Archives For Charles Dickens Hard Times

English teachers, defend literature in the classroom!

I teach English, and I am feeling a little defensive lately. In the past week, I have had two separate “literature-threatening” incidents.

The first came from a reader to an opinion piece I wrote that was featured in Education Weekly, 21st Century Students Need Books, Not Textbooks. The responder was repeating the myth that English classrooms need to abandon teaching literature in favor of teaching math and science texts:

“You need to look at the Common Core ELA [English Language Arts] standards and realize you now have a responsibility to teach reading and writing for STEM subjects. That is why this discussion is so wrong. Start reading math and science textbooks and start teaching what your students need, not what you love. I learned early on: the most boring subject is the world is another person’s hobby. Your hobby is reading “literature.” Your students need to learn to read and write STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] topics, and those are found in textbooks. PERIOD!!”-Ebasco

This kind of response comes from the mistaken interpretation that the 70% of informational texts suggested by the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) need to be taught in English class; even the CCSS devotes a clarification to this on page 5 of their document in a footnote. Instead, reading is to be a critical part of all disciplines, generally 70% informational texts in all subjects and 30% fiction in English classrooms. However, English teachers can assign informational texts just as history/social studies can assign historical fiction; the genre assignment is fluid. An entire section of the ELA CCSS titled “Reading in History/Social Studies, Science, Math and the Technical Areas” is a guide devoted to improving the reading and writing standards in all disciplines. The push for reading informational texts is certainly a result of STEM, but literature is not being jettisoned out of the curriculum because it is a “hobby”.

Indeed, the benefits of reading literature is rooted in the second of the “literature threatening” incidents, in a WNYC Schoolbook blog post a piece titled Never Mind Algebra, Is Literature Necessary?  In this post, Tim Clifford made a compelling case regarding the stripping of literature from English classrooms in favor of Common Core, and again, the roots of this anti-literature movement are found in mistaken interpretations of the CCSS.

Clifford began his post with a multiple choice quiz based on the following quote:

“Now, what I want is facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root everything else out.”

Clifford posed the question “Who said the above?” and then offered three responses:

a. Bill Gates, Microsoft founder and educational gadfly
b. Michelle Rhee, staunch proponent of standardized testing
c. David Coleman, author of the Common Core standards

Then he offered the real answer,
d. Thomas Gradgrind, a fictional character created by Charles Dickens in the 1854 novel Hard Times.

The quote expressed the publicized sentiment of standardized testing advocates David Coleman, Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee. (I had chosen David Coleman as my answer). In discussing the correct answer, Gradgrind, Clifford explained that Dickens’s character was an attempt to skewer those utilitarian values in the mid 19th Century. Like today, there was a push for informational facts and statistics at the expense of creativity and imagination in public education.

Dickens’s novel Hard Times expressed his belief that an over-emphasis on facts over creativity promoted contempt between mill owners and workers.  Gradgrind’s name, like other Dickens creations, immediately expresses to the reader that he is an altogether unpleasant man, espousing that all one needs is “facts and statistics.” His daughter Louisa’s breakdown towards the conclusion of the novel brings him to the realization that fiction, poetry and other pursuits are not “destructive nonsense.”   Oh, if only Gates, Rhee, and Coleman were characters that could be similarly convinced.

In his post, Clifford described how his 6th grade curriculum has been altered to fit the ELA CCSS. He bemoaned the earlier loss of vocabulary and grammar in context and the most recent loss of creative writing which, “has been chopped clean away, to be replaced with unending persuasive essays that are the darlings of the Common Core standards.” He continues:

“Even reading has not been left unscathed. Many schools teach reading as a set of skills to be mastered rather than as a journey to be embarked upon. Children are taught how to predict, to connect, to draw inferences, and so forth, but they are rarely allowed the leisure to savor what they read or to reflect on the art of good writing.”

Clifford wrote about a successful novel writing project that, “engaged students on many levels and taught them story structure, characterization, use of dialogue, and exposition.” Unfortunately the project, “was jettisoned last year because of the national shift to the Common Core. It was replaced with an eight-page (for sixth graders!) research project.” He sadly noted, “The results were predictably dull and uninspired, but Gradgrind certainly would have approved. The papers were filled with facts but devoid of imagination.” In Clifford’s scenario, a successful unit of reading and writing was eliminated to favor lesson plans that do not have the evidence to prove success.

Where is the evidence that eliminating writing literature in favor of writing research papers will serve a mission statement of educating  “productive problem solvers and decision makers” who are “personally fulfilled, interdependent, socially responsible adults” ? Why are so many interpretations of the ELA CCSS rigidly eliminating what does work in favor of what might work? More to the point, why is there even a 70% vs. 30% split in reading genres, and why do stakeholders keep missing the point that the increase in informational texts must come by increasing reading in other content areas?

The positive impact of reading literature was discussed in the NYTimes article by Annie Paul Murray, “The Neuroscience of Your Brain on Fiction”. Reading fiction, “is an exercise that hones our real-life social skills, another body of research suggests. Dr. Oatley and Dr. Mar, in collaboration with several other scientists, reported in two studies, published in 2006 and 2009, that individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective.” To summarize, the data using neuroscience proves that reading fiction is good for you.

I teach literature, and my students make connections to the real word (Macbeth to Afghan Warlords; Frankenstein to the science of cloning) in my class everyday. Literature helps my students make sense of the world; they do not need to suffer under a despot, but they can experience a corrupt political system in Orwell’s  Animal Farm. They do not need to crash on a deserted island to understand how quickly very civilized young people can tun into savages when they read William Golding’s  Lord of the Flies. They can contemplate how precious is the relationship between a father and son who cling to decency and humanity without having to survive an apocalyptic nightmare  from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  They  can better understand the historical context of Jim Crow laws from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and in Kathryn Stockett’s more recent novel The Help.

And they can also learn about the utilitarian movement in England during the Industrial Revolution, the rise of the middle class, the frightening system of government-run workhouses, and the dangers of child labor in another Dicken’s novel,  Oliver Twist. Dickens’s literature demonstrates the power of fiction as a means of providing background information. Read a textbook of facts and statistics explaining the Industrial Revolution, and then read Oliver Twist. Which version will you vividly remember?