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Lowest Common Denominator

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Cathy asks what the inner city kids in Philadelphia are being taught–all I can say is that if they’re at all like my bottom-remedial students, the answer is:  nothing.

Conservatives who complain that inner city students are being denied the classics because they’re being fed a diet of “grievance literature” are missing the point.

Grievance literature would be a step up.  What they’re mostly being fed is:  nothing.

Which brings me back around to something one of the posters made me think of the other day.

Robert says we should assign more popular genre fiction in elementary school and high school in order to get kids interested in reading.  Gail says she tried to give her students “Araby.”

What is it that we actually teach these days in “English” classes not aimed at the top ten percent of our students?

Well, to the extent that we do “classics” at all, they tend to begin and end in  Edgar  Allan  Poe.   There’s nothing particularly wrong with Poe.  He’s a truly bad writer in some ways, and an interestingly good one in others, and if you approach his work the right way you can teach a lot about the formal aspects of poetry and the construction of plot and the place of emotion in fiction.

But my kids don’t get any of that.   If they’ve been assigned Poe, it’s because the curriculum committee of the English department thinks they’d be willing to read it because it’s “scary.” 

Poe also, interestingly enough, manages to skirt most of the hot button issues for high schools these days–it’s unusual for one of his characters to smoke, and descriptions of food are minimal, so he isn’t promoting unhealthy eating.  The relationships between men and women lack the overarching context of most nineteenth century fiction, and that avoids a whole nest of worms.

Do worms have nests?  Where the hell does that phrase come from?

Okay, I haven’t had enough caffeine this morning.  Yet.

But–Poe, and the relationships between men and women.

My kids have heard about sexism, and about how women were oppressed in all kinds of ways before the modern era.   They couldn’t vote!   Horrors!  Of course, most of my kids don’t vote, wouldn’t vote, and declare that politics just bores them, so the lesson is less striking than it might be otherwise.

But the big kicker is this–most of my kids have never heard of a time when a baby born out of wedlock was shunned as “illegitimate.”

They’ve heard that it used to be hard for women to get divorced, and that women used to be looked down on for having sex when they weren’t married, but this is nowhere near the kind of leap that the thing about babies is.  This entire culture has become extremely relaxed about sex in most ways, but the slut stigma still exists for girls.  They know what that is.

What hits them like a truck is the information that a child born out of wedlock beore the era in which they’re living generally did not have the right to use her father’s name, did not have the right to any child support from that father, and did not have the right to inherit anything her father might leave when he died.

Take that further and tell them that illegitimate children, as adults, were often denied ordination in various religious denominations, entry into some Roman Catholic religious orders (nuns and monks both), and election to public office (because nobody would vote for them).  Tell them that parents objected to their children marrying somebody who was born illegitimate.

Tell them all that and then watch them hit a mental wall.  Assuming you can get it through to them at all–and I’ve gotten pretty good at it–they get indignant very fast.  Why is everybody punishing the baby?   The baby didn’t do anything wrong!

If shared cultural references are necessary to being able to read, so is a developed understanding that not everything you’re familiar in your life has always been the way it is now.

My kids have no sense whatsoever that the very America they’re living in used to have different rules than it does now.   They’re aware that people do things differently in different countries, but if the people who decided to drill that into their heads thought they’d become more tolerant and openminded as a result, it didn’t work.   Instead, my kids treat other countries with about the same interest as they treat Mars–yeah, out there somehwere people do really weird things, it’s none of their business.

But let me bring up an incident that happened in one of my classes.  I’m pretty sure I referred to it in the very early days of this blog, but it’s going to stick with me for as long as I live, so I  think I’ll repeat it.

I was trying to get my class to analyze a poem by Langston Hughes called “Theme for English  B.”  I gave them some general pointers–for instance, that the word for “English essay” in the old days used to be “English theme”–and then  I figured they’d be sure to know what the rest of the thing was saying, because, you know, they’re supposed to get all that stuff about racism and oppression in high school these days.

It got to the part where the narrator goes back to his room in the Harlem Y, and I asked the kids why he did that.  Columbia is a residential university.  There were dorms right on campus.  Why was Hughes living in the Y?  And in Harlem rather than in Morningside Heights?

I got nowhere.   Not even a guess in the right direction.  When I pointed out that the narrator, being black, wouldn’t have been allowed to live in white dorms, I got tootal shock.  There was a time when black people wouldn’t be allowed to live in the dorms because they were black?  Seriously?   Wasn’t that against the law?

They have no shared cultural references, but they have no shared historical references, either.  What they read in high school–and what the textbooks for college freshman English courses increasingly provide–is a diet of long and short memoirs, plus a few pieces of fiction the faculty thinks they might find relevant. 

And they can’t read.  They really, really, really can’t read.

Phonics can only do so much.

Written by janeh

August 4th, 2009 at 7:22 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'Lowest Common Denominator'

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  1. I’ve always heard ‘can of worms’ and thought of the soup tin that’s being re-used to carry worms for a fishing trip. I think that’s just something I figured out on my own, so it may be completely untrue.

    Percents are different here – we don’t have 10% of our students getting English Literature and 90% getting nothing. Really poor students are put in certain courses – we’ve got, lessee 13% in the easiest course, 18% in the non-post-secondary course, and 67% in the regular one, province-wide, first year of HS.

    Anyway, yes, historical illiteracy is a problem and has been (at least in the eyes of history teachers) since I was in school. I’m always slightly surprised when I encounter an example, but I’ve always had a bit of a personal interest in history. I went on a tour of an archeological dig recently, and the guide thought that a locally famous woman (I thought!), the last of a local native tribe, had been taken as a slave. Oh, well, last time I went with visitors on a tour of a historic site, I got ghost stories that were even more improbable than average ghost stories (I mean, if a ship is sunk with all hands, how does anyone know how the events on it lead to a haunting?) To be fair, I have had well-informed tour guides, too.

    But we’re back at the same point. How do we try to make sure that more people know the basic stories of our country? Even if it’s only the Disney (or equivalent) versions? especially if they never learn to read?

    And while we’re at it, we could have another bash at what should happen to the people who can’t learn to read all that well, but are forced to jump through academic hoops to get academic bits of paper to enable them to be hired for jobs that don’t require reading. People can learn about their country and their society in many ways – from parents, from TV, from movies, from music – but the reading thing affects their ability to earn a living.


    4 Aug 09 at 8:08 am

  2. Nicely mixed metaphor. Can of worms/nest of snakes. ;)

    Or sometimes ball of worms because earthworms mate by gathering in balls of hundreds or thousands underground and just nailing anything that moves, because they’re hermaphrodites.

    Now. Any more worm questions?


    4 Aug 09 at 2:41 pm

  3. Ah, A clarification, if I may? Or possibly a hedge? When Jane uses “genre” she generally means something of lesser literary marit. Austen wrote romances but not genre romances. CRIME AND PUNISHMENT is a crime novel, but not a genre crime novel, and so forth.

    What I advocated, as I recall, was stories of adventure, mystery and romance. By all means, let them have as much literary merit as they can carry, but what they HAVE to have is narrative drive. This serves two ends.

    First, it will make them better readers. The way you run faster and longer is to run, and to the limits of your present ability. The best thing you can do for a poorly-skilled reader is to give him a story he loves which is not (quite) beyond his abilities. Assigning him a difficult story he doesn’t like works about as well as pushing a string.
    Pick up one of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars books sometime. The science is impossible, the villains are cardboard and the coincidences preposterous. Generations of boys have hung on every word, and I have a full set on my shelves–two, actually. Now take a look at the sentence length and vocabulary. Surprise!! If you can read CHESSMEN OF MARS, you can read pretty well anything that comes down the pike. You may have troubles with concepts, but not with sentence structure or vocabulary. That’s one purpose.

    The other purpose is learning of the world. reading ANYTHING, leads to learning, and enjoying what you read leads to reading more which leads to more learning. Read GONE WITH THE WIND, and you’ll learn something about antebellum society and the Late Unpleasantness. Its one-sided, of course. So is UNCLE TOM’S CABIN. Read both. Read Georgette Heyer’s REGENCY BUCK and you will come to appreciate that Things Were Different Then. In fact, a good historical novel will sometimes do a better job of this than a contemporary one. Austen tends to assume knowledge that Heyer will spell out.
    The lowly mystery, if it’s a good one, will teach attention to detail. There’s nothing like coming to the next to last chapter and realizing that you read right past the critical clue when the purse was upended in Chapter Three. But a mystery has to take place somewhere and somewhen, whether it’s an English village under Austerity, Oxford on the eve of WWII, or late Victorian London. (By the time you’ve seen Lord Peter Wimsey AND Albert Campion trying to electrify cottages and heard Josephine Tey discuss “the days when cavalry regiments had horses” you may make up for some of the history lectures the young person slept through. He may pick up on a few more of the references too.

    The kids lack background? Here it is in heaps. But start early. The wider the gap between the maturity of the mind and the undeveloped reading skills, the harder to find a book the student will both enjoy and be able to get through. Lecture a student on symbolism, and he may pick out a symbol or so. Get him to love to read, and he might recognize them all.


    4 Aug 09 at 6:17 pm

  4. I agree with Robert that schools should use books that interest the student. But I would guess that you would need separate reading lists for boys and girls and I suspect that would cause all sorts of political problems.

    My definition of a reading list would be 10 or 15 books with a short description of each. The requirement would be that a student read at least one during a school term and submit a 1000 word report on it.


    4 Aug 09 at 8:56 pm

  5. Okay, I really don’t get this. The kids in the US I know went to decent NYC schools and seem to have had more or less the same education I had. They don’t know how to parse sentences, but they know the three branches of government, fairy tales, at least some of the basic literary texts — plus a bunch of African and Asian holidays I never knew.

    So your kids are in the third grade. They’re sitting in class. They’ve just read something. It’s Friday and there is a test, which reads something like: Fill in the blanks in the sentences: “Yesterday I —- to school.” “I —- dinner last night.” And they duly write in “went” and “ate.” Or not? I mean, how do they go from grade to grade without passing tests, and how do the tests not include the kind of basic stuff we all did?

    Muddled in Moscow


    5 Aug 09 at 5:49 am

  6. I don’t know for sure about the US, but that’s usually where we get our educational trends, so….here’s my guess. There is some educational research indicating that repeating grades does not help students. Providing extra help outside the classroom may not be possible – staff are not available or if they are, aren’t particularly trained to diagnose and deal with learning problems or don’t really have the time to set up an individual teaching program and teach their regular workload. So at the end of the year, when the teachers and principal meet to discuss promotion, well, there’s little Johnny, not really a problem, a bit slow reading perhaps, technically failed but ‘keeping him back’ won’t help, let’s put him ahead and let next year’s teacher solve his reading problems.

    Now, in my area, we never did completely eliminate the end-of-high-school exams, although they’ve changed considerably over the years. So if you fail at that point, the ‘diploma’ you get won’t be the kind a post-secondary institution will accept. And in tune with educational fashions, some province-wide testing is now done in the elementary grades, but those tests don’t determine pass/fail, any more than the teachers’ own evaluations do.

    And that’s how it happens that people get through school with little knowledge. IMNSHO, the quiet, well-behaved, average and slightly below students come off the worst. They don’t attract attention by misbehaving or by being so egregiously bad academically that they’ll be shuffled into special classes (if available). A busy teacher is likely to give them the benefit of the doubt because they don’t seem to be stuggling too badly. And each year, they slip behind more and more.


    5 Aug 09 at 6:27 am

  7. I guess I am only familiar with NY state, which has a huge budget (or did), funded by high taxes. My sister-in-law worked in a special school for “kids with problems.” They were identified in the regular schools and then — after lots of talks with the kids and parents etc. — shifted to this school. These are kids with all kinds of problems, from low intelligence to high intelligence but drug or family problems. There was huge emphasis on helping the kids, and most of them graduated, a lot went on to vocational or other schools, and some went on to college. They really weren’t left behind. I never asked what they were reading, but I had the impression that they were all functionally literate — that the whole program and school was designed to help them achieve what I’d call the minimum. Anyway, is this just NY?

    I see how the borderline quiet kids who get looked over, but I still don’t get what kind of tests they’re given and how they pass them.


    5 Aug 09 at 7:33 am

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