Before I describe where I teach, I would like to assure you that, whatever my criticisms, I care deeply about my students and their success. I have been teaching English for twenty-one years at five different schools in a wide range of socioeconomic settings. Regardless of wealth, race, or test scores, in all of these schools there were good students and not-so-good students. The good students are easy to love because it is not hard to be a good teacher with students who are interested and able to learn. But the not-so-good students are no less worthy of our compassion and consideration because they are rarely if ever fully responsible for the deficits of enthusiasm and aptitude that burden them as they enter school. If anything, they need more love than those other students.
My goal as a teacher has always been to be honest with my students, but part of that is an honest belief that if we openly admit our obstacles, we can always find a way to overcome them. So my criticisms are not targeted at the students, but at our insistence on avoiding identifying and dealing with the real problems in education. I do not believe I am alone; I have never met a teacher who did not care about her students. Many of the people I have worked with in my career were brilliant and a small few were fairly incompetent, but they all cared. I don’t know where I land on this spectrum, but I do care that my students learn what they need to succeed and to leave this world a better place than they found it. Unfortunately, and often due to circumstances beyond our control, it is sometimes a struggle to get the kids to care as much as I do, and nowhere has this been more painfully true than in my current job.
Cooperative Arts and Humanities Magnet High School as its rather lengthy appellation suggests is a magnet school in New Haven, Connecticut, that attracts and educates students from the city and surrounding towns who ostensibly have an interest in pursuing the fine arts (theatre, dance, music, visual arts, and creative writing). Of course, there is often a gap between intention and reality, and Coop is no exception. Many of the students attend not because of their undying passion for artistic expression, but rather because a parent wanted them in a slightly safer, more accepting environment than their local high school would provide. Only about half of the students attending Coop have any real interest in their chosen art, and only a few more than that seem to have much interest in being educated at all – at least, not in accordance with state and national standards.
I teach low-level juniors, most of whom do not like to read – unless you consider the avid and ongoing consumption of text messages, Twitter feeds, Instagram updates, and the ephemeral offerings of Snapchat to qualify as reading. Some of these kids can read relatively well, but find it dull in comparison to the aforementioned attractions; many others dislike reading because it is painfully difficult for them. Almost none of them read regularly enough to know for sure if it is a cognitive deficit or simple disinterest that prevents them from reading proficiently and enjoying the experience. Many of my students, however, have been tested and found to read below grade level, sometimes well below level. Regardless, they have been passed along each year because that is easier and less expensive than addressing their individual deficits. (Besides, if you can become president without ever having read a book, why should your inability or unwillingness to do so prevent you from graduating high school.) Some of these students have diagnosed disabilities; others have flown under the radar because no one (parents, teachers, counselors, etc.) has actively and persistently advocated for them. And even if we wanted to identify and address the needs of every student, the expense of doing so would be enough to bankrupt the district. So we are left with few resources and many students who are badly in need of extra help if we wish to graduate young men and women who are not only able to read, but are also occasionally excited to do so.
The reasons for reading deficits among our student body are manifold. Environmental and biological factors both play significant roles. Some students grew up in homes where parents did not read to their children nor encourage reading because the parents were absent, overworked, disinterested, illiterate, abusive, unable to speak, read, and/or write English. Then there are the more mundane causes of their deficits: pervasive technology, an anti-intellectual society, myriad distractions, an ever-increasing demand for immediate gratification, and evolutionary biology. When literary texts have to compete with social media and rapidly shrinking attention spans, it is a wonder that anyone under that age of thirty reads at all.
So it becomes incumbent upon any teacher in New Haven (and many other places as well) wishing to maintain his sanity, his authority, and his hopes of helping the next generation to become more enlightened than his own (or just survive and succeed) to offer a more engaging curriculum than might have been necessary to capture the attentions of a previous population more oriented on academics. Texts are chosen, not because one would (or could) argue they contribute to some indispensable canon of classic literature, but because they are of high interest to an otherwise disinterested audience. Assignments are given in conjunction with these readings to foster or remediate basic skills and often require extensive direction and examples to ensure the success of some of our more limited students, some of whom fail even to begin the assignments, let alone finish them in any timely fashion. Mostly, classes are a battle to engage and maintain the attentions of wandering minds in fierce competition with whatever next appears on an individual’s cell phone. So whatever you are planning to teach . . . it had better be interesting to a student who reads and writes and often thinks at a minimum of three grades below level.
At the same time, there are students who can and do read reasonably well – students who will quickly become bored by the pace at which one must move to maintain the participation of every student in the class. So a teacher needs to find texts that can be read by everyone, regardless of level, while still offering an intellectual challenge to even the most advanced reader in the class. If you can find texts that simultaneously appeal to the socio-emotional interests of each student as well, then you are a genius with no need for my clumsy curriculum to improve your practice. (As an aside, I would recommend books like Sherman Alexie’s
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
, Tim O’Brien’s
The Things They Carried
, or Sandra Cisneros’
The House on Mango Street
as having the potential to be such texts – they have the additional advantage of being collections of short stories that can be abridged as necessary.)
I would wish that New Haven was an educational anomaly, and that no other school system in the United States resembles it in any of its deficits, but having taught at schools across the cultural and socio-economic spectrum, I can tell you that New Haven suffers from no illness that is not widespread. Recent studies of adolescent brains have suggested the neural networks of young people (to say nothing of their social skills) are being altered by their continual access to technology; we simply are not dealing with the same brains that previous generations of students possessed and these new brains are often too impatient and too inattentive to read well. Regardless of intellect or interest, teachers face a challenge that is poorly understood and largely unaddressed by current pedagogy. Books cannot compete with each new technology when it comes with neural stimulation and immediate gratification. I am sure this comment echoes those made during the advent of radio and television, but the threat has increased exponentially in recent decades.
I have no panacea that will return us to the foggy nostalgia of the “golden age” of education, but I do know that simply telling my students that reading is good for them will not suffice. I have to get them to make an emotional connection to reading; I have to give them the skills to make simple comprehension and complex literary analysis more gratifying than the mindless consumption of whatever easy entertainment their televisions and computers offer – which seems impossible; I have to get them to need stories, and poems, and essays in the same way they seem to need the applications on their cell phones. The key, as far as I can tell, is a return to the time when they, much like Little Red Riding Hood, were tempted to stray from the safe and healthy path to happiness and success by the charming wolf of modern media. The key is to go back to that time in their childhoods when they did not develop a connection to books and a love of reading like the fairy tales tell us they were supposed to. The key is to show them that the connections they can make through reading are stronger than any virtual friendship they might form on the internet.