If It Ain't Broke...

I love maxims. I love clichés. And I love aphorisms, one-liners, proverbs, saws, witty sayings, clever references, chestnuts of wisdom, mottos, adages and truisms. If they be short and they be shrewd, they be of interest to me. Most English teachers, the lovers of language that we are, would concur.

Try this one. “That joint’s more played out than the R. Kelly vid of him tappin’ that Juv-ee.”

You understand what I’m speaking about, don’t you?

Well, for those of you lacking the literary skills to deconstruct this allusive and elusive sentence (remember, there may be a quiz to follow), it is a satirical reference to the contemporary methodologies currently employed by most California educators in regards to their language arts curriculum in secondary classrooms.


Don’t worry, be happy, take a chill pill. Like a bowl of Campbell’s soup, I’ll spell it out for you.

At the heart of the issue I am speaking to is the fact that a MAJORITY of our public high school students read below grade level. Some significantly so. It is no longer a percentage of our students; it is the norm to read years/grades beneath your grade level in school. (And what a shame!)

A dialogue with my contemporaries on this subject tripped into the realm of overcrowding, immigration, family culpability, a crisis of cash, ELL and social promotion (a practice implemented in many urban school districts. For the Board of Education in an overcrowded, inner-city community, they absolutely do not want 17 years olds in the same class as 13 year olds, regardless of whether or not the 17 year old has the academic skills to be in the higher-level class. It’s not about scholastic meritocracy; it’s about fundamental safety. Prudence, in this scenario, trumps warrant.)

Obviously, the ills are many and there are very few areas upon which the subject of poor literacy skills does not touch.

But what about that line of gibberish above that has more holes in it than a poorly knit blanket? Hang loose a moment, Dude. I promise, the piper will be paid.

As we stare down budget cuts that are gruesome and skills levels that are gruesome-er, I believe more than ever that a breath of fresh air has to be blown into the curriculum of modern schools. Especially, the English curriculum. I was recently a speaker at a California high school educational conference in San Francisco and the degree to which these ideas were warmly received was astounding. It illuminated to me more clearly than ever that contemporary, relevant, accessible, reading needs to move towards becoming a staple of our state language arts curriculum. As it stands now, contemporary, relevant, accessible literature is, at best, on the fringe of assigned reading lists in even the most progressive of classrooms.


Why are we so obsessed with reading centuries old “classics” of literature when our students predominantly lack the skills (and the motivation) to tackle the weightiest of all literary weights we can hurl onto their underdeveloped mental shoulders?  

That’s right, the emperor has no clothes! I dare to ask, “Why?”

Is there something we have to prove? Is it because we had to do it ourselves? Is it because it’s “good for them”? (Which it is not. It promotes a palpable hate of reading, which concurrently lowers students’ sense of academic self-esteem perpetuating an “I stink at school” mentality most unnecessarily.) I mean, you would never ask a student in flight school to attempt to fly a rocket ship and yet we find it perfectly reasonable to ask borderline literates to thematically analyze Dickens.


Why do we feel compelled to ask our students to principally, if not solely, study literature that is virtually devoid of all of the most prominent elements in their world that are most important to them? Books that include the internet, rap music, athletics and references to contemporary issues such as violence, racism, drugs and teen pregnancy are the issues that they themselves are facing in their own universe outside of the classroom. Can't we piggyback on those themes to at least begin teaching the core elements of literature such as foreshadowing, grammar, characterization, plot, personification and parallelism? After all, isn't that what we use the "classics" for in the first place?

Yes, I know, I know. Contemporary, relevant, accessible writers make for incredibly poor literary examples in the classroom. I mean John Grisham has the audacity to use onomatopoeia. Amy Tan has the pluck to use irony. And Stephen King, the most villainous of all, has the gumption to use proper punctuation in his paragraphs. Infidels! Heretics! A Pen! A Pen! My kingdom for their pens!    

Critical pedagogy, transformative theorists, blah, blah, blah, have all written scores on the needs to be reflective educators but I care little for think tanks and academic ivory towers insulated from real classrooms. What I do care about is finding some sort of means to improve the literacy levels of California's youth. Every piece of data one can study leaves me feeling dejected. How in the world does Louisiana have a higher literacy level than California? For goodness sakes, their whole state only cost something like $14. My paperback Chekov cost that much. Have we no state pride?

Now, please, before you shoot the messenger, don’t misinterpret me. I am an AVID fan of classic literature. (After all, I'm an English teacher. And I'm a writer. To me, being locked up with Voltaire is an awesome thing.) Yet, if you are familiar with Luis Rodriguez's book Always Running, Monster by Walter Dean Myers or The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, you know that students greatly enjoy these types of works. The only thing I have to do to get my students to read Go Ask Alice is to make arrangements for them to pick it up from the library. Why-oh-why can't we begin to teach some traditional elements taught in our English classes through contemporary novels such as these? I am not saying to scrap Emerson and toss out Shakespeare - that would be ridiculous. But isn't there an inkling of room for books we know the students "want" to read to augment and build a bridge to the current curriculum? This is (Can you hear me, Mr. Paine?) common sense. By not utilizing the time tested strategy of using sugar to wash down the medicine I feel as if we are behaving much like stubborn school marms that laugh in the face of brilliant sayings such as, "If the mountain will not go to Mohammed, Mohammed must go to the mountain."

We must go to the mountain.

  Do we not see the sense and sensibility in not using Sense and Sensibility as the primary means by which we encourage teenagers in our contemporary classrooms to embrace reading? Have you taken a look at Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde lately? While the tale is virtually a cliché, the language of the novel is virtually unreadable to the modern generation of student sitting at our desks. (I know, I know, it’s their fault.) And… fasten your seatbelts, cause here comes “Blasphemy!”… The Invisible Man’s appeal as a novel to the regular ole’, run-of-the-mill, statically average Joe or Jane, high school sophomore (college bound or not) is, gulp, invisible.

There, I said it. String me up from the treetops. Burn me at the stake. Jam me in a class with a ratio of 41 to 1 in a school that is overcrowded, under-funded, under-performing and on the verge of imploding due to befuddlement, aimlessness, cynicism, apathy and frequent outbursts of perpetual and mind-boggling incompetence. (Oh, you already did that.)

The truth will set you free and if you want to know the real Sojourner, there are more students who would rather spend their afternoon at the dentist than with Ralph Ellison.

And they do not care whether you like it or not. True is true. Es verdad?

Now, am I a Ralph Ellison hater? Do I have a problem with Robert Louis Stevenson? Does Jane Austen’s writing lack persuasion for me?

What difference does my opinion make? Really.

My student’s are the ones in need of an education. Am I so intractable that I will not listen to their overwhelmingly overt feedback? If the majority of them could, they’d misspell it out for you. They have no taste for the meals coming out of our English kitchens and like petulant four-year-olds at the dinner table of school, we simply cannot make them read just because we have spent a long time (centuries) preparing this meal. For whom does this bell toll?

I understand it is intellectually convenient for some “old school educators” to tattoo a scarlet letter on me as a proponent of feeding toddlers cotton candy for breakfast and permanently denying them access to the fruits and vegetables of fine literature that make for a nutritious diet. Hogwash! I am of the firmest belief that there is no finer literary meal one can dine on that ole Billy Boy Shakespeare himself. Yet, I am also of the firmest belief that if a student in my classroom lacks the skills to successfully negotiate a book such as A Tale of Two Cities, or has yet to discover the most wonderfully supernatural enchantment of a book like The Hobbit, getting that student to want to lend me their ears for the double fortnight it takes to teach Julius Caesar is a task for Sisyphus. No offense, but it takes an idiot to assign The Idiot to a student who feels like an idiot when it comes to reading.

And I completely understand.

Let students discover the joy of reading and solidify their ability to read before holding great expectations for Great Expectations. Students will be grateful to us if we do. Then, after one is hooked on books, there is no turning back. All of us are a testament to this. But if you don’t chum the waters, how do you expect to catch any fish? Books are the drug upon which most English teachers are hopelessly addicted yet we provide no gateway access to the hardcore stuff that really gets us off. Our heroin needs marijuana. Our cognac needs beer. Our Milton, for better of for worse, needs Christopher Pike.

Maybe, you do not agree. Well, our state tests scores are all the proof in all the Pudd’nhead Wilson you should need to see. And sorry, but it’s not a recent phenomenon either. Our language arts scores have had the scent of Denmark for well over a decade, yet we still press on with 1984 as if it we were not preparing to enter the school year of 2004. Are the core elements of classroom literature so untouchable that, should my students to fail to grasp their essence, they deserve to flunk out of high school? Is there no middle ground?

Remember, only Nixon could go to China.

There are thousands of high school students that drink up the classics like a Department Chair slurps down coffee. Some students take to great books like a duck to water. But, in almost all cases, that’s because they come to the pond with the experience of knowing how to paddle. What about the hundreds of thousands who don’t? Are we only catering to the upper echelons of ability, talent and skill? Does the crème de la crème become the only part of the cream that matters? If this were an animal farm, I would say that kind of thinking is Bolshevik!

Let me say it again. There is nothing wrong with “classic” books. I love them. They are the best of the best. Yet, if I had the chance to let a majority of the students in our state discover the magic of reading at the expense of the classics, I would instantly turn Fahrenheit 451 on the pillars of a typical classroom curriculum. The reason is that these tomes of genius do not need you, me, nor the California Department of Education to ensure their survival. Galileo’s gulping hemlock didn’t change a darn thing about the nature of the universe and English teachers thinking they are the last bastions of classic literature before the complete and total relegation of great books to the trash heap of history is preposterous.

Yet, isn’t this how we operate?

Think in terms of aptitudes. If you’ve ever been seated in the cab of an 18 wheeler (a trucker’s truck) you understand that just because you can drive a light blue Honda Accord through the suburbs doesn’t mean you have any sort of a prayer of hauling a container full of used office furniture through a downtown Byzantine of businesses while amped up on No Doz pills. On the other hand, no one who can haul those worn in chairs and desks through the tiny streets of our town in a Mack Daddy vehicle does not know how to operate a simple four door family sedan. We crawl before we walk. That’s Mother Nature’s rule, not mine, and if the sequence is violated, poor results occur.

Wake up! We are a multiethnic, multilingual, multicultural state with a multitude of personalities performing in a singularly horrible manner. If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got, and when it comes to fostering literacy in our youth, we… let me find a nice, fancy word here… STINK!

And it’s your fault.

And it’s my fault.

And… oh, forget about faults. How about us doing something?

Wait, I have the cure. It’s a modest proposal but maybe we should give swimming lessons to our school kids the same way we teach literacy to them. Then, being a coastal state, we can take all of our students to the ocean for a CAT6, SAT9, CAHSEE test day swim exam. By the time the tests are over the state will most assuredly have eliminated at least one major classroom problem: overcrowding.

I put this question to you in a very simple manner. Are you a teacher who is using relevant, accessible material in your classroom that parallels the abilities of the majority of the students in your room yet offers a means by which they can be challenged to grow as both a scholar and a person? If not, why? Is it a mandate from above? (Are you a sheep listening to the mindless dictates of people who know less than you about what works in your own class? Baaa!!) I promise, James Joyce is not going to roll over in his grammarless grave should you abandon Ulysses for The Bluest Eye. And if he does, tell him he should’ve thought about the California Language Arts Standard Reading and Writing 2.8 if he wanted to remain anthologized by Holt, Reinhart and Winston.

Finally, as for the real interpretation of that sentence at the beginning of this article, well, why don’t you go ask one of your students to translate? Though it’s written in English, it’s also written in a language that you probably don’t understand.

But they will.

Get my gist, Mohammed?


For EducatorsAmanda B