Guest Author: Robyn G.
ZipDialog is pleased to continue its forum on how reading is taught in high school, featuring Guest Authors with diverse experiences and perspectives. It gives us a window not only on reading but on the world of today’s high school students.
Today’s forum features Robyn G., an experienced Middle School teacher. She often works individually with students in a prosperous Chicago suburb with strong public schools. She keeps in touch with her students as they continue through high school so she has a good sense of how their middle school experiences affect those in high school.
After Robyn’s comments, I include links to the two previous posts and brief quotes from them. Again, many thanks for making this such an interesting back-and-forth.
Challenging Middle School Students in a Prosperous Chicago Suburb . . by Robyn G.
Since Robyn refers to her school and suburb several times, we’ll call them “Evergreen Middle School” in “Lakewood.”
I could go on and on about the topic of reading lists, especially as I have grappled with these issues with my colleagues for 18 years at Evergreen Middle School. Here are just a few thoughts on the comparative reading lists 1922/today.
Our students read The House on Mango Street in 7th grade. It is quite easy, straightforward reading, with the added element for our students that it takes place in Chicago. Even factoring in that students in Lakewood are most likely at higher reading levels overall than the average San Antonian, I was surprised to see it on a high school list. To Kill a Mockingbird, on the other hand is (filching from The Wizard of Oz) a horse of a different color. Although I see that it is listed at a 5.6 reading level, it is far richer in syntax than The House…., and many times more sophisticated. In fact, my concern in teaching it to 8th graders is that they may never go back to it when they are at an age to truly appreciate Harper Lee’s wicked sense of humor. Thus, I think it is more appropriate on a high school reading list.
By the same token, I am saddened that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has disappeared from so many reading lists around the country (for obvious….so disheartening….reasons).
A curious omission on either of the required reading lists is Shakespeare. We alternate between Macbeth and A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream towards the end of 8th grade each year. The students initially are invariably intimidated by the seemingly convoluted language. So (with the help of Folger’s modern ‘translations’ in the margins), we approach it scene by scene. As we begin to read aloud and assign roles, the students become more and more engaged. They work on their assigned scenes for a couple of weeks and then perform them in class, by this time with glee and a much greater sense of comprehension. Of course, again this being Lakewood, the unit culminates with a field trip to Chicago Shakespeare and their performances with culled dialogue geared to students. Even without these field trips, I am a big believer in offering this kind of challenging reading early on. The kids end up feeling a sense of accomplishment. They are introduced to universal themes and the poetic magic of the bard. When they return to visit from Lakewood High School or whatever high school they are attending, they tell us how ‘easy’ it was reading Romeo & Juliet or Julius Caesar. In my one-dog study (me), I believe that challenging students early on improves both their verbal and writing abilities, launching them more successfully into the high school and college years ahead.
One final thought. Comparing a reading list from 1922 to one almost 100 years later is a bit like mixing apples with oranges. The English language is fluid and constantly evolving (as Vernon Shelton pointed out); thus, the writing style of James Fenimore Cooper’s classic The Last of the Mohicans may have been a tad more accessible to early twentieth century readers than it is to millennials. That said, the issues of race are as relevant today as when Cooper wrote in the early 19th century, so the book remains a classic. One of our social studies teachers effectively has his 7th grade students read excerpts from the novel, along with clips from the 1992 Daniel Day-Lewis movie remake, to illustrate the time of the French & Indian War in the mid-eighteenth century. The key is to always provide context and relevancy, allowing the students to relate and engage.
⇒ Post #1 featured an article by Annie Holmqueist comparing reading lists in the 1920s and today .
Discussing that article, ZipDialog stressed four points:
- Today’s reading lists are more culturally- and ethnically-diverse.
- The 1922 readings were substantially more difficult.
- Reading and writing comprehension in later grades are lower today than previously
- It is unclear what causal relation, if any, connects these easier readings and poorer results in writing and comprehension.
⇒ Post #2 featured three guest authors, a high school English teacher (Vernon Shelton), a speechwriter (Bob Lehrman), and an education researcher who works closely with schools in poor neighborhoods (Dorene Ross). Here’s a flavor of their perspectives.
Vernon Shelton, high school English teacher:
Putting classic literature in terms that contemporary students understand may add to the burden that a teacher must carry, but I think that the benefits are worth the trouble. –Vernon Shelton
Bob Lehrman, speechwriter:
Michele Obama’s Democratic convention speech. . . . clocks in at a 7.3 grade level. Do I think her speechwriter, Sarah Horowitz, deprives listeners by not writing denser prose? No. What she did was allow millions of Americans — who average a 7th grade reading level — to understand what the First Lady said. –Bob Lehrman
Dorene Ross, teaching educator and researcher:
In 1922 the national high school graduation rate was around 17%; in 2014 the national graduation rate was 81%…. Of all the factors that correlate with achievement, poverty (not culture or race or language) is the strongest correlate…. We have a lot of knowledge about what would impact achievement in schools (e.g. Smaller classes, high quality teachers in every classroom, psychological services for children and families, quality summer programs for poverty youth, high quality early childhood education, treatment for vision and asthma problems) and very little national will to do it. –Dorene Ross
♥ Hat’s Off to Robyn G., Vernon Shelton, Bob Lehrman, and Dorene Ross for their contributions and to Annie Holmquist for the article that prompted this forum.
Your comments are welcome here or on Facebook, where this Forum will also be posted.