLT readers who have experience of what’s required in high school?
After ten years of teaching, I have seen that the only class that usually seems to read any books beside the textbook is English. And, the most recent trend is to do everything on the computer because technology validates the quality of just about any lesson plan. I have retired to write books, but if I ever go back to teaching, it will only be to a classical school that reads original books and the occasional modern classic in ALL of their classes. Post-literate is an apt description for this visual generation educated by powerpoint-producing and Google teachers.
I have said it here before, my community college students often are shocked that my first assignment for them is to read a WHOLE book, from my extensive list of classics, mostly, but not exclusively novels. I demand that they read and write about one of those books. Most of every class has never read a book and those who have were in AP classes or are from literate families where the parents read books.
One student dropped out of my class when I embarrassed her by noting that she was carrying a Cliff Notes version of the book she said that she was reading and I told her that she must at least cite that as a reference. Yes, I was being sarcastic, although I said it with a smile.
On the other hand, I had a firefighter from a rural township who read Crime and Punishment because he found the title appealing, then loved it and wrote me quite a good paper on it. He now "needs" to read Dostoevsky. A home schooled girl who had only ever read "Christian historical romance novels", (and who knew that genre existed?) read Jane Eyre on my recommendation and loved that. "Are there other novels like that?"
But it seems to be a lot to ask of high school teachers to do without textbooks. The private high school curriculum I wrote based on my home schooling experience demands using books, not textbooks. They cannot find teachers to teach like that, and have gone to textbooks that tell the teacher what to say and how to present the material. However, the literature classes still teach one novel a quarter, which is probably better than nothing. I am negotiating to go back to work there, but am worrying about what compromises I might have to make to fit their new program.
I am concerned that if the reading of whole books is not required of high schools by the federal guidelines the teachers say they must cleave to, then what will the DoE set for college standards so that those students can achieve and not be "left behind" there, too? If my demand for the reading of a book, (a novel, for goodnessï¿½ sake!) at the community college is considered too hard, then what IS the standard? Is computer literacy going to be it?
Perhaps reading books will also continue to flourish, but
As many of you know, I’m running a project for the NEH to develop lesson plans for teaching U.S. history at the high school level. One bit of criticism that was offered of the lessons we wrote was that they tended to focus too much on comprehension of primary sources, instead of deeper questions of analysis and, of course, "critical thinking." My reaction was that based on the performance of most freshman I’ve seen in Western Civ classes, I would be overjoyed if I thought they were learning basic comprehension in high school. As it is, I have to spend most of the semester just on comprehension even at the college level.
Stick to your guns, John. One of the things the web does is make available incredible numbers of primary documents, often ones you can edit to manage the reading load. I’m teaching a college-level course right now focused on such documents, and it’s a great way to structure a course.
Just try to outline/comprehend a Federalist paper, or a speech by Calhoun or Lincoln without engaging in critical thinking.
And yes, amen, high school students need to encounter "whole books" outside the English Department. Give ’em a textbook, but also a book like Gordon Wood’s Radicalism of the American Revolution or how about a book that’s less challenging, like Robert Remini’s The Revolutionary Era of Andrew Jackson or Stephen Oates’ concise Abraham Lincoln: The Man Behind the Myths .
Using primary documents is a great way to structure a high school course, too. I taught a high school Government course like that and I am still hearing about it, in positive terms, from former students. The debate we staged between the two sides of the Constitutional question, each using Federalist and Anti-Fed. literature gleaned from the web (the textbook was useless) to make their arguments made for a great week of study and argument. The dissection of the Constitution and comparison to the government that we actually have today nearly made Libertarians of the lot of them and me, too. Then they filed for student loans, and got over their self-righteous indignation.
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