An Interview with Sandra Stotsky: The Death and Resurrection of a Coherent Literature Curriculum: What Secondary English Teachers Can Do

Jul 2, 2012 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) First of all, tell our readers who do not know you a bit about your background, education, experience, and educational concerns.

I graduated from a small town high school in Massachusetts (60 students in my graduating class), had a fine English teacher for four years who expected her students to read high school-level works in high school, majored in French literature and language at the University of Michigan, and did doctoral work at the Harvard Graduate school of Education in reading research and instruction.

My teaching career began with grade 3 and then high school French and German. I later worked with teachers in all subjects and at all grade levels in professional development programs on reading and writing across the curriculum.

For many years, I directed a one-week “We the People” summer institute for high school history and English teachers, sponsored by the Lincoln and Therese Foundation and the Center for Civic Education, at the Harvard Summer School and other locations in the Boston area.

I served as senior associate commissioner from 1999-2003 in the Massachusetts Department of Education where I was in charge of revising or developing K-12 standards in all major subjects, teacher licensing regulations, and teacher tests. I am now a Professor of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas and hold the 21st Century Chair in Teacher Quality. I have been one of the few national voices registering many concerns about the damage that Common Core’s English Language Arts standards are doing to the secondary literature/reading curriculum.

My latest book grows out of a national survey I did in 2010, sponsored by the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers, to find out what major works a nationally representative sample of English teachers were assigning in grades 9, 10, 11 in standard and honors classes and how these teachers approached literary study.

2) Now, let’s talk about a “coherent literature curriculum”…..I graduated from high school when the Beatles were still together. During high school, I read My Antonia by Willa Cather. I understand that in my local high school more than 30 or so years later, they are still reading My Antonia. Anything wrong with this picture?

This is an appropriate book to read in high school, especially in an American literature course or a literature course on American immigrants. I don’t know enough to tell you whether there is a curriculum problem. What major works preceded and followed this novel by Willa Cather? Did you read the book as part of a chronological course in American literature so you understood its literary background (historical and contextual)?

She depicted the harsh life of immigrants to her native Nebraska, highlighting the Western plains, and helped to make what some considered regional literature part of our national literature.

My own book focuses on the need for a coherent literature curriculum in the secondary grades so that what students read promotes cumulative learning.

Based on the findings of the ALSCW survey (published as Forum 4), most students in this country experience an idiosyncratic curriculum, a fragmented curriculum whose individual titles don’t relate to each other in any way so that there is no accumulation of literary and historical knowledge of major literary traditions, movements, and periods in American, British and World Literature. In other words, students are not culturally literate when they graduate from high school. Older generations were, far more so.

Moreover, the survey also found that what students read from grade 9 to grade 11 didn’t increase in reading difficulty. They were in essence, being pandered to, not intellectually challenged and educated.

3) I nearly puked the other day when a teacher in Texas, teaching summer school, said “Hunger Games” was now required reading. Your thoughts?

If the teacher was teaching at the high school level, this title doesn’t say much about her academic expectations for her students because it has about a grade 5 reading level (vocabulary and sentence difficulty), according to a well–known readability formula. Beyond that, it is a waste of students’ time because they can read it on their own, without a teacher’s guidance. It’s adolescent leisure reading, not the kind of book high school English teachers should be using to develop their students’ minds and literary/cultural/historical knowledge base.

4) I appreciate your using the word curriculum, as I often hear high school juniors bemoan the fact that they have to read Tale of Two Cities again after reading it two years earlier in freshman lit. What is wrong with communication channels in high school?

There may not be any. This kind of anecdote simply attests to the strong possibility that the high school English department does not have a thought-through curriculum (planned by English teachers talking to each other), in which students experience major (and different) works of increasing difficulty from year to year that contribute to their understanding of American, British and World literary traditions and movements, as well as to their understanding of the English language. Wouldn’t parents be upset if their child was assigned the same Mozart or Beethoven sonata by the piano teacher two years after it was first assigned and studied? It is possible to re-read works in college that have been read 6 years earlier and to gain something from having become a more experienced reader, but not in a 4-year high school curriculum.

5) I have been intimately and tangentially involved in this thing called “developmental/remedial education” since 1980. I am not sure things have changed since then. Is the “literature curriculum” in high school preparing students for college- any kind of college?

It is possible that students in pre-AP, AP or IB courses get prepared for authentic college–level work. But my concern (in my survey and book) is about the vast middle group of students who graduate from high school and go on to a college of some kind but have not been adequately challenged by the literature curriculum they have been given. Those who need remediation at the college level generally come from this middle group of students. They have been shortchanged by an incoherent and intellectually flat literature curriculum reflecting idiosyncratic choices in the name of “engagement,” motivation, or relevance, or trendy ideas from the academy.

We know from National Endowment of the Arts surveys showing drastic declines in adult leisure literary reading that our high school literature curriculum has not produced “lifelong learners” or adults who like to read for pleasure. We also know from surveys of adult reading about the declines in seemingly educated adults’ reading skills. Reading on the Internet has not been an adequate substitute.

6) Nasty question- but I will throw it into the mix. Has inclusion thrown a gigantic monkey wrench into the high school curriculum? Or do secondary English teachers simply have impossible jobs?

I do not know if “inclusion” has affected the high school English curriculum or how. Secondary English teachers have long had too many subject-related responsibilities, public speaking being one of them, and there should be more thought given to a required one-semester course in the high school years on public speaking, leaving more time in the English class for literary study (broadly conceived). That’s just one idea for lightening the load of the year-long English course.

We once had more leveled courses available in the high school so that the vast middle group of students would not be treated as if they were all unmotivated struggling readers. That has been a major part of the educational problem we face today: we barely challenge the top 20 % or so and treat the others as if they all read at the grade 5 level (and then keep them at about that level). The assumption that most students can’t be expected to read high school-level books when in high school has been vastly unfair to the vast middle of our student population.

7) Now, let’s turn to writing—and in your mind, how much actual writing should a freshman/sophomore/junior and senior be required to do and on what topic?

I can’t give a percentage or topics. Much depends on the level of reading a class of students can do. Most of the writing should be analytical (not personal) and about assigned reading, assuming that it is high quality. Some of it should be research-oriented as well (i.e., the research paper), but again, much depends on how many students per week an English teacher teaches. Most writing should be done outside of class or school as homework, or at a public library if a student’s home doesn’t provide the quiet corner that is needed for listening to one’s own thoughts and re-reading and thinking about them in written form.

In-school arrangements should be worked out for students who need it. But 25 hours of class time per week is not enough time for the amount of reading and writing high school students should be doing across the curriculum. Class time should be used for instructional purposes, not as if it were a study period. And most reading and writing (like music practice) should take place elsewhere—in school or home or library.

8) I haven’t read and reviewed your book, but would be happy to do so—but is your focus more on fiction reading in high school or non fiction?

I touch upon both. Historically, coherent literature curricula have included both, even though the trained English teacher will and should concentrate upon fiction, poetry and drama. Some essays, speeches and biographical material have always been part of a well-balanced, coherent literature curriculum. The curriculum issue is how major readings cohere with what has been read earlier and what will be read later, so that students learn about this country’s literary and cultural history and the changing ideas that animated its major writers, and come to understand the language of civic or public life in this country. That is the public purpose of the secondary English curriculum-to develop informed citizens who can think analytically and read, write, and speak the English language adequately for the purposes of self-government.

9) Should English teachers be talking/communicating with history/social studies teachers?

Of course. Especially for the research or term paper. It could be a jointly-supervised paper.

10) Nasty word- but I will use it—accountability—how much accountability does your typical secondary English teacher have? And do principals really supervise these teachers?

Traditionally, accountability lay in what students could read and write by the time they graduated from high school. Employers could tell (and so could college instructors) if students couldn’t read or write well. It didn’t consist of test scores. I don’t know how well English teachers are supervised today. They once were when principals weren’t buried with paperwork from state and federal agencies or tied up with discipline matters, parent complaints, or other time-consuming but non-academic matters. Department heads are supposed to have time to supervise teachers built into their schedule, but I know no research on the matter.

11) Who is publishing your book and where is it available?

The publisher is Rowman & Littlefield and the book is available in hard cover, soft cover and as an e-book.

12) What have I neglected to ask?

The book is primarily for secondary English teachers, as they are the ones who need to start taking charge of their own professional goals and needs. I don’t believe their own professional organization (s) have served them well in the past 40 years and they have been almost totally ignored by the writers of the Common Core Standards.

To mandate teaching 50% literature and 50% informational text or “literary nonfiction” in all secondary English classes is a professional slap in the face. For unknown reasons (there is no research evidence to back this up), the chief architects of Common Core’s English Language Arts Standards believe that students will be better prepared for college if their English teachers spend 50% of their reading instructional time teaching them informational reading—or literary nonfiction. The 50/50 mandate wipes out the possibility for a coherent literature curriculum stressing fiction, drama, and poetry.

Literature is not taught in other courses, only in the English class, and to assume that shifting the % of nonfiction taught will make students ready for college, without expecting them to spend far more time reading, is to betray a complete misunderstanding of our “literacy” problem. One doesn’t become a good reader of college-level texts without spending a lot of time reading material with hard vocabulary in it.

State boards of education apparently saw this 50/50 mandate contributing to “equity,” a kind of silver bullet. I have no idea why. Self-styled education policy makers at the USDE and elsewhere also think Common Core’s 50/50 mandate will turn struggling readers into college-ready material, or possibly “career-ready.” Just because all students will be compelled to address the same skills in Common Core’s standards at each grade level doesn’t mean they will gladly read on their own. What Common Core does do is to deprive all of them of an education. Its goal seems to be the training of Beta workers and treating all public school students as potential Beta workers.

Unless this mandate is ignored, American students will experience an even more fragmented literature/reading curriculum than they already do. Even if the texts all students read in high school are more difficult than those they now read, an incoherent curriculum does not prepare them for college or informed citizenship.

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