Education Opinion

No Anglo-Saxon Classic Left Behind

By Donalyn Miller — March 30, 2008 4 min read
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Readers of this blog know that I promote reading a wide range of materials in the classroom, and believe that all sorts of books are inroads to meeting curriculum goals. I believe that students, under the guidance of informed librarians and teachers, should choose their own reading materials. This philosophy is the cornerstone of my teaching, and one of my secrets for motivating young readers.

While I have been waving my banner of free choice reading around, the Texas State Board of Education has debated mandates that effectively take those decisions away from my students and me.

Irony--It’s what’s for dinner.

For the past two years stakeholders, including teachers and experts in the literacy field, have worked to rewrite Texas’ content standards for teaching English Language Arts and Reading. In February, this group finalized plans to present their revised standards to the Board and develop a timeline for implementation.

Two days before the implementation hearing, a conservative faction of the Board presented a “substitute amendment” which in affect threw out the standards created by the committee charged with writing them, in favor of an antiquated set of standards that included recommended texts for each grade level. Here is what a reading classroom would look like under the new proposed standards:

Primary students would read a time capsule of Newbery classics from the World War II and Eisenhower years like The Courage of Sarah Noble (1954) and The Matchlock Gun (1941). Intermediate students would read Robinson Crusoe (1719), poems by Emerson and Longfellow, and The Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). In sixth grade, students would have the choice to read the most recent title on the suggested list, Across Five Aprils, written in 1964.

Even the most outdated school library in America includes authors like Judy Blume, Jerry Spinelli, E.L. Konigsburg, and Gary Paulsen, and yet not one book by these revered authors made the list.

Welcome to Texas- where it is 1950 all over again!

The suggestion that students read only from a list of outdated Eurocentric literature continues in middle and high school. In spite of language that indicates secondary students should “read independently books of various genres from accepted fiction and non-fiction lists,” not one book from the standards’ own lists was published in the last thirty years. Seventh graders would have been advised to read Born Free (1960), and eight graders, Kon-Tiki (1950). Juniors would explore the history of American literature from 1600 to the present with Arthur Miller, Martin Luther King, Jr., Bernard Malamud, Anne Tyler, and Larry McMurtry as the only suggested contemporary authors. Seniors would study the history of British literature which apparently ended with Dylan Thomas and George Bernard Shaw.

While you are laughing and shaking your heads, may I remind you that we planted the seeds for NCLB right here in Houston. Texas is one of the largest purchasers of textbooks in the United States and has a great deal of influence over what gets put in them.

In early March, teachers and advocates from the minority community, pointing out the absence of texts by African-American and Hispanic authors on the suggested lists, were patronized by revisers who scrambled to throw in a few multicultural titles. African-American students would have enjoyed Ananszi tales and Bre’er Rabbit as part of their rich literary heritage. Marquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera and Cisneros’ House on Mango Street would have apparently been enough for the 2 million Hispanic school children in Texas, who would have had to wait until high school to read these influential works.

On March 28th, presented with the third revision of the standards in two months, the State Board abandoned recommending titles altogether and agreed that practitioners should make decisions on what is best for their students when it comes to selecting materials to teach the curriculum.

While we Texas teachers breathe a sigh of relief, I can’t help thinking about the dangers of any agency or school district that recommends reading lists to its teachers. After all, such a list is instantly out of date no matter how current or inclusive the document is when created. Texas standards are updated once every ten years, automatically excluding the subsequent decade of books that will be published after the standards are adopted. Furthermore, policy makers can call a list “suggested” or “recommended” all it wants to, but we all know that these lists morph into required lists when textbooks, standardized tests, and purchasing decisions are shaped around the perceived recommendations from a state body.

The argument for making book recommendations to teachers is that these lists will serve as a guide for teachers who are new or who need help choosing books that show specific examples of the standards to be taught. A noble goal, but one doomed to fail when the lists deny teachers the opportunity to choose materials that meet the interests, needs, or backgrounds of the particular students served by that teacher. I know that many states and districts create such lists.

What are your experiences with recommended lists? How have these lists supported you or limited you when making instructional decisions for your students?

The opinions expressed in The Book Whisperer are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.