My son’s blog has shamed me into writing my own darned blog entry. I wasn’t kidding when I said I have been working twice as hard to be half the teacher, thanks to Jefferson County Public Schools DLEA (Department of Learning and Educational Achievement, or Department for Lowering Educational Achievement, depending upon whom you ask).
Any other year, my sophomores would begin with reading early American literature and work from the basic essay format they were taught in ninth grade to present more complex ideas with deeper analysis within that format. Because of DLEA’s new curriculum, they read and wrote short stories. After all, students write so very many short stories in college and in life. Next they are supposed to read poems, non-fiction, and short fiction to “look for patterns” that they would then use to help them write a “pattern essay” (compare/contrast, cause/effect, classification/division, etc.). I’m not supposed to assign a pattern or teach them a pattern—or any sort of essay format, for that matter. They’re just supposed to pick a pattern and write an essay on their own based upon all the good stuff they learned about patterns from poetry, short fiction, and non-fiction. Now, the essay isn’t supposed to be about any of the stuff they read. This isn’t literary analysis. They write about something else. If you’re wondering how anyone figures out how to write a random cause/effect essay by studying patterns in poetry, you’re not alone. I got nothin’. I’m being all “mavericky,” and instead of that, we’re reading Catcher in the Rye (we’re not supposed to read a novel as a class; all books are supposed to be student choice) and using a basic essay structure to show them how to morph it into a variety of formats, such as classification/division or problem/solution, and they’re writing a literary analysis. If someone wants to fire me for that, fine. We’ll do poetry as another unit. Next semester, they are supposed to write an investigative report in which they find out about and expose something someone is trying to cover up (that’s not a potentially disastrous assignment in the hands of 15-year-olds, is it?) and a debate case.
We’d sort of perfected the opening of the school year in ACE, my class for at-risk juniors. We used to dive right into The Power of One to start immediately pulling up their reading skills. You have to remember that many of the kids in that class brag about the fact that they haven’t read a book cover to cover since elementary school (although some most definitely do read on their own), so there’s a lot of work to do to get their skills caught up. The kids usually love this book because it combines a coming-of-age story with boxing and rebelling and all the stuff they love. We also did a career research project that culminated in a PowerPoint presentation. It took a group of kids where the majority hadn’t written an essay in years—after all, I have them because they’ve been failing English for at least the first two years of high school—and got them doing research and organizing ideas in a streamlined fashion. We have always built slowly to the essay, first just getting the basics of writing down, then adding layers.
Well, the new curriculum created by DLEA mandated a different start. As much as we talk about differentiation—different approaches for different kids with different abilities—DLEA mandates the same thing for everyone. This year we began by reading “multimodal essays,” which is a term that basically describes any essay, since most essays combine such types of writing as descriptive, expository, etc., and that is what DLEA considers multimodal. Boy, nothing entices non-readers with very low reading skills to read like a bunch of essays written by other people! (Please read that last line with heavy sarcasm.) Then they have to write an essay like the ones they read. Let me tell you, jumping right into an essay without carefully building their ability to process and organize information (as our PowerPoint did) was a disaster. The kids were immediately frustrated, thrown in way over their heads. We’re not supposed to be reading a book together, but I’m doing it anyway. Next, they’re supposed to write a civic position paper. Why? Because it’s next on the list. Need there be any other reason? Logical flow of ideas and skills? Relationship to anything else we’ve done? I’m figuring out how to tie it to The Power of One. (Renegade lit teacher, that’s me!) At least the second semester papers are a lot more conducive to my students’ abilities, so I really don’t mind the changes, but the junior teachers in the college-prep track are flabbergasted. We all do a critical review (play, movie, etc.) and a memoir as the next “important” assignments, whether the kids’ are in ACE or regular junior English. (By the way, DLEA has kids writing memoirs in 6th grade and 9th grade, as well.)
My seniors are generally the same kids I taught in ACE or ones much like them. Many of their credits in all kinds of classes come from summer school, night school, and online courses that are hugely watered down. First, we wrote college application essays. That’s fine. These guys aren’t going to colleges that require them, but it’s not a bad idea to do a little self-reflection in one’s senior year (even if one has written memoirs three times before this). Next, they do a critical lens essay. That’s right, kids with no real background in anything are supposed to pick a book, read it on their own, and analyze it using a Marxist, feminist, psychoanalytical, or another very sophisticated critical literary lens. ‘Cause, you know, they study Marxism in summer school. Not. Screw that. We’re all reading the same book (World War Z) and studying it through the same critical lens: historical/cultural. They choose their own aspect of that lens, but without a ton of guidance, they’d all fail it, so I’m not doing what DLEA wants. Next semester, they write a qualitative research paper where they do their own original research and a “reflective presentation.” Wish me luck on the qualitative research paper. I’m gonna need it.
Bear in mind, that list of assignments is for all seniors, not just mine. (Remember, we’re not differentiating anymore.) Does that look like half of DLEA’s writing curriculum for seniors is self-reflection? That’s because it is. Over the course of four years, do we seem to be missing a basic research paper of the kind most commonly done in college? That’s because we are. It’s not like they write one in 9th grade. Freshmen write a “This I Believe” paper, an editorial, a memoir, and a definition essay. There is not supposed to be any class study of any single book—all short works or student choice. I haven’t talked about what I’m doing with that, but there will be some student choice reading.
And when I talked to my union about this? Well…DLEA is made up of teachers who bailed on the classroom to write this stuff. They haven’t been in real classrooms with real kids in five years or more, but they are still considered teachers, and some are in the union, so…you know…we can’t really back one group of teachers against another…it wouldn’t politic (or politically palatable?).
Once upon a time, the teachers in my department built upon the five-paragraph essay format (paragraphs using a point, evidence, analysis structure), and we eventually worked into longer, more in-depth essays analyzing challenging novels or employing extensive research. It takes a lot to rework what we have traditionally done into a series of “This I Believe” statements, memoirs, self-reflections, and other reinforcements of our already narcissistic culture. It is a royal pain to figure out how to squeeze whole novels in between the “student choice” reading requirements, but at Columbine we’re doing it because we have this antiquated notion that classroom discourse around literature with a teacher’s expert guidance is still valuable, not least because it gets kids out of their narcissism and into someone else’s head, someone else’s culture for a little while.
In the meantime, I’ve talked to a lot of college kids: my son’s friends, student teachers, college observers in education programs. What do they say they’re writing in school? Essays—longer and more in-depth than the basic five-paragraph but structurally mostly the same—and research papers. What aren’t they writing? Self-reflection, memoirs, editorials, etc. Critical lens is taught in upper division English classes and nowhere else. I know a number of graduate students and sociology majors who’ve done qualitative research papers, but no one else.
Working twice as hard to be half the teacher.