Thursday, January 22, 2009

Boo Radley

My friend and colleague, John Foley, has struck a nerve with the traditionalists and stubborn gatekeepers of high society by daring to challenge our traditional high school English curriculum. Heck, even Joanne Jacobs posted about it, which is a sign that you've written something worthy. Anytime a post of mine appears on her site, I light a victory cigar a la Red Auerbach.
First, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was ninth on my list of favorite novels--a year ago. Somehow, To Kill a Mockingbird wasn't on my radar that day, but it should have been.
But Foley's challenge of our current English curriculums has validity, even if the stuffy elitists don't want to entertain the notion that these "classics" can't be replaced.
The first question we must ask is this: What is the purpose of an English class? Almost four years ago, John Foley asked us the same question, which prompted a blog post here at The Daily Grind. Ultimately, we must answer this question if we are to satisfactorily address the challeneges before us.
We must acknowledge that today's students have far more to distract them than in 1992 when I started high school. Our students today have instant access to a phenomenal amount of information with only a few keystrokes. With so many distractions, we teachers must adapt to our target audience. We must capture their attention.
But it all goes back to the first question. What is the purpose of an English class? If you believe that our primary purpose is to expose our students to the wealth of literary greatness that Twain and Shakespeare offer, then yes, we must continue to teach our students these classics, if only to expose them to the culture of literary greatness.
Yet, if you answer that first question differently, by putting a priority on skill development over content, then it will not matter to you whether a student reads Twain or the appallingly simple Bluford Series. Maybe the skill development approach is symbolized through Boo Radley. Boo just wanted to be kind to people; he held no malice. On the other hand, maybe the traditionalists are the territorial bluejays, the Bob Ewells of the modern English classroom.
In the final analysis, we must consider the climate of our educational system. One that continues to emphasize skill. Yet, we must also look beyond the test to our higher education systems which still expect a classic understanding of core knowledge. Ultimately, I would prefer to engage students and focus on skills. If that means dropping the classics in favor of modern texts, then we must adapt.


At 7:01 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

You must have known I couldn't resist this one. I believe that considering the millions of texts that are available to us, it is right to ask the kind of questions you do. The text itself is just the tool for teaching other things, that is, we don't "teach" Hamlet or "The Tell-Tale Heart," instead, we use these texts to teach the content of an English class--the elements, structure, and language of story, an understanding of author's craft; the key themes of life; the history of literature; the power and purpose of poetry; the skills of reading and writing; the subtleties of persuasion; the structure of language; and the value of reading, writing, listening and speaking carefully, thoughtfully, logically, and effectively. The quality of the text we use greatly influences how well we can accomplish our goal. The reason we distinguish the quality of texts is because the best have so much more to offer than the worst.
If you have contempt for the students who are your clients, you will find excuses for keeping them out of the club of those who can appreciate quality. If you have respect for your students you will do all you can to give them the means, opportunities and skills to join that club and then leave it up to them to decide whether they want to or not.

At 1:39 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

The argument over the balance between skills and knowledge has been won in the UK, so our schools focus on skills.

But, what use are skills without knowledge? The emphasis on using the internet as a universal source of knowledge, allowing everyone to abandon subject mastery in favour of skills will be a disaster.

Skills will not provide context, breadth of understanding or a wider appreciation of where your skills fit in. Skills are like a manufacturing process without the raw material of knowledge.

At 3:26 AM , Blogger Mr. McNamar said...

I agree--with both sides!


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