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Classroom Structures That Really Count

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In order to get an emergency teaching license in New York City 25 years ago, I had to take an education-methods course in which the professor demonstrated how to pass out paper. At first I thought it was a joke. Not being experienced in educationese, I was not aware that professors of education did not kid around. Insisting that this paper-parceling was the make-or-break principle on which a new teacher's success might well rest, the good professor became upset when he discovered that not only were some of us in the back of the room giggling, we had moved our chairs out of alignment. Muttering about the need for straight rows, he insisted that we get in line so he could proceed with his demonstration.

Only a person who has never taken a methods course would ask, as did my husband, if that story is true. Not only is it true, it's not even my best teacher-training story. The great thing about writing education commentary is that you never have to make anything up.

I confess, though, that paper distribution and recordkeeping, like time-on-task, have pretty much eluded me for the past 20-odd years. Nevertheless, when I say I'm not a straight-arrow teacher, I'm not talking about where I put the chairs. I've taught where student desks were bolted down in neat and tidy rows and I've taught where the students and I bought a big red velvet sofa at the Salvation Army store. It matters not; I don't measure my worth by how many times I get the kids sitting in a circle.

William Blake reminds us, "A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.'' No place is this more true than in the classroom. One of the most retrogressive principals I know harangues teachers she catches sitting at their desks, as though being on your feet were equivalent to being on your toes. Classroom structures that really count are internal, not only hidden from the casual eye but also hidden too often from our own selves. We grow so accustomed to being judged on our external structures that we forget to nurture our inner selves, to build on our own foundations. And once we lose faith in our own best instincts, then all we can do is worry about where to put the chairs; we start relying on somebody else's notion of good books.

Last year I was invited out to California to take a look at the California Literature Project. Good things are happening: Teachers are excited about literature. They are themselves reading and talking. But bad things are happening, too. In developing lists of books to fulfill the official plan of "a systematic, well-organized core program in which the overlap of selections at more than one grade-span level is avoided,'' there is a whole lot of argument among teachers over who "gets'' particular books. Second- and 3rd-grade teachers, for example, come close to shedding blood over who "gets'' Charlotte's Web. And 9th-graders get Great Expectations. Honest. I met a lot of teachers in California who, in the name of a new, innovative structure, are following a decree that Great Expectations is the book that every 9th grader in the district must read. If this doesn't make you weep, what will?

I wonder why otherwise reasonable people go sort of crazy when book-choosing time rolls around. I've never met a required-book list I liked. Such lists are always prescriptive and retrospective. They keep us looking over our shoulders, maintaining a static rather than dynamic notion of culture. And the worst part is that once you let a core list into your life, it's very hard to dislodge it. Asking a faculty to change a recommended book list and getting a new list approved by administrators and the board of education is like asking someone to move a graveyard. If you're persistent, stubborn, and intractable, you may get a few new items added; you'll never get old bones removed.

Who's afraid of Charles Dickens? I am! Putting Dickens on a required core list, insisting that every 8th grader must read A Christmas Carol and every 9th grader must read Great Expectations, victimizes children. I have nothing against Dickens as literature of choice. If individual teachers know and love Dickens and know and love their students--and feel they can make a match--then God bless those teachers, every one of them. But California teachers I talked with lamented that Dickens is not a personal choice; traveling under the name of standards and excellence, it is simply what is required. Others defended the choice on the grounds that it is meritorious for every child to have a classic in common, that not-so-able children are invited into a community of learners and share the experience with all their classmates. I see it as a heartbreaking requirement. Force-feeding Dickens will exclude many students from knowing the personal joy that literature can bring, a joy that is their right. I worry not just that those vulnerable students will never try Dickens again; I worry they will be scared off from dipping into any literature again. Remember that bromide from some years back, "This is the first day of the rest of your life?'' We need to choose our books as though today is the last day of our lives--and theirs--to turn kids onto reading.

The poet-farmer-teacher Wendell Berry gives us a wonderful image of what happens when people insist on unanimity over diversity. He gives us "crazy old Mrs. Gaines who sang of One Lord, One Faith, and One Cornbread.'' Wendell Berry never even hints that crazy old Mrs. Gaines might have been a high school English teacher, but he points out, they had to lock crazy old Mrs. Gaines up in a room because "For her, to be free was only to be lost.''

I used to ask teachers, "What would happen if you were shut up in a room with 30 of your colleagues and not allowed to leave until you'd all read the same book?'' But that's exactly what happened in California. The California Literature Project brought teachers together during the summer and subjected them to an intensive, rigorous study of James Joyce's Ulysses. The next summer another group studied Proust. When I met these teachers at a weekend reunion, I heard lots of groans and laughter, lots of talk about "surviving'' Joyce and "surviving'' Proust. I both admire and am appalled by the notion. I witnessed firsthand the sense of community and joint accomplishment this literary survival engendered. But I wonder if survival--getting through a book--is the literary model we want for our classrooms. I wonder how many of those teachers have, on their own, read more Joyce, more Proust? How many of them have read more Irish writers, more French writers?

I don't want my students to survive literature. I want my students to read out of curiosity, out of a need to be informed, out of an anticipation of fun. I want my students to read widely--and fairly casually. Time enough for them to plumb the depths of literary analysis--if they want to do that sort of thing--when they get to college. As publishing imprints abound, we have available a bountiful supply of limitless possibility, books as diverse as the children in our care. What is the need for "one cornbread''?

I offer one of my success stories. Denise, the student so recalcitrant she had the distinction of failing 7th grade twice, dropped out of school in 10th grade. Today, she writes me letters about taking her children to the library and introducing them to the Stupids, Frog and Toad, and Madeline. Denise says they like Flat Stanley almost as much as I do. She writes, "I can't wait until they're old enough for Gilly Hopkins. I want to read that book again.'' I like to think Denise learned something important in my class--and it has nothing to do with whether or not she ever read someone else's notion of a classic. One of the hard things about being a teacher is that my success is measured decades hence--in my students who are tempted to read a book 20 years after they leave my care, who are inspired to read to their children.

Too much of what travels under the banners of official excellence bespeaks a contempt for students and teachers. And for literature too. Core lists have a way of turning into literature laws, hemming teachers in and fencing kids out. Core lists have a way of telling students that the only good authors are the dead ones. Literature that becomes itemized, formalized, and, most dangerously, standardized, dies. What we have left is a graveyard of books.

If our students are to become lifelong readers, parents who read to their children, then student choice must be central to our literature program. When I stressed this idea of student choice in a talk to the California Literature Project, a number of Project members wrote me notes accusing me of anarchism. Student choice, they insisted, is fine and dandy for recreational reading, but for literature study the teacher must choose. Left on their own, teachers insisted, students won't move beyond Sweet Valley High books.

I know for a fact that this is not true. It's not true with 1st-graders; it's not true with high-schoolers. When you surround children with the sounds and sense of wonderful language, they respond. They make good choices. When my 3rd-graders and I won 100 free books in a paperback book contest, I told them they could each choose a book to keep and then choose four each for our classroom library. No blue-ribbon book-selection committee could have taken their charge more seriously, and the list the children came up with was impressive. No one wasted a choice. They chose fiction such as The Little House books, Owls in the Family, Frog and Toad, Ralph S. Mouse; they chose mysteries, poetry, nonfiction; they chose hard books and easy books. "But not too easy,'' they reminded one another. Over and over I heard a book dismissed with the comment, "You'd only want to read that one once.''

The same thing happened with 7th- and 8th-graders. When I was still a remedial reading teacher with an inherited lab filled with ugly little controlled-vocabulary paragraphs, I decided the best way to revitalize the program was to give each of my students a book coupon redeemable for a paperback once a month in a local bookstore. I took my students for their first visit. They quickly passed over Snoopy books, hairstyling books, and series romances. Amazing to me, 90 percent of those inner-city remedial students chose such classics as Shakespeare, Twain, and Hawthorne--yes, and Dickens too--for their first book. They'd pick up Shakespeare and say, "Oh yeah, I've heard of that.'' They seemed to like the idea of owning an important book even though they had no intention of reading it. After that, students visited the store on their own. They brought back sports biographies, young adult novels, mysteries, fairy tales, and adult bestsellers. Two sisters pooled their coupons and saved up until they had enough for a hardback cookbook. Sylvia complained that every time she chose her book she had a fight with her mother over who got to read it first. I told Sylvia she must be making good choices. One day Sylvia's mother visited my classroom, wanting to see if I had any more good books she might borrow.

Isn't that what education is all about? Helping people make their own choices? Helping them establish some sort of criteria for making good choices? Who's going to provide the core books for our students when they're on their own? I hear a lot of talk in California about giving teachers a sense of ownership. There's no mention of the students' el15lownership and I'd certainly put money on my supposition that no student was included in the vote for Great Expectations. Anyway, I have grave doubts about this thing called a sense of ownership. Either it's yours or it ain't, and 20 years messing around in schools has shown me that if you want it, you gotta grab it. Anybody starts talking about a sense of ownership in my house and I'm going to count the silverware.

In our restructuring for real literature, aren't we taking things just a bit too seriously? Over and over I see that word worthy in connection with literature in the classroom. My 3rd-graders learned a whole lot about how language works from riddle books, Amelia Bedelia, and Norris and Borris.

The real issue is not whether the literature we bring to our students is worthy; the real issue is whether we are willing to take risks in the classroom. When we teach from the same prescribed list year after year, we are in danger of becoming settled in our ways, as that wonderful gadfly Edward Abbey termed it, "as content as pigs in a warm manure pile.'' Who would dare to put Walt Whitman on a core list? "Resist much,'' advises Whitman in his preface to Leaves of Grass: "Love the earth and the sun and the animals. Despise riches. Give alms to everyone that asks. Stand up for the stupid and crazy. ... Take off your hat to nothing known or unknown. ... Re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book and dismiss whatever insults your own soul.''

Borrowing from the author Judith Viorst, I offer my version of her "If Were in Charge of the World:''

If I were in charge of the world

I'd cancel facilitators Friday spellings,

Pizza bribes, and also

Questions at the end of the story.

If I were in charge of the world

You could read Charlotte's Web

In any grade you wanted.

You could even read it twice.

If I were in charge of the world

There'd be a million million

Pages of delight,

Instead of thirty-two copies

Of three novels

Somebody else chose.

If I were in charge of the world

Nobody under age 40 would be
encouraged to read Moby Dick,

No books would come by decree.

And a person who said
knock-knock riddle books with
pop-up pages are a quintessential
part of a reading program

Would still be allowed to be
In charge of the world.

Susan Ohanian is a long-time teacher whose most recent books are Dates with the Greats: A Daybook for Teachers and Garbage Pizza, Patchwork Quilts, and Math Magic. This essay is adapted from Vital Signs 3: Restructuring the English Classroom, edited by James Collins (Boynton/Cook Heinemann, 1992).

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