Two questions have been posted here this week that need some attention.
The first came from “Teacher in Need”: “While I am not sure if this is the correct means of communication, I am going to try this avenue. I was trying to find a way to allow my ninth grade students to communicate with you as they are reading your novel in class this semester. Is this idea possible? Is this the correct place for them to try? Any answers or suggestions would be appreciated. We have been reading your novel in my classes for the past six years, and I want to try something new with my students. Communicating with you would be a fantastic experience for them!
Thank you so much asking this, and for doing it in a way that allows me to share my policy with everyone else out there. I would love to communicate with your students. I understand how that enriches the experience for them. It enriches my experience, too!
But I have to be a realist. (My family and my editors are demanding this on a daily basis now.) There are a whole lot of ninth grade students reading SPEAK out there. There is one of me. And I am facing another year of ridiculous deadlines and a boat-load of promotional obligations and travel. I already spend 10-30 hours a week on non-writing tasks that have direct connections to my work, like responding to student questions. I am trying to cut back on this because I feel my primary responsibility is to write books.
I have tried to put my responses to common questions about the book in easily accessible places. Please grab a copy of the reissue of the paperback (Platinum edition) – there is a long interview in the back, and a note from me about censorship efforts. Have your students go through the SPEAK pages of my website. (I will try to get the SPEAK FAQ pulled together by the fall.) Combing through the archives of this journal will yield lots of info, too.
If, after searching all of these places, your students have a question for which they cannot find the answer, then ask them to post it here to my LJ and I’ll be happy to respond. I hope that will work for everyone.
The second question was posed by Dorian, who heard me speak at Cornell last week. He disagreed (politely) with my statement that teaching the Classics to many high school students is a waste of time, and further, it is detrimental to literacy efforts. This is a subject near and dear to my heart, so I’m posting my thoughts here.
First, I have nothing against the Classics. Some of them I like, some of them I don’t like. (OK, some of them I loathe, I admit it.) And I think it is important for high schools students to acquire at least a passing acquaintance with them, in order to have a solid foundation of literature.
My opinion that the Classics are a waste of time for most students comes from hearing that statement from countless thousands of students themselves. I know some kids, like Dorian, like them. Huzzah! That rocks. Kids like that, I don’t worry about. Clearly, they have the reading and analytical skills we wish that all students had. I am worried about the other 80-90%.
Here’s the thing: many of the Classics were written more than one hundred years ago. All of the Classics were written for adults. Many high school students struggle with both of these aspects. They find themselves fighting through dense text trying to understand situations and worlds that they have little or no connection to. Is it any wonder that so many of them graduate saying that they hate reading?
They loved reading at the end of 6th grade. We do a terrific job in America sparking the enthusiasm of kids for books – fiction and non-fiction. We hand them books that are appropriate for their age and reading level, and that have stories that connect to them. Then they get to the secondary level, and many of them start hating books, largely because the books have no meaning for them, or are beyond their ability. Yes, there are some incredibly gifted, passionate teachers out there who manage to teach the Classics well, despite the long odds against them. But their numbers dwindle as the amount of time they are forced to dedicate to the preparation for standardized tests increases.
Is the goal to graduate students with an understanding of the Classics? In an ideal world, yes.
The real goal is to graduate students who understand how to read. Without that foundation, everything else is wasted.
How does this play out in the real world? In the US, 40 million adults are functionally illiterate. A study of the American Academy of Family Physicians Patient Education Handouts found that 76% were written at a 9th grade level or higher. Over 300 studies have reported that most printed patient materials are written at a reading level that is too high.
Read this from a report of the National Institute of Literacy: “The ability to read and understand complicated information is important to success in college and, increasingly, in the workplace. An analysis of the NAEP long-term trend reading assessments reveals that only half of all White 17 year olds, less than one-quarter of Latino 17 year olds, and less than one-fifth of African American 17 year olds can read at this level.
By age 17, only about 1 in 17 seventeen year olds can read and gain information from specialized text, for example the science section in the local newspaper. This includes:
1 in 12 White 17 year olds,
1 in 50 Latino 17 year olds, and
1 in 100 African American 17 year olds.”
I wish we had all of our 17 year olds to the point where we could have them enjoy Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Thoreau, and, yes, Hawthorne. But to get them to that point, THEY MUST LEARN HOW TO READ. Their chances of developing into literate adults are greatly enhanced if we hand them books that are interesting, engaging, and written in the vernacular. Most of the Classics do not fit that definition.
What do you think?