All posts by Dana Huff

Wife, mother, indie writer, reader, book and education blogger, Technology Integration Specialist, and English teacher.  Fangirl.

Textbooks are Killing Literature

Patrick Welsh opines about the state of literature texts in USA Today.

[T]he textbooks are feather-weight intellectually.Take the McDougal Littell text that we finally adopted for 9th- and 10th-graders. It starts off with a unit titled “Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Hebrew Literature,” followed by sections on the literature of Ancient India, Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Ancient China and Japan. Then comes “Persian and Arabic Literature” and “West African Oral Literature” — and that’s only the first third of the book. There are still more than 800 pages to plough through, but it’s the same drill — short excerpts from long works — a little Dante here, a little Goethe there and two whole pages dedicated to Shakespeare’s plays. One even has a picture of a poster from the film Shakespeare in Love with Joseph Fiennes kissing Gwyneth Paltrow. The other includes the following (which is sure to turn teens on to the Bard):

“Notice the insight about human life that the following lines from The Tempest convey:

We are such stuff

As dreams are made on; and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.

Shakespeare’s plays are treasures of the English language.”

Both books are full of obtrusive directions, comments, questions and pictures that would hinder even the attentive readers from becoming absorbed in the readings. Both also “are not reader-friendly. There is no narrative coherence that a student can follow and get excited about. It’s a little bit of this and a little bit of that,” says T.C. Williams reading specialist Chris Gutierrez, who teaches a course in reading strategies at Shenandoah University in Virginia. For kids who get books and reading opportunities only at school, these types of textbooks will drive them away from reading — perhaps for life.

This is actually something I’ve noticed. The books are full of flashy pictures and photographs, but there are more excerpts rather than full works, and there are some rather odd choices in terms of what to include and what to leave out. My school actually uses an out-of-print text by Scott, Foresman — the same books, in fact, that I studied from when I was in high school. I do have some problems with the books, and frankly there are things I really like about the newer Holt and Prentice-Hall books. I doubt there is such a thing as a perfect textbook.

Education in 1893

I recently became the recipient of a copy of my great-great-grandmother Stella Bowling Cunningham’s diary (which I am currently in the process of transcribing and uploading to my genealogy blog). I did not know this before I received the diary, but Grandma Stella was a teacher before she married my great-great-grandfather.

Stella doesn’t write much about school, but I find what she does write most illuminating. First of all, she is like most teachers at the time — an unmarried young woman who may have gone to Normal School, but otherwise received no training. Second, school was frequently interrupted by weather, illness, and farm cycles. As many times as she wrote “small school today,” I’m astonished she felt able to accomplish much. It would have been immensely frustrating to me, but she seemed to take it in stride. Once she mentions arriving at school, but no students showed, so she simply went home and sewed.

Another thing I noticed is that Stella frequently mentions problems with “order.” She even used a switch on a student. Aside from the part about the switch, not much seems to have changed on that front. I suppose kids were as prone to be discipline problems in 1893 as they are now. She does seem extremely frustrated by this issue, as it is the only one she mentions frequently. Frankly, having had my own struggles with that issue, I can only empathize with her across time.

I noticed that Stella had to buy her own supplies, too. She makes note of everything she buys and how much it cost in her diary. Twice she made a notation for “prepared chalk, .05.” Her students probably used slates, so the paper she purchased must have been for her correspondence. She appears to have been paid in vouchers and depended upon local families for board, which she still had to pay out of her salary.

Stella mentions working on grade reports at home, and she appeared to be frustrated by the work. She also frequently taught outside of school hours — she mentions an evening spelling class.

In some respects, much has changed, but still more remarkable to me is how much hasn’t.

Why Does School Have to Start So Early?

Rick Badie (free registration or BugMeNot) laments the loss of summer vacation, as all of Georgia’s public schools start by August 15:

That our kids return to school in a week. That Mom and Dad are already tax-free shopping for clothes and supplies, and that soon our kids will be prepping for high-stake tests.We’ve lost practically all of August. The traditional months of summer have been truncated. We get less true summer time to spend with Big Momma, see movies, have sleepovers, play basketball, read, and yes — succumb, even, to boredom. Our dog days of summer are spent in class, not poolside.

This year, all of the state’s public schools will open up by Aug. 15. Next Monday, Gwinnett’s 142,000 or so students join others returning to class in eight other city and county school systems in the Atlanta area. Some school systems, like those in Cherokee and Newton county, are already in school or start Monday.

While I don’t like starting this early either, I noticed that no mention was made of the fact that students are released around the third week of May, instead of June, and that in some places, longer breaks at Thanksgiving and in February have been instituted. I may be wrong, and someone please correct me if I am, but I don’t think the school year is actually longer. I think it just starts earlier.

And if that’s the case, why don’t Badie and his family sit by the pool and visit Big Momma in June and July? The weather in Georgia is actually a little more bearable in June than in August, in my opinion.

I guess to me, it doesn’t matter either way, but it is nice to end the first semester before winter break instead of having two weeks hang over after the break.

Azar Nafisi

I am currently reading Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, much interrupted by my Harry Potter fixation, I must add. When a new Harry Potter book comes out, it takes me a long time to turn back to the world of Muggles again, but I digress.

Reading Lolita in Tehran has a segment about putting The Great Gatsby on trial, which I think I am going to ask my students to read. I found it very interesting, the perspective students in an Islamic republic had on such a Western book.

Reading Lolita in Tehran is also the second book I’ve read lately to include some high praise for Nabokov’s novel, Lolita. I also read How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster, who mentions the book frequently. I suppose I was nervous about tackling the book, but I’m not sure why. I noticed it on a sale table at Border’s and picked it up.

I was talking about Azar Nafisi, though. At NPR, you can read her thoughts about how literature creates connections between people. If there is one thing I have learned from her memoir, it is that literature transcends experiences and binds us together in so many ways that may not even be apparent until years later. I highly recommend her book to teachers of literature.

Censorship in School Publications

According to the Seattle Times, Shorewood High School in Shoreline, Washington recently shredded remaining copies of the student literary magazine and reprinted it minus a poem with an offensive expletive in the title. A 35-year veteran teacher of the district, Steve Kelly, was asked to step down as the magazine’s advisor.

Here is the poem, as reprinted by the Times:

My first (expletive) sure he claims he loves me
and holds me oh so tight
he makes me believe this is special
that he can hold on all night
he claims he isn’t pressuring me
but his hand is down my pants
temptation rises and I give in
he turns over
checks the time
gets up and drives me home
no kiss goodnight
no I love you
and no telephone call

— Zoya Raskina

In the 1988, the Supreme Court decided one of the most important cases involving student publications. Hazelwood High School’s newspaper, Spectrum, printed printed some articles about teenage pregnancy, including personal experiences of Hazelwood High School students. The administration decided to censor the articles, and the students fought the decision, as the expression goes, all the way to the Supreme Court. The Court decided in favor of the district:

In a 5-3 decision, the majority of the Court found that the students’ First Amendment rights had not been violated. The Court decided that Spectrum was part of the school curriculum and school administrators could control its content. The newspaper was not a “public forum” and school officials could impose “reasonable restrictions.”

Depending on your point of view, this decision may have overturned part of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, which asserted that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” According to David B. Rubin, an attorney who specializes in school law:

[O]ne of the main criteria in dealing with school censorship cases relates to what is called the “Tinker disruption standard,” that the Court outlined in the case’s ruling.”Students do have First Amendment rights to express themselves as long as it doesn’t interfere with the order of the school day,” Rubin explained. “The question is, does the student expression cause disruption in the school,” he stated. “Censorship issues depend on what is being said or expressed to whom, and in what context.”

Rubin noted that what is called the “forum issue” is the second criteria in deciding school censorship cases, namely whether student expression is part of a school function regulated by the school district, or whether it is entirely initiated by students.

“If it’s a school-sponsored function or forum, then school authorities have the right to set their own standards,” Rubin said. “The school districts have a certain leeway as to how vigorously they exercise their legal powers.”

Rubin clarified that schools must have “legitimate pedagogical [educational] concerns” when dealing with censorship issues.

Personally, I don’t see that the school crossed any lines. They exercised their right, according to the Supreme Court, to impose “reasonable restrictions” upon the content of the magazine. To be honest, were I the advisor of that magazine, I probably would not approve a student work containing that sort of profanity — and I think it is fairly clear what the “expletive deleted” was. I know many students and possibly teachers believe that is a violation of First Amendment Rights, but I don’t agree. By excising the poem, the school is not prohibiting the student from publishing her work elsewhere. And frankly, deciding what to publish is a right exercised by every publishing company in America — yet no one complains about not being given a voice if their work is denied publication by one house. They simply submit the work to another house.

I believe students should have access to reading material without censorship. I don’t agree with preventing access to works of literature. However, I also don’t think the school is necessarily required to provide students an outlet for their work, especially if it might be considered offensive. In my opinion, the school district needs to consistently enforce its own rules about censorship, which the article implies it has not done, and the magazine advisor should have used, well, a little bit of common sense. Technically, he didn’t lose his job, and there are schools in America that would have fired him for this — teachers have lost their jobs over similar issues. Cissy Lacks, a 25-year veteran teacher was fired from the Ferguson Florissant School District in Missouri for allowing students to use expletives in dialogue written for drama exercises. She was ordered reinstated by a jury, but her school district appealed, and her reinstatement was overturned. The Supreme Court refused to hear her case. Considering the precedent the Cissy Lacks case established, Steve Kelly is fortunate.

Sources: Objectionable Content vs. Freedom of Expression: Battles of School Censorship and FileRoom.org — Cissy Lacks, high school teacher

Harry Potter

My students laugh about my Harry Potter mania. I have a Professor Snape action figure resting in front of my diploma in my classroom, and my computer desktop wallpaper is a movie still from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, in which Snape is protecting the trio from werewolf Lupin.

Thus, I will be incommunicado for a few days while I read the book with my father and 11-year-old daughter.

Teach to the Test

The New York Times (free registration, or BugMeNot) reports that even when teachers are enthusiastic about new teaching methods and would prefer to implement them, they feel too much pressure to teach to the test — in this case, the Michigan Educational Assessment Program, or MEAP.

Becky Karnes, a 16-year veteran high school English teacher explained,

“MEAP is not what writing is about, but it’s what testing is about. And we know if we teach them the five-paragraph essay formula, they’ll pass that test. There’s a lot of pressure to do well on MEAP. It makes the district seem good, helps real estate values.”

Well, it’s good to have our priorities straight — helping the district look good and increasing real estate values. No criticism meant toward Ms. Karnes, as I’m sure she’s feeling considerable pressure to teach to the test.

The National Council of Teachers of English has warned that standardized state tests mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind law, as well as the College Board’s new SAT writing sample, are actually hurting the teaching of writing in this country. For their part, the makers of these tests emphasize that they don’t mandate a writing formula, and they, too, say it would be a mistake if schools taught only by the formula.

I wish, wish, wish I could say more about the SAT writing sample, but there is a good reason I can’t.

Kristen Covelle encountered the specter of teaching to the test during job interviews for English teaching:

The interview will be going great, and then MEAP will come up. They want to know will I teach to the test, that’s what they’re looking for. They asked how I feel about using “I” in writing. Would there ever be a case when “I” is appropriate in an essay. I knew the answer they want – you’re not supposed to use it. But I couldn’t say that. I said there could be times, you just can’t close the door. They didn’t say anything but it was definitely the low point of the interview.

I feel very fortunate to be outside the burden of tests like these, as a private school teacher. I know what it’s like. I can vividly remember the curriculum director at a low-performing school where I used to teach coming in my classroom and reviewing the five-paragraph formula with my students. It looked a lot like the one in the Times article. Her visit was part of the counselor’s pre-test workup. Karnes is right: “For kids struggling, if you can give them a formula and they fill in the blanks, some will pass the MEAP test who wouldn’t otherwise.” But what is our ultimate goal as teachers? To teach students how to write more effectively or to teach them to pass a test? Karnes added, “It turns into a prison. It stops you from finding a kid’s potential.”

Prison is such an apt choice of words. I distinctly remember feeling constricted by testing demands on the curriculum.

Boston

I was fortunate to be able to travel to Boston with my students last February. Working with Etgar 36, our Experiential Education Specialist (yes, we have one, and it’s a beautiful thing — he does a wonderful job), we devised a trip that was both meaningful educationally and religiously as well as a lot of fun.

While I was in Boston with my students, I kept a paper journal. I have decided to reproduce excerpts from that journal here, along with a few pictures.

2/13: The Flight

Flying over New York was amazing. N- and I were looking for landmarks. I recognized the shape of Manhattan from all the maps I’ve studied. I could pick out several building and Central Park. J- found the Statue of Liberty. Conspicuously absent, of course, was the World Trade Center — we could see very clearly where it had been. As we flew over Long Island, I recognized Fitzgerald’s East Egg and West Egg (Manhasset Neck and Great Neck) — they looked just like the maps in the The Great Gatsby. N- told me all about how much fun New York is (I’ve never been). But he said New Orleans (where the 9th graders are going for their trip) is a must. The kids are all talking about food. Clam chowder is number one on their list. I did my civic duty as an educator of Jewish children and reminded them it wasn’t kosher. Beyond that, I can’t stop them.

This is amazing.

Before we took off, E- reminded me I was going to Boston with 21 16-year-old boys. Yikes! As we took off, N- said it was too late to turn back now. I’m already glad I came — just to share this with the students.

Aerial view of Manhattan posted at Wired New York.

2/13: Circle Time in the Evening

We were asked to mention “something that tasted good.” M- said chocolate cheesecake. A- said cannoli. J- said chicken marsala. I loved the chocolate chip cheesecake at Mike’s Pastry. I don’t know where we had that pizza, but it was amazing (as was the company!) — ricotta cheese, peppers, and what else? I forgot. I tried my first real Israeli food — or at least I think it was Israeli — shwarma. I have to thank E- for recommending it. It was excellent. We ate dinner at kosher Rami’s in Jewish Brookline. Very small, but great food.

Next we were asked to mention “something that caught your eye.” J- said a $3500 Panasonic massage chair. I said a section of the graveyard (Granary Burial Ground) where an entire family was buried — all had died young. S- said baked goods. What didn’t catch my eye? I was all eyes today. I wanted to soak in every sight. Or is it site? I looked at everything.

Last, we were asked to mention “something that struck your ear.” M- said all the yelling, people in cars. L- said people noises, yelling, homeless begging. R- said the silence of the Holocaust Memorial. M- said the music of Blue Man Group.

I had an incredible day. I am so glad I came. I feel closer to the kids. I really enjoyed the feeling of, well, I guess communion seems a funny word to use when speaking of Jewish kids, but it fits for me. I enjoyed joking, talking, taking pictures of everything they did. I had so much fun.

The kids staged a memorable snowball fight at Bunker Hill. I think it will go down as the Second Battle of Bunker Hill. We followed J- to Cheesecake Heaven at Mike’s Pastry. I enjoyed Little Italy. All the Boston accents, the smell of Italian food.

I walked everywhere today. I saw Paul Revere’s grave. And Ben Franklin’s parents’ graves, too. I took pictures of the kids in an ancient cemetery established in 1660, I believe (Granary Burial Ground).


Granary Burial Ground

The Holocaust Memorial was incredible. To see the Shoah through the eyes of 31 Jewish kids… I took pictures of them standing in silence, reading, thinking. It cuts me to the core that if we lived in another time or place, they might have been numbered among the dead.

Shoah

I looked down into the vents and saw stars — number all the stars. How does that Bible verse go? (Take your pick — Psalm 147:4 is nice — “He counts the number of the stars; He calls them all by name.”)


Shoah

In the sidewalk, in Hebrew and English, the single word “Remember” was inscribed.


Remember

My caption for the day was “Companionship.” Today I saw the Freedom Trail, Boston’s North End, Blue Man Group, and Brookline. Tomorrow I’m learning about Power to the People.

When I told the group I had had an excellent day and was really glad I came, there were some “awwws” and a couple of kids said “We love you Mrs. Huff.”

“A child is not a vessel to be filled, but a lamp to be lit.” ~ Hebrew Proverb.

2/14: Walden

As I write this I am sitting on Walden Pond, frozen over and covered with snow.

Standing on Walden Pond

About 150 years ago, Henry David Thoreau may have been standing in this spot, looking at the bare trees dressed in a layer of snow. Maybe he even made snow angels, like my students did.

From where I sit, I hear the traffic of a nearby busy road. The moment of solitude and silence interrupted by progress, I guess.

Still, this place is here. My kids are here, walking on the frozen water, and it seems to me no less a miracle than when Jesus is said to have done so 2000 years ago.


Snowman on Walden

I hear birds still here after many flew south — perhaps to our home in Georgia. I hear snow crunching under the feet of my students.

Being here makes it so clear to me. Even though I hear and see the nearby road, it seems a place cut off — another world, frozen in time and unchanged though everything around it — the road, the buildings, the entire country, is changed.

At this moment I feel like Emerson’s transparent eyeball. I finally, really understand what it is to know all, see all, and feel like I’m part or particle of God.

We left Walden and headed to Gann Academy, our sister school in Boston. The purpose was not to meet with fellow Jewish high school students, but to talk about gay marriage with Kim Crawford Harvie, the senior minister at Arlington Street Church, a Unitarian Universalist congregation. She showed us a clip of her performing the first legal gay marriage in Boston (click to view a photo album of the wedding). It was really inspiring. The students asked very thoughtful questions. My students are so much more open-minded than students I have taught in the past. I really get the impression they were being sincere with Kim when they said they didn’t understand why people were so opposed to gay marriage. It occurred to me that so much of the hatred directed at homosexuals — limitations on their freedoms, verbal abuse, so-called protection of marriage amendments — mirrors the civil rights struggles of other groups — women working for suffrage and African-Americans. On the one hand, that gives me hope that we can one day overcome the roadblocks to equal rights for gays, but at the same time, it makes me sad that others don’t see it. Instead, they point to the Bible — the Bible also advocated slavery, and we don’t think that is right. I mean, the Bible has been used in defense of slavery and of denying the rights of blacks. Kim and the kids discussed the passage in Leviticus that most, well, I have to say it’s mostly conservative Christians who mention it: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it [is] abomination (18:22).”

Kim mentioned that there are a lot of things in Leviticus we no longer hold ourselves to, and it is interesting that this is chosen from among all those other things. She also mentioned the context in which this was occurring was related to abuse of boys in pagan religious ceremonies, and the early Jews were trying to stamp out worship of these false idols. Actually, interestingly enough, I was listening to the Judaics department having a discussion with our Pardes interns a few weeks ago, and there is a case for interpreting the Bible in such a way that the Judeo-Christian God as only one of many gods — however, He is a god that demanded monogamy — “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” From what I was able to understand, there is a long rabbinic tradition connected to debating the meaning of this particular commandment.

I mentioned a passage by Paul in the New Testament that many point to as well (1 Corinthians 6:9-10) that refers to to the “effeminate.” I admit I find that translation unclear. Some versions of the Bible use homosexual, but that isn’t the same as effeminate, so why was it translated that way? Whatever the case, Kim was right about one thing: Jesus never had one word to say about homosexuality. He spoke about adultery, for example, but never homosexuality. In all, I have to say it was very interesting to hear her speak.

2/14 Power and Truth

Blue Man Group

I think in this case power was ability to captivate an audience. I personally wasn’t enthralled, but it seems like most everyone else was.

Revolution Books

These people perceive power as revolution and overthrowing current “regimes.” I felt they were a bit frightening and perhaps constructed their own truth to fit their beliefs. Also, I don’t get how not voting is revolutionary, and I’m glad the kids nailed them on that. If I heard the word “proletariat” one more time, I think I was going to scream. On the other hand, I think it was valuable for the kids to see and hear people with different ideas. How on earth anyone could idolize Mao or Lenin is beyond me.

Revolution Books

Kim

I was intrigued by Kim’s conviction. I think it puts her in a position of power. I was glad she mentioned Christ’s lack of expressed views on homosexuality.

Bradley

I really didn’t get him. I don’t know how a classroom would work under his guidance. I can’t connect either concept (power or truth) with what he said.

Walden

I felt the power of God in the form of nature. I’m sure was of it was the symbolism of the place. But I did get Emerson’s transparent eyeball. I always felt God in nature, but I never felt as absorbed by nature as I did there.

Me

I am decidedly not a communist. All kidding aside, to me, power and truth were in my communion with the kids. I was myself and there was truth in that, but also power. I feel stronger bonds with them, and bonds are power. Harvard’s motto is “Veritas,” or Truth. I take that to mean they pass on a legacy of truth. What is my legacy, and what kind of power or truth will it have?

2/15: Flight Home

We were much farther from New York this time, but I could still pick it out off in the distance. That’s amazing. I need to travel more. It’s hard with small children. I come from a family not real bent on traveling. When we went somewhere, it was to visit someone — not just for the sake of going there. I like going places, seeing them first hand. Touching history.

The Kennedy Library

It’s funny. I had my camera out ready to take pictures of the ground, but E- was right. The glare from the window renders the sites on the ground impossible to see. Yet I saw it with my eyes. My eyes can go, it would seem, where a camera cannot. I went to Boston. I saw it with my own eyes. Not pictures from a book or film. I was there. I touched a headstone carved for a two-year-old child who died in the 1600’s. I watched my students wage a second Battle of Bunker Hill with snowballs. I sat in a pew in one of the oldest churches in America. I sat in complete and perfect silence on the frozen surface of Walden Pond. I became Emerson’s transparent eyeball and took in the city of Boston.

Male Teachers

The Boston Globe reports that only 20% of teachers in public schools are male; in elementary schools, the number is a mere 9%. Think fast — did you have any male teachers in your elementary school? We had one. Mr. Veach. My sister was in his class in 5th grade. The numbers seemed to gradually increase until college, when the teachers were predominantly male.

Some people believe that teaching is “woman’s work.” It’s too nurturing, too maternal. However, men who teach young children have another issue with which to contend: accusations of child molestation.

According to Bryan Nelson, founder of the Minneapolis-based MenTeach:

[S]ome men who might want to teach fear false molestation accusations, and … society looks at men with suspicion. That view of men has been worsened, he said, by recent attention to priest abuse scandals and even the trial faced by Michael Jackson. “Society has a narrow view of men,” Nelson said. “We think men are dangerous.”

One might argue that lately, it seems like female middle school teachers are looking kind of dangerous in that regard. My daughter had a male kindergarten teacher for a couple of months. He had an accident and was unable to continue teaching that year, but I will admit I thought it was kind of odd — I asked myself why a man would want to teach kindergarten. I have to come clean with gender biases of my own. I don’t think men are any better or worse than women at teaching. But I will admit that I did scratch my head over a man teaching kindergarten. And why should that be? Sarah has had male music and P.E. teachers since then, but not a full-time classroom instructor; however, I can say unequivocally that her male music teacher is one of the best teachers of elementary school children I’ve come across. In addition, he is also very caring with Sarah, and I can tell he has made a significant impression upon her.

One of the most caring teachers I ever had was Mr. Velando, my homeroom, math and reading teacher in 6th grade. He bought me an autograph book when I placed first on our team/second in 6th grade/4th in the school in the spelling bee. He, along with Mrs. Van, my Language Arts and Social Studies teacher, took me to my favorite restaurant, Crystal’s Pizza (sadly defunct) with another student to celebrate our awards as Students of the Month (I was, I think, January, and the other student was December). He was a truly great teacher.

I found this story interesting, too, because I will be the only female teacher in the English Department next year; however, the Science Department will be totally female. I don’t think I’ve ever been in the position of being the only female in my department. I’m not worried about it, but I am wondering how it will be different.