We’d just finished John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” When we read the end together out loud in class, my toughest boy, a star basketball player, wept a little, and so did I. “Are you crying?” one girl asked, as she crept out of her chair to get a closer look. “I am,” I told her, “and the funny thing is I’ve read it many times.”
But they understood. When George shoots Lennie, the tragedy is that we realize it was always going to happen. In my 14 years of teaching in a New York City public middle school, I’ve taught kids with incarcerated parents, abusive parents, neglectful parents; kids who are parents themselves; kids who are homeless or who live in crowded apartments in violent neighborhoods; kids who grew up in developing countries. They understand, more than I ever will, the novel’s terrible logic — the giving way of dreams to fate.
Along with “Of Mice and Men,” my groups read: “Sounder,” “The Red Pony,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Lord of the Flies,” “The Catcher in the Rye,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Macbeth.” The students didn’t always read from the expected perspective. Holden Caulfield was a punk, unfairly dismissive of parents who had given him every advantage. About “The Red Pony,” one student said, “it’s about being a dude, it’s about dudeness.” I had never before seen the parallels between Scarface and Macbeth, nor had I heard Lady Macbeth’s soliloquies read as raps, but both made sense; the interpretations were playful, but serious. Once introduced to Steinbeck’s writing, one boy went on to read “The Grapes of Wrath” and told me repeatedly how amazing it was that “all these people hate each other, and they’re all white.” His historical perspective was broadening, his sense of his own country deepening. Year after year, ex-students visited and told me how prepared they had felt in their freshman year as a result of the classes.
And yet I do not know how to measure those results. As student test scores have become the dominant means of evaluating schools, I have been asked to calculate my reading enrichment program’s impact on those scores. I found that some students made gains of over 100 points on the statewide English Language Arts test, while other students in the same group had flat or negative results. In other words, my students’ test scores did not reliably indicate that reading classic literature added value.
Until recently, given the students’ enthusiasm for the reading groups, I was able to play down that data. But last year, for the first time since I can remember, our test scores declined in relation to comparable schools in the city. I felt increased pressure to bring this year’s scores up. All the teachers are increasing their number of test-preparation sessions and practice tests, so I have done the same, cutting two of my three classic book groups and replacing them with a test-preparation tutorial program. Only the highest-performing eighth graders were able to keep taking the reading classes.
Since beginning this new program in September, I have answered over 600 multiple-choice questions. In doing so, I encountered exactly one piece of literature: Frost’s “Road Not Taken.” The rest of the reading-comprehension materials included passages from watered-down news articles or biographies, bastardized novels, memos or brochures — passages chosen not for emotional punch but for textual complexity.
By “using data to inform instruction,” as the Department of Education insists we do, we are sorting lower-achieving students into classes that provide less cultural capital than their already more successful peers receive in their more literary classes and depriving students who viscerally understand the violence and despair in Steinbeck’s novels of the opportunity to read them.
We cannot enrich the minds of our students by testing them on texts that purposely ignore their hearts. By doing so, we are withholding from our neediest students any reason to read at all. We are teaching them that words do not dazzle but confound. We may succeed in raising test scores by relying on these methods, but we will fail to teach them that reading can be transformative and that it belongs to them.
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- byronic said: The most satisfying thing I’ve ever heard in my brief teaching career was a student telling me that after my 20thC lit course she understood “why literature matters”. I nearly cried.
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- poetbabble said: Yes! This is a great piece!
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