The Seuss bigotry of low expectations?
June 15, 2011
Pam Allyn, a literacy expert and executive director of LitWorld, penned an opinion piece in Education Week entitled ?Against the Whole-Class Novel.? The crux of the article is that teachers should no longer assign one book to all students in a class but instead allow students to select books that are both at their individual (or instructional) reading level and that cover topics that most interest them.
Allyn's argument?which is becoming a widely-held belief among literature teachers?is seductive in an age where ?individualized learning plan? is the watch phrase and blended-learning models aim to let students move at their own pace.
To underscore her point, Allyn shares an example of one of her struggling readers, Sam.
Sam, a 12-year-old student in one of my LitWorld programs for struggling readers, had a breakthrough moment recently. It happened at 3:30 p.m., after school hours, when he picked up Horton Hears a Who! and the volunteer smiled at him, and said, ?That's the perfect book for you, Sam. Dr. Seuss is one of the world's greatest, most brilliant writers of all.? The book was the perfect level for him as an emerging reader, the perfect pitch of humor and art; in short, the perfect book for Sam.
Back in his classroom, Sam was required to read To Kill a Mockingbird. He struggled against this book every day. He could not decode or comprehend it. He faked his way through it.? It did not help him learn to read, nor did it help him to become a lifelong lover of text. And he was alienated and isolated from his peers.
Allyn goes on to argue:
To read in school what one is driven to read, every day. To read at one's own pace. To read driven by one's own passions. To read on whatever device makes the most sense for that particular reader, whether it's a mobile phone or an iPad. To invite all students to become, in essence, the curators of their own reading lives. This should be our reading program.
If a student has found 16 blogs about boats, let him read those in school. And maybe that student will follow one of those blogs to a newspaper series about a regatta, or to Dove, Robin Lee Graham's personal account of sailing around the world as a teenager. In these ways, our students will be exposed to a wider variety of genres than the whole-class novel ever allowed, and they will be more compelled to think critically across genres, as the common-core standards will require of them.
As I've written before something has obviously gone terribly wrong with the adoption and dissemination of the Common Core State Standards if it is being so readily trotted out to defend the retreat from holding all students to consistently high standards.
And, while I certainly hope that students acquire a love of reading, that is actually not the primary goal of a school's literature program. Instead, its purpose is to help students read (and understand) a variety of texts?both fiction and nonfiction?that are sufficiently challenging and that expose students to the content they will need to know to be college and career ready. Blogs about boats may be entertaining but they don't put you on the track to tackle college-level reading. Its not fair to students to pretend they do.
Allyn's argument seems to rest on the assumption that it doesn't matter what you read, as long as you read. That's just simply not true. While students should absolutely be encouraged to pick up books that interest them and read whenever they've got a spare moment, what students read in class is one of the most important decisions a teacher can make. By limiting the challenge and complexity of what students read while in school, you limit what they will be able to read?and not read?for the rest of their lives.
Most troublingly, the reading programs that Allyn describes will, if applied in classrooms across our country, only serve to perpetuate America's enormous achievement gap.
Think about it: if Horton Hears a Who is a ?just right? book for Sam, but To Kill a Mockingbird is more appropriate for Sam's peers, how will Sam ever get to the point where he can read books that are equally as challenging as his peers? And given that poor readers in America are disproportionately African American and Latino means imposing separate and unequal reading lists on America's youth that fall with disconcerting consistency across the fault lines of class, race, and ethnicity.
That doesn't mean that we should slap Dr. Seuss out of Sam's hands. Reading ?just right? books in afterschool programs or at home while teachers work to close the reading gap in school is entirely appropriate. But, we simply cannot pretend that reading programs driven entirely by choice and reading level are going to serve the best interests of students like Sam. Students that deserve to stretch to their fullest potential no matter the cards they were dealt at birth. Nor can we pretend that the Sams of the world can magically access these complicated texts. But the conversation needs to center around how to scaffold grade-appropriate books for struggling readers, not about whether they should even be reading them at all.
Every student deserves high standards and every student deserves to have the opportunity to participate with his peers in discussions about complex books that cover varied and interesting topics. Those are the discussions and that is the content that is going to put them on the path to college.
Or as Dr. Seuss himself might have said, ?The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go.?