For years Lorrie McNeill loved teaching chemistry. She taught her students the periodic table of elements, the ubiquitous classroom staple that many Americans regard as a scientific rite of passage. But last fall, for the first time in 15 years, Ms. McNeill, 42, removed the periodic table from her classroom. Gone, too, were assigned lab partners–and even the laboratory tables themselves, bunsen burners and all. Instead she turned over all the decisions about what science to learn to the students in her seventh- and eighth-grade science classes at Jonesboro Middle School in this south Atlanta suburb.
Elsewhere, he says:
People in education don’t like to make these choices. Fine. But choice works both ways. If you refuse to say what’s worth knowing, you inevitably choose “nothing’s worth knowing.” Huckleberry Finn? “Kids can live without it.” Shakespeare? “They’ll get that in college.” Langston Hughes? James Baldwin? Maya Angelou? No single work is indispensible, but it’s like pulling a loose thread from a sweater. Keep pulling things out, and eventually all that’s left is “Read whatever you want!” It’s a formula for illiteracy.
Eduwonk pretty much agrees. A few thoughts:
As the article clearly describes, the class in question was hardly an instructionless free-for-all. Students weren’t allowed to read whatever they wanted, and the teacher put a lot of effort into prodding and engaging them individually while also teaching group lessons on literary concepts. She was hardly teaching to the test, and yet the class as a whole improved substantially on the state reading exam.
Moreover, there are some obvious distinctions between literature and science. You can’t teach chemistry without the periodic table. You can easily teach literature without Lord of the Flies. Similarly, there are certain events, people, and ideas that cannot be excluded from any serious instruction in American history. The literature canon, whatever it is or should be, is not nearly as easily defined. If a high school failed to teach the Civil War, it would be a scandal. If a high school failed to teach James Baldwin, it wouldn’t, and for good reason. Literature is vast and unmasterable, and canonical status is much more subject to interpretation and debate. I’m 99% sure I wasn’t taught Hughes or Baldwin or Angelou in school, and I just skimmed enough of Huckleberry Finn to past the test. Yet I’m not illiterate! I read other worthy books instead.
Pondisco says people in education don’t like to make choices. But he’s the one avoiding the tough choices here. A lot of students don’t take to the old standard literature they’re assigned to read in school. What should we do about that? If the subject were math or science or history or grammar, the answer would be some form of “find a new way to help them take to it.” Math is math and science is science and, to a lesser but still significant extent, history is history. In each area, you have to learn some things before you can learn other things. On this the Core Knowledge people and I agree.
But when it comes to reading literature, there really are a huge array of possible paths to deep, lifelong engagement. The way we connect with words and commune with authors has a lot do with who we are, where we come from, how we think and what we feel. The reading life is a gift, one we should work very hard to impart to as many students as we can. And if that means some take a different a route than we’re familar with, fine–the important thing is that they get there.