Reading & Literacy

English Teacher Disciplined, Might be Fired, for Providing Classic Novel to Students

By Madeline Will — May 23, 2016 4 min read
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A veteran English teacher who fought back against curriculum changes by providing his students with the classic novel Frankenstein might be out of a job.

Todd Friedman, who teaches at Midwood High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., was removed from his classes, put on administrative duty, and faces possible termination after his principal found out that this past fall, he personally purchased 102 copies of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for his Advanced Placement students (about $220 with shipping) and then charged his students $2 each to recoup most of the cost.

Friedman said this is a common practice at the school, and that students paid $6 for Hamlet at the school bookstore, so the $2 price didn’t merit complaints, according to the New York Post. Friedman also told NBC New York that he was protesting against the changes in the English curriculum that focused more on nonfiction reading (a tenet of the Common Core State Standards).

When the school’s principal found out about the transaction, however, he filed a formal complaint with the city’s department of education. The department’s Office of Special Investigations found that Friedman violated Chancellor’s Regulation A-610, which says that materials and textbooks supplied by the department of education for use in classes shall not be sold to students.

The investigators did not recommend any specific disciplinary action, according to the N.Y. Post, and noted in their report that Friedman didn’t profit off the students. The DOE’s Administrative Trials Unit will now determine Friedman’s final punishment. The hearing date has not yet been set.

“I was providing a service to the students,” Friedman told the N.Y. Post. “This isn’t sexual abuse. This isn’t child molestation. I’m not a danger to the students.”

In fact, it seems many of his students support him. I got an email from one of his former students, Mary Pomponio Finnel, who had Friedman as a teacher in the 1990s. “Friedman always pushed us, and encouraged learning from sources outside the standard curriculum,” she wrote. “Through a class assignment, I was first introduced to Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club.” (As fate would have it, Pomponio Finnel now works in the publishing industry!)

And there’s this Twitter endorsement:

Friedman told the N.Y. Post that he thinks his administrators’ report was retaliation for his filing unfair labor charges against the school in March of 2015. He said he filed the charges to protest the “dumbed down” curriculum and unfair evaluations. Friedman has been a teacher for almost three decades, and has been at Midwood for 13 years.

While Friedman wasn’t quoted as explicitly mentioning the common core, Midwood, like many high schools, has revamped its English curriculum in response to the new standards. The common standards for English/language call for students to read more nonfiction-—by the 12th grade, under the standards, 70 percent of what students read in school should be nonfiction. The reasoning is that students need to be better prepared to read informational texts in college and in the real world, but some English teachers have been critical of the change.

Midwood’s English assistant principal told that the change in the curriculum would help students learn research, argument, and critical thinking skills so they can “read, write, listen, and speak for the real world.” It’s not clear how Friedman’s diversion from the pre-planned curriculum would affect students’ preparation for the AP exams. The AP Language and Composition curriculum for high school juniors focuses on more non-fiction texts, but AP English Literature for high school seniors is less aligned to the common core standards. (The local news coverage does not specify which class Friedman bought the books for.)

Either way, some supporters are pointing out that it seems counterintuitive to punish an English teacher for promoting literature.

Source: Image by Flickr user Paul Domenick, licensed under Creative Commons

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.