“About two-thirds of those who enter high school graduate. About two-thirds of those who do go on to some form of higher education. About two-thirds of those who go on to higher education take remedial courses in college (so they are not doing college-level work; they are really in high school). Fewer than half of those who go to college get a degree of any sort. Yet virtually all analysts agree that those who do not have at least two years of real college-level work will be in real trouble as adults” (NCEE, 2008, p. 35).
The following scene may be familiar to some of you:
It is a hazy weekday morning. You pull into your parking space at school, open your car door, sling on all your gear, and enter the building. You pray you balanced all of your things correctly because you must sidestep a zillion teenagers who will, and have, run teachers down on occasion. You make it to the office, sign in, sigh at the mountain of mail in your mailbox you wish you had a hand for, and then you head to your classroom. The smell of freshly-brewed coffee drifts slowly down the hall, welcoming you to another morning at school. You drop the gear in your room, run back to the office mailbox, grab your mail, and then return to your desk. (They should call it your castle since the numbers of student papers piling up in the corners are beginning to look like parapets.) You grab your mug, head across the hall, and fill up your cup. Then, you walk back across the hall, grab a legal pad and a pen, and head for your weekly department meeting. Your serene morning is about to end.
At the meeting, you and your colleagues debate over the use of materials in the classroom. The honors/Advanced Placement/Dual Enrollment/ International Baccalaureate students get short shrift. The special education students get mentioned and the special education liaison takes them on by him or herself. Then there are the standard students. I have found that whenever these students come up, people get weird. Once motivated and intelligent people become work-o-phobic. Teach them Shakespeare, you say? Make them do homework, you say? Do I look like a miracle worker? Yes, you do. You are a teacher—time to start acting like one.
If this scene is familiar, then perhaps the quotation from the National Center on Education and the Economy’s report Tough Choices or Tough Times also struck a familiar chord. Our standard students are being fed fairy tales of the power of education. They are being told of the empowerment an education can provide while some teachers quietly exchange rigor in the curriculum with easy-to-read books and easy-to-grade assessments.
At our school, the newest drive is for literacy. We have been adapting all sorts of new methods (new to us that is) to raise students’ vocabularies. We have adopted root word strategies, interactive reading strategies, cross-curricular classrooms, ad nauseum. What we haven’t added is the rigor. What possible vocabulary growth can tenth grade students get from To Kill a Mockingbird? What a fantastic novel; its simple language makes it all that much more powerful. The problem is that that may be the only major work students read all year. The rest of the time, students read short stories, poems, and the phenomenal, yet equally simple, Night. Where is the challenge of Shakespeare? Some of our teachers teach Julius Caesar to tenth grade, others try to find ways to run out of time. Where is the challenge of at least one difficult novel? I mean, my AP Literature class will read A Tale of Two Cities because we have it for twelfth grade. Some districts use that novel as a freshman text.
The bottom line is what the bottom line always has been in a meaningful education: effort. Many teachers do not want to struggle with their students to teach them Shakespeare. They would rather pull out Harper Lee or Elie Wiesel and get a powerful story with little linguistic development. Learning language is hard, but I’ve never thought it was optional.
So, what is to be done? The answer is simple. Next time you consider what to teach next, think about the numbers. Do you want half of the students you teach to be unsuccessful? I think the answer to that question will give you all you need to know about the importance of a rigorous curriculum and whether or not you should push your students to become better readers. They will need two years of college to be successful. Could your students make it that far?
I know mine will; we just started reading The Merchant of Venice as an anticipatory piece for The Great Gatsby. The play is the thing for a comparison with Gatsby. Considering its discussions of wealth, dangerous conflict, and forbidden loves, The Merchant of Venice could be Gatsby’s long-lost cousin. The students are using many of the tactics offered in the Folger’s Shakespeare Set Free collection to become comfortable with the language. I am not worried about them getting the story…yet. Right now, I am tackling the task of getting students excited about reading Shakespeare. Turns out, with the Folger’s help, it is not all that hard.
How do you inject rigor into your curriculum? What are some strategies you use when teaching a difficult text?