Tuesday, December 15, 2009

So You Think You Can Read? Rigor in Reading

“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?


OneRadMother said...
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OneRadMother said...

I teach in a small private school in a small town. We don't have a high school appropriate library and I spent much of my spending money on acquiring appropriately challenging and engaging novels for my classroom library. Literacy is an issue.

The most successful thing I have done while teaching difficult text is to parallel them to a movie. Although students will not read/watch books for the rest of their lives, I know that this will peak their interest and help begin a mental image of the text. After reading, for example, the first few chapters of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None or Fahrenheit 451 or Romeo and Juliet - I will show 30 minutes of film. We discuss, their mental player is running, and it gives us a mutual springboard to jump off of for the next reading assignment. Often, I don't show the rest of the movie until we finish the text. I find, though, that this initial clip is helpful. Don't misunderstand; I don't pick books for their movies. We have watched Ten Things I Hate About You alongside Taming of the Shrew and Dead Poet's Society alongside Walden Pond. We are eventually weaned off this process in 10th grade onward, but it is wildly successful and the students remember both texts and films well.

Mr. Bruno said...
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D.B. said...


I would be interested in knowing where your school is located. We had a ninth grade honors teacher who had a similar approach here in Virginia and he was let go (not because of cutbacks).

I think that the movie approach can be very helpful, especially with 9th grade students. I've always been of the mind that any material can be used within the context of the class as long as you, as the teacher, can respect the material. If teachers are reading something they cannot stand or do not respect, they won't be able to present that material well.

I am glad you are able to get the students into reading. Thanks for joining the conversation.

OneRadMother said...

I am located in Middle Georgia. Because we are a private school, we are given more freedom and trust ti meet curriculum standards than public school teachers. This concept can sometimes fail, but is very successful with passionate, rigorous teachers.

I agree about the passion behind reading. My students are constantly asking "Is this a good story?" and I am constantly answering, "I wouldn't give you something to read that I didn't like."

Thanks for the back-up!

Kay Parks Haas said...

Like you, I certainly promote the reading of Shakespeare and taught it to high school freshmen for 27 years. My concern, however, is in your implication that books such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Night (sorry, no way to italicize here) can't offer students a rigorous experience. Indeed, they can! Higher level--and archaic--vocabulary alone doesn't ensure rigor, nor does reading Shakespeare ensure rigor. Shakespeare is a necessary component of any strong English program, but so are the works of so many others. Yes, I'd love for my students to love reading Shakespeare, but if they don't, I know I have failed them if I don't expose them to a variety of authors, including young adult, so they can love reading and choose to read beyond their English assignments.

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Dan Bruno said...


I agree that a variety of authors is important. I also agree that Shakespeare is not the only challengning writer out there. The issue I see is when in our severely understocked bookroom, we have piles of I Know What You Did Last Summer for the ninth grade. The most challening thing they read beyond that is Romeo and Juliet. Without using appropriate texts to scaffold between levels, the students become disenfranchised from the whole educational process.

There are ways to approach To Kill a Mockingbird and have a rigorous discussion, or even a rigorous reading, but the tenth grade should not be that time. There are not many words or sentence structures within the novel that high school students would find challenging. This situation is probably good; however, students should be challenged, especially that close to the PSAT and the SATs.

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Kay Parks Haas said...


I agree 100% that feeding students only YA literature does not provide a balanced program--just as would be the case if we exposed them to no young adult literature at all.

We aren't on the same page with To Kill a Mockingbird, however. Not that I consider myself an expert, but I did teach TKaM for over 20 years in Freshman Honors English and can remember a tremendous amount of advanced vocabulary within the story. Fortunately, the advanced vocabulary wasn't so dense that students gave up on the novel. To me, it was a manageable--just-right--amount for that age group. On the other hand, I've had groups of struggling students for whom TKaM was too much of a challenge, so we read the script from the movie. As a result, both groups of students were exposed to the same story, based on their zones of proximal development. Both groups could engage in most of the same discussions, including discussions on symbolism, theme, characterization, and literary devices. In fact, the essay test for both groups was pretty much the same. I would call that good differentiated instruction with appropriate rigor for both groups. Both groups also read Shakespeare, but my approach was different with the two groups.

What is rigorous for one group might be over the top for another and, thus, do students a disservice; instead of building on their skills, students would give up completely. Rigor needs to be defined based on our students needs.