Monday, November 30, 2009

The Banning of Academic Rigor: Anti-censorship groups now calling enforcement of curriculum standards "censorship"

The civil liberties crowd is always looking for new things on which to slap the "censorship" label, but this time it has really outdone itself. It is now apparently considered censorship to push for higher educational content in schools.

In Montgomery County, Kentucky, several parents whose children are in an accelerated college preparatory class questioned several books a teacher had planned on using in the class because they don't adequately contribute to accelerated college preparation. The parents apparently had the crazy idea that putting their kids in an advanced college prep course meant that they would be reading academically challenging books instead of literary fluff.

This of course sent "anti-censorship" groups into paroxysms of indignation, all the more so because, in addition to the books being light on the intellectual side, they also contained some racy content, making them all the more worthy of inclusion in school curricula.

After the dust up, the Kid's Right to Read Project, a place where indignation sometimes gets in the way of common sense, fired off a letter to Montgomery County Superintendent Daniel Freeman:

But they picked a bad time to do it: right before "Banned Books Week."
The view of the parent who objects to the books is not shared by all, and she has no right to demand removal of the book. Public schools have the obligation to “administer school curricula responsive to the overall educational needs of the community and its children.” Leebaert v. Harrington, 332 F.3d 134, 141 (2d Cir. 2003).
Maybe in its next manifesto, the Kid's Right to Read Project could explain how the "overall education needs of the community and its children" are served by spending valuable time on literary cotton candy in a class that's supposed to be preparing students for the greater rigors of higher education.

You have to be careful what you do around the time of Banned Books Week because you might be unwillingly enrolled in the narrative that groups like the American Library Association propagate about conservatives running around the country censoring school books, a narrative that somehow always leaves out any coverage of the most banned book of all: the Bible.

The books in question in the Montgomery County case were these:
Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson
Deadline by Chris Crutcher
Lessons from a Dead Girl by Jo Knowles
The Rapture of Canaan by Sheri Reynolds
What My Mother Doesn't Know by Sonya Sones
What My Girlfriend Doesn't Know by Sonya Sones
Now I haven't read these books, and, being an English instructor and a fairly well-read person, I've never, with one exception, even heard of them either. If they're on a list of great books somewhere, I've never encountered it. Maybe they're appropriate for a course on Early 21st Century Lightweight Pop Fiction for Bored Teenagers, but a college prep course? C'mon.

The only book that has any reputation at all is The Rapture of Canaan, a story with the not-very-original politically correct plot line about an evil fundamentalist church called "The Church of Fire and Brimstone and God's Almighty Baptizing Wind." There's realism for you. And it is a measure of its literary quality that it impressed Oprah, who made it a selection for her Book Club in 1997.

According to "teenreads.com," undoubtedly a bastion of discriminating literary taste, Knowles Lessons from a Dead Girl "does a credible job of exploring friendships, particularly those of girls, in all their complexity and depth." I bet.

These are books about self-obsessed teenagers with names like "Chip," "Lainey," "Rudy," and "Chaz" who are depressed because they didn't make the football team or are upset because they can't figure out what dress to wear for homecoming. Including books like these in a serious college prep course is a little like screening Beach Blanket Bingo at a classic film festival.

Minus the bad language, sexual themes, and the drug abuse, they might pass for some of the cheap fiction my friends and I used to read in school. If you would have told us at the time that books like this would be brought into a college prep class by teachers and taken seriously, we would have had a big laugh and thought that that would be pretty cool. But that's because we were ignorant teenagers who hadn't yet developed anything remotely resembling judgment.

As it turns out, some people never did--and many of them are apparently teachers.

The teacher in whose class such literary specimens were to be held up as examples of quality literature was Risha Mullins. While students in a serious class might be reading Shakespeare's Hamlet proclaiming "To be or not to be," Miss Mullins students are treated to characters soliloquys include lines like "I was a zit on the butt of the student body."

Impressive stuff, you'll have to admit.

Mullins apparently travels the country giving lectures to other teachers on promoting student reading. This, in and of itself, is a scary thought.

If merely trying to maintain some reasonable level of quality in the literature students read at school is now to be labeled censorship, then the odds of improving schools may have just become prohibitive.

In the Montgomery County case, all you had was parents challenging whether books deserved a place in the curriculum of a college prep course. They weren't removed from the school library or eliminated from the readings for the reading club there. They were adjudged unfit for a place alongside Beowulf and the Canterbury Tales.

Oh, and then there's Kentucky's state teachers union, which, with admirable consistency, almost always gets it wrong, rushing to the aid of the teacher, whose job they claim is in jeopardy despite the fact that it's not. Action against the teacher hasn't even been considered. It's simply a question of deciding what gets taught in a class, a judgment that is made every day and gets that much more difficult when national groups whose only interest is making a few cheap headlines stick their bothersome noses in places they don't belong.

UPDATE: I have begun responding to some of the arguments made in the comments section of this post here. My first response addresses the question whether a person is justified in making certain assertions about books they have not themselves read. Other responses will be noted here as they are posted.

104 comments:

Lee said...

Darn customers. If it weren't for them, the schools would be perfect.

Ellen Hopkins said...

Excuse me, sir, but I fail to see how you can reasonably comment about books you've never read. I would challenge you to do so and read them cover to cover, not just scanning them for a possible f-bomb or sex scene (which, of course, no great works of literature contain). You might just be impressed, and you might just be impressed by the kids who choose to read them if you ever bothered to talk with them, rather than look at the future of our country as lightweight intellectuals. That is so wrong, on so many levels.

Jamie B said...

Reading and discussing books with content relevant to their life experience and age group? NO WAY -they might actually be interested and stay awake. Yep - ban 'em and give 'em Shakespeare. We'll just sit here with our eyes and ears closed to all the bad words and sex around us.

stephwooten said...

"These are books about self-obsessed teenagers with names like "Chip," "Lainey," "Rudy," and "Chaz" who are depressed because they didn't make the football team or are upset because they can't figure out what dress to wear for homecoming. Including books like these in a serious college prep course is a little like screening Beach Blanket Bingo at a classic film festival."

Oh, yeah. You've nailed it.

WRONG.

Why don't you go and actually READ the books in question before making remarks like this. These books are nothing like you've made them out to be. They're about experiences that the teens in your classrooms go through EVERY DAY. You think they can relate to Shakespeare? Not even. Try again, buddy. But can they can relate to the characters in these honestly raw stories?

I know I did.

So next time, why don't you do yourself and everyone else a favor by just reading. Then you'll know the truth. It's in the ink.

Thomas said...

Most, if not all of these books, purport to be young adult novels. Which means that even if they have any value whatsoever, they don't belong with the great literary works of the Western corpus.

If students aren't relating to Shakespeare, the problem is with the teacher, not the book. The problem here is not with adult content (Shakespeare obviously contains quite a bit of that), but with wasting time reading about the travails of high school, when you could be reading great literature--much of which students may never be exposed to again.

Lee said...

> We'll just sit here with our eyes and ears closed to all the bad words and sex around us.

So the schools are forced to teach them?

Lee said...

I can't believe Thomas and I are on the same side.

Durable Goods said...

Clearly you know nothing about 21st century teen literature to make these statements... and certainly having read none of the titles makes you completely incompetent to comment on this. However, I would concede that for an advanced college preparatory class, it does seem a little odd to me that five of the six titles were published for teens and just one, The Rapture of Canaan, for the adult market. A closer balance would have been expected. That said, these books are challenging, with considerably denser themes than your perception of teen literature would believe. And what makes adult literature so much more useful for these older teens than books published for young adults? I do not know of any recent evidence that shows that adult-level literature is any more preparatory for entering college than well-written young adult lit.

Laura W said...
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Laura W said...

As a former high school English teacher and current librarian, I do wish that you had taken the opportunity to read these books and familiarize yourself with their authors before ranting about this subject. The young adult literature that is being written today is of unparalleled quality. The language and themes presented in many of these books are much more sophisticated than your "opinion" suggests. Through committee and blogging experiences in the past year I have met amazing groups of teenagers who are reading deeply and writing thoughtfully about the books that you, a teacher of students in this age group, are not even aware of. What a loss for you and your students. Don't hide ignorance behind a debate about "rigor" because no one is going to listen. Go to the library or bookstore and pick up the latest Printz, BBYA, and Quick Picks for Young Adults titles and READ them. Then we'll talk.

Linda Woodbury said...

"If you would have told us" ?! Perhaps you meant to say, "if you had told us."

"being an English instructor and a fairly well-read person, I've never, with one exception, even heard of them either"

Hmm. "Being an English instructor..., I've never...heard of them."

If you had told me that "being an English instructor" meant you would never have heard of certain books I would have been surprised. Do you suggest that only people who are not English instructors could have heard of them?

Yes, I understand that you're more concerned with the content of these books that you've never read than with picky English grammar--but isn't a clear communication of ideas the point of grammatical structure?

I am, however, impressed that you have researched this teacher's entire syllabus. That is how you know that no Shakespeare or other college-level materials are being read or discussed in her classroom, isn't it?

YA Librarian said...

Who gets to decide what qualifies at great literature? Shouldn't you at least read the books before you toss them out as a waste of time?

I don't know what colleges these students are considering, but I actually took a class in which several Laurie Halse Anderson books were taught.

Libladylib said...

So sad. These people banning books are in administration? Yikes!
Scares the heck out of me. My kids have read all these books and so have I. I never realized how lucky my kids are that they have a mother like me.

Lee said...

> Who gets to decide what qualifies at great literature?

Somebody does, apparently.

> Shouldn't you at least read the books before you toss them out as a waste of time?

Would you go so far as to suggest that failure to read these fine works would render someone to be the zit on the butt of the blogosphere?

Thomas said...

Maybe the reason schools are having a hard time turning out well-educated students isn't so much because students have intractably juvenile tastes, but because some educators have never been able to shake their own juvenile tastes--maybe because they did not have a solid background in classic literature in their own education. It could be just a degenerative cycle. You have to wonder what these students will consider good literature when they become teachers.

Paula said...

To quote Justice Brennan in the Island Trees School District v. Pico case:

"Our Constitution does not permit the official suppression of ideas."

By removing books from the curriculum contrary to the findings of the review committee the superintendent has supressed ideas.

One of the books, "Unwind" by Shusterman, is a challenging look at society, the definition of humanity, friendship, family, and the dignity of life. Ideas that are not fluffy or shallow.

Tirzah Price said...

Interesting points...however, your opinions about these books are unfair, especially since you've not read them. I'm not an educator, so I can't say with finality whether or not these books should or should not be taught, especially as I've only read three of them, but consider this: some teens find it extremely hard to read and drag themselves through assigned books, simply running their eyes over the words, not truly reading the book.

If you can take a book that relates to them and still has literary merit (as I believe those books in the list that I have read do), it's more likely that they will read them and they will learn from them. Then, once you get those teens motivated to read, it's easier to read a more dense book. Just because these books aren't as well known as some classics doesn't mean they're trivial fluff. I believe that in order to reach kids, you have to think outside the box and try new approaches, especially when it comes to books. Don't abandon the classics, but don't shove them down teens' throats either, because there is no better way to turn a kid off of reading than by doing just that.

Thomas said...

Brennan's remarks were not directed at taking books out of a curriculum. Schools can even Constitutionally censor student newspapers.

And it's ridiculous to suppose that schools should be allowed to read or teach anything whatsoever in English class. No-one in their right mind would suggest we allow students to read the Anarchist's Cookbook, for example. To suggest all content is appropriate in a high school class-room is naive or disingenuous--some content is beyond the pale for everyone, the difference is where we draw lines.

That does not mean necessarily that profanity or sexual content ought to be excluded. If that were the case, most of the classics would be in trouble.

Anonymous said...

A) You need to read the books before you judge them.
B)Remember that Shakespeare was considered fluff in his time.

Martin Cothran said...

My multi-part response to some of the comments on this post will begin appearing tomorrow morning as separate posts on the main page and continue throughout the rest of this week.

Anonymous said...

My, my. You seem to have insulted some folks' taste in reading material.

Typically, a class that is supposed to be an advanced college prep class will be composed of students who know how to read well, not those who need to be enticed to read. And one would suppose that such a class would be for the purpose of stretching the minds and thoughts of the students. The classic works, those that have been read for years,even generations, do this by taking us out of our own time and place; they give us a chance to see what is constant in human nature and help us to examine ideas outside of our own parochial age. Not to mention exposing us to language used in wonderful ways and different styles.

How sad that so many have missed these pleasures. And even sadder that so many despise those parents who are concerned about what their children read.

AZ Mom

Martin Cothran said...

Anonymous,

I am specifically addressing the question of reading the books tomorrow, but upon what basis do you say that Shakespeare was considered "fluff" in his time?

Lee said...

> "Our Constitution does not permit the official suppression of ideas."

What part of the Constitution would that be?

It's seems an odd claim, given that the Constitution is used often to justify the removal of ideas from public schools, namely, Christianity.

Lee said...

> The only book that has any reputation at all is The Rapture of Canaan, a story with the not-very-original politically correct plot line about an evil fundamentalist church called "The Church of Fire and Brimstone and God's Almighty Baptizing Wind."

I should add that ideas opposing Christianity do indeed seem welcome in public schools. So I guess only some ideas can be suppressed.

Lee said...

You're not going to like me much for saying this, Martin, but some of your critics do have a point.

> ...I do wish that you had taken the opportunity to read these books and familiarize yourself with their authors before ranting about this subject.

I would say some things probably do not need to be directly experienced to get the gist, and I think you're probably 99.8% right about the worthlessness of the "new classics."

But, as I recall, you had pretty much the same objection to John Derbyshire's review of Ben Stein's documentary, "Expelled." Derbyshire reviewed the movie though he admitted having never seen it.

I was as outraged as you were, at the time.

If I had children being subjected to what is almost certainly claptrap, I would yell at the teachers and administration or consider suing them for fraud. But I would probably read the books first.

The Compulsive Reader said...

To address the comment about college prep class students not needing enticement to read: Not always true. Certainly there were more kids in my junior and senior English classes that were readers, but it still was a chore for at least 90% to get through King Lear, Heart of Darkness, East of Eden, and others. College bound students can be as reluctant of readers as a clueless freshman, especially when it comes to denser books.

SafeLibraries said...

Martin, this is an interesting blog post. Just look at all the comments.

Now you said, "Mullins apparently travels the country giving lectures to other teachers on promoting student reading. This, in and of itself, is a scary thought."

I disagree with you, and I support the teacher's efforts, and said so publicly:

"By the way, teacher Risha Mullins should not be fired. Neither should she be dropped simply due to this issue. She sounds like an excellent teacher, based on the various sources I have read. She could easily follow the new rules while continuing to encourage reading, even with the books removed from the curriculum—no one's censoring or banning anything. Common sense, no?

"I hereby encourage Ms. Mullins to work within the curriculum to continue to promote reading the best she can, then write a story about her experiences doing so. I am certain her guidance may help many others to meet curricular requirements while encouraging children to read via her innovative means. If I find out she has written such article, I will update this blog post accordingly. Brava Ms. Mullins!"

Martin, this comes from my blog post on this topic that I think may interest you greatly:

"Kentucky School Superintendent Exposes False Cries of Censorship; Removes Educationally Unsuitable Books from Curriculum Despite Being on ALA's List for Reluctant Readers."

I also think you may be interested in this as well: "Porn Pushers - The ALA and Looking For Alaska - One Example of How the ALA Pushes Porn On Children." Spoiler, Looking For Alaska is not porn, as I explain in the article in various places. You have got to see what Naomi Wolf said--so much for the claim that only conservatives oppose certain material.

Martin, please consider subscribing to my blog. Based on your post, I think you'll enjoy it.

Martin Cothran said...

Safe Libraries,

Thank you for your post. Of course, I said nothing about the teacher being fired other than observing that Sharon Oxendine, the head of the teacher's union in Kentucky has helped make it an issue when it's not even an issue. The superintendent said the issue hadn't even been discussed.

bluecollarboy said...

Re: The Compusive Reader, "...it still was a chore for at least 90% to get through King Lear, Heart of Darkness, East of Eden, and others".
It's a college prep class. It's supposed to be chore! Hard work and high expectations with the real possibility of receiving an F grade, just like in college.
BTW Do schools give out F's these days?

ReadingCountess said...

The teaching of reading/English Language Arts needn't be (and indeed, should not be) exclusive to the "classics." The reading workshop approach is a proven method to teach and RETAIN lifelong readers. As a voracious adult reader, I have rarely raced to the store to pick up a "classic." The fact that the author of this article knows none of these current and relevant texts in question, and has not even bothered to READ them prior to commenting on them, astounds me. I urge the writer of this blog to update his teaching methods! One step is to view this master teacher, and author of almost TWENTY books in the area of literacy for young adults. She has consistently produced high achieving, well-read and sought after graduates through the teaching of current literature. Hopefully he has heard of her-Nancie Atwell.
http://www.heinemann.com/shared/player.aspx?id=AtwellRebuttal&path=rtmp://heinpublishing.flashsvc.vitalstreamcdn.com/heinpublishing_vitalstream_com/_definst_/videos/atwell

Blythe said...
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Jennifer said...

As I tell my students, good stories are not composed of "Once upon a time, everything was perfect." Young adult fiction can be entertaining and well-written. Being ancient does not qualify a text for being worthy of study. On the other hand, the age of work of fiction seems to be the sole concern of some parents and teachers. Is that because they themselves do not understand the literature? For example, "Romeo and Juliet" features self-obsessed teenagers who defy their parents. Additionally, there is gang violence, child abuse, sex, sexual innuendo, lying, foul language, murder, suicide and drugs. Should this classic be removed from curriculum? Is it saved only by iambic pentameter?

Martin Cothran said...

Jennifer,

I'm curious to know where you get the idea that anyone here thinks the quality of a book is somehow dependent on whether it invokes some kind of perfect world. Very little of classic literature does this.

I am also wondering who here has argued that the age of a work confers quality on literature. What it does do is give some confirmation--through the fact that many readers over many generations have judged the work to be of high quality, an opportunity works written more recently have not had.

And tell me you are not drawing any more than a very tenuous comparison between Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet and the books we are discussing here.

Martin Cothran said...

I am addressing the argument about the expression of skepticism about the quality of books one has not read in tomorrow morning's post, but I was just wondering if everyone here was in agreement that the movie "Debbie Does Dallas" should not be included in a high school curriculum?

Jodie said...

Some points of clarification:

The young adult books Mullins recommends were optional reading, not required course reading. Kids were encouraged to read them after they'd read the required reading, much as Mullins might have encouraged her students to read anythign else outside the course's required reading.

They were discussed, alongside classics such as 'The Canterbury Tales' (see article http://www.kentucky.com/news/local/story/1038643.html).
By including extra books on her course and engaging with the students about them Mullins actually went above the call of her job description, in order to help her students develop their love of reading.

Mullins is trying to encourage kids to love reading. Many teens find that they can't relate to the classics, or that the challenging language puts them off all reading (which I hope you'll agree is just terrible). I'd guess that Mullins wants to ease her students in so they can see how much fun reading can be, then relate this fun reading experience to the classics, so that students can see the similar themes that run through classic books and modern books.

It's vital that kids learn to enjoy reading independent of supervision, otherwise they may make it to college only to flunk out. No one is going to be holding their hand in college, encouraging them to read their set texts, they'll be left to their own devices to study independently and if they can't get through a book and write an essay on it, they'll fail.
Now some personal comment:

I find the fact that you stated that teens lack anything approaching judgement depressing. How are kids expected to develop self-confidence and grow into the kind of people adults continually tell them they need to be if adults keep telling them they don't know what they're talking about and what they like is trash? Why do you expect them to subscribe to your values and read 'your' literature if in the same breath as advising them to read the classics you slam them? It's not exactly an attitude that encourages them to respect you, or your opinions.

Also why does it all have to be about judgement (unless these kids are all heading for careers in academic cricles)? Surely the important thing is that teens come to appreciate great literature, who cares if they also like books you think aren't very good? Can't reading sometimes be about enjoyment and understanding, rather than judging one book against another (by the way no college essay I ever wrote asked me to judge the accomplishment of one book against another, they were looking for comparisons in terms of style and themes, rather than literary worth).

Thomas said...

Jodie,

The books weren't "extra reading", they were assigned and discussed in class. Students could opt out of reading them and read something else, but they would not be able to understand at least part of the class discussion and they would probably draw the kind of attention high school students prefer to avoid. So it's not that much different than any other assigned readings.

Martin Cothran said...

My new post on this issue is up on the main blog.

Chris Crutcher said...

Excuse my cross posting, but it seems to apply to both blog posts.

There are so many parts to deal with here. I guess I'd like to comment on Superintendent Freeman's assertion that none of these books will help students when they go to college, that they are for "reluctant readers." For one thing, a lot of students going to college are also reluctant readers. Also, the issues focused on in many of these books are issues kids will face in college. I challenge Dr. Freeman to become a bit more informed regarding what many college professors expect from their students. I speak at colleges and universities all the time and my books, including Deadline, are part of many curriculums. I know that to be true of several of the other books mentioned here. I'm tempted to inundate your community newspaper, or some of these conservative blogs with testimonies from those professors. I'm also tempted to inundate you with emails and other responses from kids who have gone to college or who are headed to college, claiming that some of these books have "saved my life" or "given me a whole new perspective on how important, and short, life is."

Mr. Freeman's assertion about college bound kids and curriculum for college bound students is either disingenuous or misinformed. I ache for the old conservatism. My father was a World War II bomber pilot, a patriot and a conservative to his core. He was far better read than Dr. Freeman (for one thing, he read MY books) and there was nary a classic from which he couldn't quote. He was on the school board from the time my older brother started school until the time my younger sister graduated. And he would have run a nail through his eye before he would have allowed this kind of censorship. And it IS censorship. Agreed, Dr. Freeman did not BAN a book if the books are still available to all kids in the school library, but he did censor. In the old days, conservatives invited ideas. They weren't afraid to discuss and debate issues that made them uncomfortable. They also heartily believed in the separation of church and state, for the good of the church AND the state.

All in all, this is pretty sad stuff. The one thing I would recommend Dr. Freeman do, if he thinks Deadline is pornographic (which he as much as called it - without reading it, I'm afraid) is make sure none of my other books is ever used in his school's curriculum, though in several states, two are on the canon of books that should be read before college and an excerpt from one is actually used in standardized testing.

Most of what I say is doubly true about Laurie Halse Anderson's books. Walk into any freshman comp class in any college and ask for a show of hands of those who have read SPEAK.

Here's an alternative look at what is good for college bound kids: Read everything you can get your hands on.

Chris Crutcher

Stacy DeKeyser said...

I really don't see how you can disparage books you admit you haven't even read.

Martin Cothran said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Martin Cothran said...

I don't see how you can say I shouldn't disparage books I haven't even read when you haven't even read my post addressing this issue of today: http://vereloqui.blogspot.com/2009/12/do-you-have-to-have-read-book-to-say.html

Thomas said...

Chris,

Which universities have young adult literature in their curricula? If universities are using young adult literature in their classes, that's a pretty damning indictment, not something to be celebrated. (What's down the road, ENG 310 -- Goosebumps?)

The bigger point here, though, is that academic time is valuable, and in a college prep course (at the very least) that time should be used for the great literature. If students can't handle that, they shouldn't be in a college prep course. If students don't find the material interesting, the problem may be with the way it is taught, or it may be a problem with the individual student. It's not a problem with the material though, and the solution isn't to give the students inferior material, even if it's a decent enough book.

Martin Cothran said...

Ellen,

Excuse me, sir, but I fail to see how you can reasonably comment about books you've never read.

I haven't tried meth either. Does that disqualify me from warning my children against using it? More to the point, is it really necessary to have read books that are acknowledged to be written on a 3rd-6th grade reading level to know that they don't belong in an advanced college preparatory course?

Martin Cothran said...

Jamie B:

Reading and discussing books with content relevant to their life experience and age group? NO WAY -they might actually be interested and stay awake. Yep - ban 'em and give 'em Shakespeare. We'll just sit here with our eyes and ears closed to all the bad words and sex around us.

You obviously have a low view of Shakespeare. Do you think that the attitude that great books are uninteresting and not relevant to students is a good attitude for educators in our schools to have?

Please tell me you're not a teacher.

Martin Cothran said...

Durable Goods:

these books are challenging, with considerably denser themes than your perception of teen literature would believe. And what makes adult literature so much more useful for these older teens than books published for young adults? I do not know of any recent evidence that shows that adult-level literature is any more preparatory for entering college than well-written young adult lit.

Books written at a low and middle-elementary school level are "challenging"? For advanced high school students?

And please tell me what colleges for which books of this reading level would would better prepare you. Give me names: I'll make sure to direct my own students elsewhere.

Martin Cothran said...

Linda Woodbury:

I am, however, impressed that you have researched this teacher's entire syllabus. That is how you know that no Shakespeare or other college-level materials are being read or discussed in her classroom, isn't it?

Where did I say she didn't teach Shakespeare in her course?

Asil Dagdeviren said...

I would like to shed some light on your opinion of books for teens and how they should be used. I am myself and 8th grader soon to be a high schooler, disagree with what you have stated. I think teenage fiction is a very helpful tool for kids and teens going through their growth spurt, because everyday we face problems similar stated in the very books you had talked about. There are other books that may say otherwise because they are based on mythological and imaginary characters, but most of the teenage fiction I have read relates to the life of most teenagers and so it can help certain teenagers feel that they are not the only ones that are going through the hardship of their life. I certainly do agree though, that students learning in english should definitely use serious books that they may be able to relate to without facing immaturity problems, such as when one swears or drops an "F-bomb", as you had said. Even though it might be illiterate to use teenage fiction novels, it might just be a change from reading the works such as "Hamlet, Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird," or other books that english teacher's use to help the students get a better understanding of the curriculum and some detailed use of the english language. You say that you are an English instructor and yet you don't know books like the ones you were describing. To be able to work with the students, you need to be like the students and think like the students. Reading those books isn't bad and in fact it helps a teacher come together and bond with their students, because now the teacher at least understands a bit of what the students are going through. So I ask you, how are you able to judge these books if you have not read them from cover to cover. As Ellen Hopkins ( one of the commenters) had delivered the message saying that you should not be so judgmental before knowing the true nature of the book and not scanning through it just to find f-bombs dropped and witnessing a scene containing sexual actions. I would urge you to try to really understand the book, and look beyond you own negative thoughts about the book.
-AD

ari said...

I am an 8th grader– who every once in a while reads the books you refer to as," dry light reads for bored teenagers." And i disagree with what you are trying to pint out that the schools books choice was wrong and that the parents, where right, that they could banish those books. Collage prep course or not– not every book has to be academic. If you think back to fourth grade when daily the teacher would read, lightweight tale to us, and spent countless class time on it every day. You don't think that that was use full? Those stories we learned are what we refer to in our writing now, it was the structure of our writing. Now, in the begging of the blog you were very ethical with your writing and facts, you surely and gracefully stated the facts and evidence to let the reader know the story. Later on in the blog you started to be a little to judgmental for the readers understanding, your opinions may not have been the right one. Like the fact that the books are about," depressed teenagers who did not make the football team or do not know what to where to homecoming." The teacher must have had a good reason to pick these books, and as the common saying says," don't judge a book by a cover." Just because the title of the book sounds, bad or lightweight does not men the overall book is and you are not in a position to judge. The website you looked at stated that the book was about friendship, is friendship not a good lesson to learn? And it is not as if they are not getting any high level books, you did say you recognized one of them. Overall, you should not judge the books like that and neither should the parents, if the kids want to read high level books then they can do it outside of class. These kids– based on the fact that they are in collage prep courses and our just kids– portly do not have a big social life, and these books can really contribute to that. In conclusion, don't judge a book by its cover.

ari said...

I am an 8th grader– who every once in a while reads the books you refer to as," dry light reads for bored teenagers." And i disagree with what you are trying to pint out that the schools books choice was wrong and that the parents, where right, that they could banish those books. Collage prep course or not– not every book has to be academic. If you think back to fourth grade when daily the teacher would read, lightweight tale to us, and spent countless class time on it every day. You don't think that that was use full? Those stories we learned are what we refer to in our writing now, it was the structure of our writing. Now, in the begging of the blog you were very ethical with your writing and facts, you surely and gracefully stated the facts and evidence to let the reader know the story. Later on in the blog you started to be a little to judgmental for the readers understanding, your opinions may not have been the right one. Like the fact that the books are about," depressed teenagers who did not make the football team or do not know what to where to homecoming." The teacher must have had a good reason to pick these books, and as the common saying says," don't judge a book by a cover." Just because the title of the book sounds, bad or lightweight does not men the overall book is and you are not in a position to judge. The website you looked at stated that the book was about friendship, is friendship not a good lesson to learn? And it is not as if they are not getting any high level books, you did say you recognized one of them. Overall, you should not judge the books like that and neither should the parents, if the kids want to read high level books then they can do it outside of class. These kids– based on the fact that they are in collage prep courses and our just kids– portly do not have a big social life, and these books can really contribute to that. In conclusion, don't judge a book by its cover.

ari said...

I am an 8th grader– who every once in a while reads the books you refer to as," dry light reads for bored teenagers." And i disagree with what you are trying to pint out that the schools books choice was wrong and that the parents, where right, that they could banish those books. Collage prep course or not– not every book has to be academic. If you think back to fourth grade when daily the teacher would read, lightweight tale to us, and spent countless class time on it every day. You don't think that that was use full? Those stories we learned are what we refer to in our writing now, it was the structure of our writing. Now, in the begging of the blog you were very ethical with your writing and facts, you surely and gracefully stated the facts and evidence to let the reader know the story. Later on in the blog you started to be a little to judgmental for the readers understanding, your opinions may not have been the right one. Like the fact that the books are about," depressed teenagers who did not make the football team or do not know what to where to homecoming." The teacher must have had a good reason to pick these books, and as the common saying says," don't judge a book by a cover." Just because the title of the book sounds, bad or lightweight does not men the overall book is and you are not in a position to judge. The website you looked at stated that the book was about friendship, is friendship not a good lesson to learn? And it is not as if they are not getting any high level books, you did say you recognized one of them. Overall, you should not judge the books like that and neither should the parents, if the kids want to read high level books then they can do it outside of class. These kids– based on the fact that they are in collage prep courses and our just kids– portly do not have a big social life, and these books can really contribute to that. In conclusion, don't judge a book by its cover.

Anonymous said...

"These kids– based on the fact that they are in collage prep courses and our just kids– portly do not have a big social life, and these books can really contribute to that. In conclusion, don't judge a book by its cover."

Lol

Liam said...

I bought Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson for my classroom-without reading it-and two weeks later picked it up to read myself. I have to say, If I was the teacher, I won't put it out to read. It has some sexual stuff, and in my opinion the guys in my class are too immature to read it. HOWEVER, I don't think it should be banned. Not every class is this immature, and it's a good book, expect for the ending.

Courtney Lewis said...

What would you think of a student who had written a paper without reading the book? I think it wouldn't be a very good paper and I think you wouldn't think the person had gone to a lot of effort to demonstrate an understanding. Sadly, I think your post is a good adult example of this phenomenon.

I do think that you left out some information (and so have the newspapers covering this situation). I haven't read anything yet regarding what class the teacher had constructed. Was it a core class? An AP English Literature class (doubtful, considering the titles)? An elective about the teenage experience? Knowing this information would be helpful prior to judging her choices.

You also need a little help regarding "reading levels". I think the articles refer to the Lexile score of each book. The Lexile score indicates factors like vocabulary. It's important to point out that vocabulary used does not indicate the sophistication of ideas. Time magazine is written at a 5th grade reading level, but many educated adults use it and other news periodicals to keep themselves informed.

And by the way, Catcher in the Rye was considered a non-sophisticated, young adult novel when it came out. While still controversial, I don't know of too many English teachers who would consider it to not be part of our literary canon.

Perhaps a membership to ALAN or NCTE would keep you more abreast of the latest high quality young adult literature you appear to be missing.

Thanks for starting this discussion.

Anonymous said...

I don't see how you can justify ranting about these books when you have never read them. Furthermore, your arguement that Young Adult Literature does not prepare students for college is a bunch of bolony. You do realize that numerous education and english departments in a vast number of schools teach course on Young Adult Lit. in addition to other forms of literature. In fact I took a YA Lit. class myself in college and it was the class that helped me to love reading. On another note you think the students should be reading Shakespeare or The Canterbury Tales, but yet you complain about the supposed lude and vulgar nature of the books being questioned. Have you ever read The Canterbury Tales? They are more lude and graphic than most YA Lit. out there, but because it's old that makes them okay, I suppose. What you fail to understand is teens today deal with many day-to-day problems and in some cases feel they have nowhere to turn. Books like the ones you find so terrible help these teens through very rough times in their lives. Shakespeare just doesn't do that. I would suggest reading these books before you critize them. I would also encourage you to look up Laurie Halse Anderson, and give her some of the respect she deserves. Which is a lot more than you.

Paige said...

Mr. Cothran,
Sir, have you ever actually spoken to any of your students? Have you ever asked them what they're thinking about, what worries them at night, what makes them smile in the morning?
Maybe some of these books won't land on a 100 Best Ever list, but if kids can relate to them and learn a little more about their own world, then by all means they should read them.
I'm an English teacher and I LOVE reading "The Classics". I loved Shakespeare in high school, but I also read a lot of YA, I still do. I saw myself in them and - as cliche as it may be - felt a little more normal and less alienated.
Classics are important but not at the expense of turning kids away from books forever. As I got older, I upgraded my books, I started to see myself in Hemingway's East of Eden (oh no, that might be too porno!) and Charlotte Bronte's suffered souls. No one ever told me. "Don't read that crap!" I was always encouraged to read, no matter what the book was.
Please remember that when "Catcher in the Rye" came out, it was panned by critics and academics a like as "YA fluff". Now you consider it a classic.

Ally said...

I'd just like to point out:

On here, many times, it's been said that students should be expected to relate to the classics. Going through high school, you're absolutely right. I should much rather relate to

a) the suicide of two teenagers and the heavy violence that led to this. (Romeo & Juliet)

b) A father who holds his daughter hostage until she falls in love with the right man. (The Tempest)

c) backstabbing mothers and fathers who know nothing of their children and cause their ensuing insanity. (Hamlet)

What? Is this not what these stories are about? Am I not seeing the bigger picture? Because neither are you. Every book is imperfect. Why not go ahead and ban all of Jane Austen too because, apparently, she's also non-Christian and corrupting the youth. (Quote from a quarterly in the 1800s)

Martin Cothran said...

Ally,

You seem to think I oppose the inclusion of teen novels in college preparatory classes (and thereby the de facto exclusion of actually great novels like the ones you suggested) because of some content issue. All of the books you would mention would be appropriate for such a class because they are, by the test of time, known to be great works.

So I'm not understanding your point here.

Martin Cothran said...

See my post today: http://vereloqui.blogspot.com/2010/10/teaching-great-literature-vs-teaching.html

Anonymous said...

Every book is useful. Every book has the redeeming quality that, if it is read, it contributes to literacy.

I spent my childhood rebelling against the 'classics' in school and only reading comic books on my own time. I regularly topped the charts in English.

I spent my teenage years reading books that would make the ones mentioned on this blog seem as tame as Dora the Explorer. Again, I won school awards in English.

It doesn't matter what your kids are reading, as long as they are reading.

Thomas said...

What if they're reading exclusively books like Mein Kampf and neo-Nazi literature? Would you give children sympathetic to racism books that advocate the extermination of minorities? Does it not matter if you feed racial violence, "so long as they're reading."

This "it doesn't matter what they're reading" is absurd. It does matter what people read, both for their moral and intellectual development.

Jordan said...

Your critique of YA is well-meaning, but sadly idealistic.

I was a good student and I read voraciously. When I was sixteen, thanks to a zealous librarian whom I will never be able to thank enough, I managed to power through classics such as 1984, Brave New World, Sophie's World, The Name of the Rose, The Master and Margeritas, The Metamorphosis… You simply couldn't stop me from reading.

Literally.

My step-grandmother, a formidable and opinionated lady, asked me why I was gasping while reading 1984. I told her that a man was boasting that his children had set a woman's skirts on fire. Shocked, she asked for some more details about the novel, and being a hopeless fool I gave her a synopsis up to that point. She promptly banned me from reading it, and demanded that I was to return it to the library the next day and never to read another book without her express permission.

So began my midnight readings. By the light of a streetlamp outside my bedroom window, I would quietly read the books she so deplored, devouring them a little slower, but no less hungrily. She suspected, even called me downstairs at three in the morning for an impromptu intervention and beating—but I kept on reading.

Something always struck me as strange, though. I remember classmates who struggled to write a full sentence. I remember that, when asked to critique a passage, they seemed oblivious to the fact that they were reading about people, unable to see in them thoughts and motives, needs and desires. And, most strikingly, they simply did not read. Literature? It was just words on a page to them. Oh, they could just about remember some of the major events of a novel, after the teacher had told them what they were supposed to remember; but the books never really came to life in their minds.

They couldn't relate. They couldn't identify. When they read about these people and their lives, nothing resonated with them, the people they knew, the lives they lived. Literature? It was about finding chances to use words like "simile" and "alliteration" and "onomatopoeia". That last word really sums up the whole experience for me: I vividly recall a boy in my year stressing about whether he'd spell it right in the exam, because "you don't need to really read it to find it." That was what reading was about to him. Doing well in the test, finding stuff we were supposed to find, because at the end of the day the actual prose we were set was just too weird and dull and unreal for him to actually feel any sense of kinship with the characters.

You want kids to read good literature. That's great, and I wish more would; but the truth is that a lot of students—many of them bright and college-bound—are discouraged from reading entirely from what they experience as cold, dead prose. YA books are not all "literary". The names might be trailer-trash. The themes are often racy, sensational and ultimately mundane. But what you do not seem to appreciate is that these books, more than any others, have a great power within them: they are unintimidating, and teenagers can relate to them without having to transport their minds to a time even their parents cannot remember. Your lofty ambitions will allow a few to soar, but they leave a great many in the dust.

Kids who want "real" literature? We will find it, and we will consume it. You want to help us? Just try to stop us! Give us libraries and give us people who care about the books within them; the problem will be getting us back to class. Meanwhile, the rest of the kids who are being left behind might go to university with some idea of the pleasure and satisfaction they can find between some sheets of paperboard, and some who wouldn't go anyway—might.

Jordan said...

Your critique of YA is well-meaning, but sadly idealistic.

I was a good student and I read voraciously. When I was sixteen, thanks to a zealous librarian whom I will never be able to thank enough, I managed to power through classics such as 1984, Brave New World, Sophie's World, The Name of the Rose, The Master and Margeritas, The Metamorphosis… You simply couldn't stop me from reading.

Literally.

My step-grandmother, a formidable and opinionated lady, asked me why I was gasping while reading 1984. I told her that a man was boasting that his children had set a woman's skirts on fire. Shocked, she asked for some more details about the novel, and being a hopeless fool I gave her a synopsis up to that point. She promptly banned me from reading it, and demanded that I was to return it to the library the next day and never to read another book without her express permission.

So began my midnight readings. By the light of a streetlamp outside my bedroom window, I would quietly read the books she so deplored, devouring them a little slower, but no less hungrily. She suspected, even called me downstairs at three in the morning for an impromptu intervention and beating—but I kept on reading.

Something always struck me as strange, though. I remember classmates who struggled to write a full sentence. I remember that, when asked to critique a passage, they seemed oblivious to the fact that they were reading about people, unable to see in them thoughts and motives, needs and desires. And, most strikingly, they simply did not read. Literature? It was just words on a page to them. Oh, they could just about remember some of the major events of a novel, after the teacher had told them what they were supposed to remember; but the books never really came to life in their minds.

They couldn't relate. They couldn't identify. When they read about these people and their lives, nothing resonated with them, the people they knew, the lives they lived. Literature? It was about finding chances to use words like "simile" and "alliteration" and "onomatopoeia". That last word really sums up the whole experience for me: I vividly recall a boy in my year stressing about whether he'd spell it right in the exam, because "you don't need to really read it to find it." That was what reading was about to him. Doing well in the test, finding stuff we were supposed to find, because at the end of the day the actual prose we were set was just too weird and dull and unreal for him to actually feel any sense of kinship with the characters.

Duc said...

you call yourself an english teacher, but you don't promote reading. it doesn't make sense.

all it takes is interest; a spark can ignite a fire, be it with reading, music, or any hobby.

your goal shouldn't be placed in limiting possibility... it should open more doors for opportunity.

all in all,
you're nothing special.
so s a d

Josh Lockman said...

It is sad to see that we have come to this point. As a fourth-year college student in a liberal arts institution, literature from all walks are emphasized in most of the Gen. Ed. English classes required. Being a Computer Science major, it wouldn't seem relevant for me to comment here, but I assure you that I enjoy reading literature outside my norms (one simply cannot stare at a book about algorithms or the like for an extended period of time).

To get to my point, is it so bad to consider mixing YA literature with the classics? I read Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet in high school, as well as Catcher in the Rye and To Kill A Mockingbird. I enjoyed both types of literature, but if I were not given the choice to read the latter portion of them, would I be better off? Absolutely not.

I feel that it is important to respect other's feelings and opinions, but blatant disregard should not be tolerated.

Mr. Cothran, I understand your view on this matter, but I do agree with those that have said your view on young adults is a bit off the mark. As an English enthusiast, teacher, or the like, shouldn't your main goal be to enrich the students' lives through multiple types of literature? Should we not be more concerned about ensuring that the students are connecting with what they are reading and not just fulfilling curriculum requirements so you can keep your job?

I challenge you to take a walk in the shoes of the 'teenage youth' for a moment and tell me that the problems displayed in these pieces of YA literature don't speak to the heart and soul of some of these kids. Who are you to decide, as well, who in the YA group is and is not an "ignorant teenager who hasn't yet developed anything remotely resembling judgment." (You're near-exact wording).

As a note for the future, I think you should allow yourself a more broad take on how English has evolved for the teens of today.

Feel free to voice your opinion about what I said. I am open to criticism.

Martin Cothran said...

My response to Risha Mullin's post is here: http://vereloqui.blogspot.com/2010/10/risha-mullins-case-getting-non.html

Martin Cothran said...

Duc,

How do you interpret my position that we should be focusing on great literature rather than pop teen fiction in advanced college preparatory courses as being opposed to reading?

Martin Cothran said...

Josh,

No one has ever accused me of being reticent in voicing my opinion, I assure you.

But, like many who have commented on this issue on this blog, you are not addressing what what at issue here--something, I'm afraid, Mrs. Mullins has had a hand in encouraging. The issue is what literature should be the used in an advanced college preparatory course. I have yet to see anyone make a cogent argument that popular and passing teen fiction has any role in furthering the purposes of such a class.

Anonymous said...

Just because these books don't meet your standards doesn't mean they're not good. Students test scores were higher before they started reading these books.

When I was a sophomore, I tried reading Shakespeare, and the only thing I can say about it is that I didn't understand it. Shakespeare's writing is something that takes getting used to, and even the smartest of kids in my year couldn't absorb that kind of material. Its an acquired taste and asking sophomores, who by the way are not yet fully matured, to read such classics isn't always the best idea.

Children have different ways of learning. If you suppress that process and fill it in with something they can't fully comprehend, says something about that teacher.

Daniel said...

I don't care what you say.

I love Shakespeare; I didn't when I was 15. At 15 I loved Harry Potter.

YA taught me to love reading.

Which is more than my AP teachers could do.

Anonymous said...

I tried reading your response to a comment because unlike certain people, I want to understand what I write a comment about before actuaally doing so. let me ask you did you ever study logic? because that first sentence is actually a fallacy. (i didnt mind reading the rest so I only have a comment about the one I READ) "A class like this is meant to challenge good students intellectually. If your students are challenged intellectually by these kinds of books, then they don't belong in this kind of class."

If you cant figure out why this is a fallacy, please ask a philosophy professor from another institution because if the school you work accepted you, im afraid they might have accepted other instructors who are as incapable of understanding logic as you are.

and by the way, what kind of challenge do those books offer anyway? and why is it not fit for the students in that class? oh that's right, you wouldnt know. but you can always base it from what your friend's sister's cousin said.

and would you know the capabilities of those students yourselves? oh right, you based it on the title of the course. (i know all students in all those classes all over america learn the same way and there is no dynamism that is put into play in those kinds of classes at all, right?)

it is true what they say, ignorance is bliss.

Court said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Court said...

You keep referring throughout your post to things like "discriminating literary taste" and, rather sneeringly, insinuate that young adult literature is insufficient to the purpose of college prep courses.

This is puzzling, because every account I've read of the instance at Montgomery County indicates that student reading scores improved.

I submit that there's more to teaching students to appreciate literature than forcing them to read The Scarlet Letter and steadfastly refusing to admit to them that books with stories more relevant to their lives exist. I submit that students must first learn the skill of reading, must first understand that the patience of spending 6 hours in front of a book instead of a video game comes with its own reward, before they can learn to develop a "discriminating literary taste" to rival your doubtlessly refined one.

Reading, and the associated skill of concentrating on a single narrative frame for more than 30 seconds, is a skill that is literally disappearing from this generation's students. You protests sound very much like the princess' infamous suggestion for the starving French peasants without so much as bread: "let them eat cake".

And, for the record, I suspect our definitions of "cake" would be different by a mile.

Edit: corrected a typo that had the misfortune of also being a contextually-relevant word and might have led to confusion

Martin Cothran said...

Anonymous,

I have authored three textbooks on logic. Maybe you would care to inform me of what fallacy my first sentence commits.

Oh, and by the way, are you aware that only arguments, not single statements, can even be said to commit fallacies?

Anonymous said...

If you think the classics are clean you so miss read them. Pip was a horny, depressed teen and Shakespeare...oh, he's the King of sex and romance and HOMOSEXUALITY! Besides...these works were once considered literary-fluff. What makes a classic is it's ability to pass from pop-literature to the classic.

Martin Cothran said...

Court,

You seem to be assuming that the point of a college prep course is to improve a school's reading scores. Is that really the purpose of a college prep course? Aren't there a lot of ways to improve a school's test scores other than a college prep course?

I guess I always thought a college preparatory course was to prepare students for college. And an "accelerated" college preparatory course (which is what Mullins was teaching) I assumed did this in some kind of accelerated way.

Now maybe things are just so bad now in public schools that advanced, college-bound students of the kind that should be in such are course simply don't have basic reading skills.

And, of course, that would be another problem entirely.

Martin Cothran said...

Anonymous,

If you're going to criticize what I say, then you should actually criticize what I say. Where did I say that the classics were "clean"?

Anonymous said...

PS: A lot of that literary fluff is being taught to us at college...sorry to say. So those books actually fit in quite well with college prep. Reading something about contemporary times and issues gives a teen the chance to process the issues - college is a new place full of new people and challenges. These books may not prepare them entirely for the courses they will be taking, but it WILL prepare them for LIFE at college.

Anonymous said...

You didn't say they weren't clean, but you called these other books fluff? For what reason? Their racey content? I'm sure if Shakespeare were a contemporary writer there would be parents complaining about his works and why they shouldn't be taught at school - the King of Language would be banned! These books aren't the devil; we should respect our teenage kids to be able to process these larger ideas from the world around them. Who knows, when they go to college they might pick up a book instead of a beer! Just think what our generation could achieve if they did something like that!

Anonymous said...

"If they're on a list of great books somewhere, I've never encountered it"

Shouldn't English teachers teach how to think critically and create informed opinions? Comments like this make it seem that, at best, you only listen to other's and then try to decipher why a work is great rather than forming your own view.

Rob Baker said...

The author is obviously a sorry teacher if he/she is arguing that a book with sexuality in it is inferior to Shakespeare simply on those grounds. Shakespeare talked about completely obscene things of his time just in the archaic language.

Court said...

Martin,

This thread is an example of my point. In your update, you indicated the number of comments you've received here far outstrips your other posts. A quick review of the archives suggests this to be the case, as well.

Most, if not all, of the folks engaged in this debate - at all levels of coherence - arrived here because the counterargument, on a young adult's fiction page, achieved "first page" status on a link sharing site online.

To put a finer point on the metaphor, they came to be engaged in this activity because they started reading a work you would likely consider, based on the merits of its argument, not to be a "classic". After they became engaged, they were drawn to read your post, which you would likely judge to be more "classical" (again, based on the merits of the argument).

Most would likely never have been aware at a personal level that this debate existed, much less have been drawn into participation. If "young adult fiction" is fluff, it may still be "gateway fluff" that draws new readers into an exciting world of discovery.

It is denial to the point of naivete to suggest that this generation's youth should "sit down and be quiet" long enough to understand the context in which Beowulf is considered a remarkable work. And, as others have astutely noted, many of today's classic works were considered to be unfit for guided consumption when they were published.

I'm as big a fan of Shakespeare and Chaucer as any casual consumer of literature you'll find. But my reading career started with "Hank the Cowdog" and a never ending stream of Hardy Boys mysteries. The latter are certainly not classics in any real sense of the word, but now when I read McCarthy or Murakami, I can cast them in context and see that these are among the writers of today whose work will one day be considered classical.

Thomas said...

It's ironic that the defenders of reading seem so convinced that the reason for objecting to these books is that they have profane, sexual, or violent content, when it has already been pointed out that the classics too can be quite profane (see Aristophanes "Lysistrata") and the objection is explicitly to the quality of the books and their appropriateness for a college prep class (in terms of their intellectual level). In fact, these valiant defenders of YA literature seem to be evidence of the fact that those who read too much YA literature have poor reading comprehension skills.

Worse, the defenders of YA literature seem to insinuate that one can't really say modern YA literature is any better or worse than the classics, which tends to show that readers of YA literature have not developed good taste or intellectual discernment.

In other words, the YA advocates demonstrate the intellectual and artistic impoverishment of the field better than any argument ever could.

Court said...

Thomas,

That's a gross generalization and you, frankly, should be ashamed of making it. At best, your argument is rank hypocrisy. Suggesting that a list of flaming comments on a blog is equivalent to "the defenders of YA literature" is not an argument so much as a display of ignorance.

I, for example, will be glad to engage you in any level of discourse as a defender of YA and, in particular, its inclusion in a modern curriculum. The author of the post which drove many of us here made an articulate, informed, educated, and pedigreed argument that was anything but an example of "intellectual and artistic impoverishment".

To my previous two comments, I'll add another general point as well: I believe it is self-deception and peevish condescension to assert that modern students must learn to appreciate literature in roughly chronological order. This may, in fact, be the worst way of introducing students to a vibrant literary culture ... one that persists despite the generational repetition of this same "oh for the good old days when writing was undertaken only by authors of classics" debate.

Thomas said...

Court,

My point is that the "flaming comments" on the blog, tend to show the commenters' poor reading comprehension skills and poor taste. I'm not saying that all YA advocates are that ignorant, simply that the posters here are unwittingly proving the other side's point. If that wasn't clear enough from my original comment, let it be clear now.

But if you can explain to me why YA novels are more worthwhile than Shakespeare, I'd love to hear it. Unless you are prepared to argue that they are aesthetically superior, then the reason why classes are teaching them must lie in the teacher's inability to teach competently or the students' lack of academic ability. If the latter, they shouldn't be in an advanced college prep class, or else it's a very sad commentary on the state of Kentucky's education system.

Court said...

Thomas,

Thank you for the clarification. It was not clear originally and, in fact, distinctly argued something it seems you did not intend.

I disagree that it is necessary for me to argue YA fiction's aesthetic superiority to Shakespeare; aesthetics are only one element of literature and, if you'll permit a conscription of Maslow's hierarchy, exist at a much higher than subsistance level. I think it could be handily argued, instead, that today's learners are not in a position - in terms of literary appreciation or even literacy - to be held hostage to educators' indulgent sense of taste.

I worked in a bookstore for several years during college. Do you know how we knew when local high schools were teaching one or another of the classics? It wasn't through copies of the book sold. It was through copies of the CliffNotes that flew off the shelves. The average reader in grade school does not appreciate these works in the same way you do, in much the same way that the average social drinker doesn't appreciate a $600 bottle of wine the same way a sommelier might. They pour the stuff out and fill the glass with Boone's when you're not looking.

Aesthetics mean nothing if it is impenetrable to the reader.

It is, as I suggested before, the educational equivalent of "let them eat cake".

Why do we read classics, anyway? There are several reasons that I can think of and I haven't the time just now to explore them completely. If you're still engaged, I'll post again.

Martin Cothran said...

Court,

I have said this 'till I'm blue in the face, but the issue Mullins was involved in had to do with an accelerated college preparatory course, not a course for remedial readers. This would presumably be a course for the best students at this particular school.

Again, if the best students in a school are incapable of understanding this kind of literature, then this whole debate is moot and the problem is an entirely different one.

Thomas said...

"Aesthetics mean nothing if it is impenetrable to the reader."

So I take it that the reason YA literature should be read is the incompetence of students to understand the material? If so, what are they doing in an advanced college prep class?

"Why do we read classics, anyway?"

Well, for our intellectual development, the development of our aesthetic sense, because the classics are better literature, because the activity is ennobling in and of itself, and so on.

Jordan said...

This was originally meant to be part of my first comment, but after getting an error message from Google I suspected perhaps what I wrote was too long and cut the last couple of paragraphs out. Apparently my comment actually got through, so please read this as a continuation of my earlier remarks.

You want kids to read good literature. That's wonderful, and I wish more would; but the truth is that a lot of students—many of them bright and college-bound—are discouraged from reading entirely from what they experience as cold, dead prose. YA books are not all "literary". The names might be trailer-trash. The themes are often racy, sensational and ultimately mundane. But what you do not seem to appreciate is that these books, more than any others, have a great power within them: they are unintimidating, and teenagers can relate to them without having to transport their minds to a time even their parents cannot remember. Your lofty ambitions will allow a few to soar, but they leave a great many in the dust.

Kids who want "real" literature? We will find it, and we will consume it. You want to help us? Just try to stop us! Give us libraries and give us people who care about the books within them; the problem will be getting us back to class. Meanwhile, the rest of the kids who are being left behind might go to university with some idea of the pleasure and satisfaction they can find between some sheets of paperboard, and some who wouldn't go anyway—might.

Anonymous said...

I guess I know your opinion on censorship by the fact that you censored a certain individual's comments.

Anonymous said...

I dare you to read a book before passing judgment on it.

How is banning books that are CHOSEN by students as part of an OPTIONAL book club "enforcement of curriculum"?

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry , but I don't see how these books are any LESS relevant than the classics! In fact, once you get kids into the joy of reading, you might be able to get them to pick up the classics on their own! It's true! I don't really care whether you consider yourself well-read or not, if you haven't read any of THOSE books, then you can have no input on them. Please get over your self-righteous attitude and realize that there is more to reading than the classics. These kids are learning to love books. And what better way then by giving them books on topics they can relate to...?

Jordan said...

Anon.—in case you were referring to my comment, I assure you that Google was at fault; Martin was kind enough to publish my most recent comment despite the fact that, given how many times I posted it in error, he would have been quite justified in dismissing it as spam!

Martin Cothran said...

Anonymous,

I'm assuming your referring to what Jordan is talking about. I have not prevented anyone's comment from running on this thread.

Tori [Book Faery] said...

Now I haven't read these books, and, being an English instructor and a fairly well-read person, I've never, with one exception, even heard of them either. If they're on a list of great books somewhere, I've never encountered it. Maybe they're appropriate for a course on Early 21st Century Lightweight Pop Fiction for Bored Teenagers, but a college prep course? C'mon.

Have you not seen what is expected for someone not majoring in English in college? Classics are focused on in perhaps... one or two courses for the general education portion. Sometimes, not at all.
Have you not seen what courses an English major is expected to take in college? There is Young Adult Lit, Children's Lit, British Lit, American Lit, etc. Not every college class focuses solely on the classics, and for good reason. If you were to analyze the courses required of an English major, it would generally look like this:

1. Brit Lit I
2. Brit Lit II
3. American Lit I
4. American Lit II (optional)
5. Diversity/Humanities Credit
6. 2000/200 Level Course
7. 3000/300 Level Course
8. 3000/300 Level Course
9. 4000/400 Level Course (Focuses solely on either Chaucer or Shakespeare)
10. Composition I

That was the general format for the two colleges I've attended. 5 of those classes focused solely on the classics, one focused on writing skills, and then FOUR focused on both literature and books like the ones you've bashed in your post.

The fact of the matter is, today, students need a mental break every once in a while from the type of writing they find in the classics. They need to read novels that both enrich their minds and books that they can relate to.

Some YA books, while certainly not literature, force students to think in another way: instead of decoding the text, students are challenged to think more about the themes and issues presented in the titles they are reading. It is an added bonus that these YA books are applicable to what is currently happening in their lives.

(Just to jump off topic really quick, wouldn't you prefer to have these sorts of books that deal with current issues accessible to your students? The books you've listed do just that. SPEAK, by Laurie Halse Anderson, is a story about a girl who has been raped and how she overcomes the silence forced upon her. I cannot tell you how many people have admitted that this book has saved their lives. You never know what titles are going to have such a profound effect on students, so how can you bash these books, especially after admitting that you've never read them?)

These sorts of books are more accessible to students who would otherwise dismiss reading books. Plus, there are now websites like Sparknotes that encourage students to avoid reading the "dry and boring" texts, like the classics, by providing the analysis and dumbed down versions of the text. Go check out the "No Fear Shakespeare" section... the translation would make you cry. But guess what? They're making Shakespeare accessible. Whether I agree with this sort of method is another story.

You might disagree with everything I've said, which is fine, but I've talked to plenty of teens and college students who refer to Sparknotes all the time (and I did that in high school). Times are changing; it is up to the teacher to adjust to these changes.

Also, it is important to note that not all students in a college prep class are there by choice. Some sign up for these classes due to parental pressure. The chances of these students genuinely being interested in the course material in high school are extremely slim. College, on the other hand, is different.

By admitting that you have not read these titles, only to turn around and have the gall to openly mock them in such a fashion is inexcusable -- especially for a teacher who considers himself "well read." You sound like the teenager who mocks the classics. Bravo on the example you are setting.

Tori [Book Faery] said...

Now I haven't read these books, and, being an English instructor and a fairly well-read person, I've never, with one exception, even heard of them either. If they're on a list of great books somewhere, I've never encountered it. Maybe they're appropriate for a course on Early 21st Century Lightweight Pop Fiction for Bored Teenagers, but a college prep course? C'mon.

Have you not seen what is expected for someone not majoring in English in college? Classics are focused on in perhaps... one or two courses for the general education portion. Sometimes, not at all.

The fact of the matter is, today, students need a mental break every once in a while from the type of writing they find in the classics. They need to read novels that both enrich their minds and books that they can relate to.

Some YA books, while certainly not literature, force students to think in another way: instead of decoding the text, students are challenged to think more about the themes and issues presented in the titles they are reading. It is an added bonus that these YA books are applicable to what is currently happening in their lives.

These sorts of books are more accessible to students who would otherwise dismiss reading books. Plus, there are now websites like Sparknotes that encourage students to avoid reading the "dry and boring" texts, like the classics, by providing the analysis and dumbed down versions of the text. Go check out the "No Fear Shakespeare" section... the translation would make you cry. But guess what? They're making Shakespeare accessible. Whether I agree with this sort of method is another story.

You might disagree with everything I've said, which is fine, but I've talked to plenty of teens and college students who refer to Sparknotes all the time (and I did that in high school). Times are changing; it is up to the teacher to adjust to these changes.

Also, it is important to note that not all students in a college prep class are there by choice. Some sign up for these classes due to parental pressure. The chances of these students genuinely being interested in the course material in high school are extremely slim. College, on the other hand, is different.

By admitting that you have not read these titles, only to turn around and have the gall to openly mock them in such a fashion is inexcusable -- especially for a teacher who considers himself "well read." You sound like the teenager who mocks the classics. Bravo on the example you are setting.

Tori [Book Faery] said...

But, like many who have commented on this issue on this blog, you are not addressing what what at issue here--something, I'm afraid, Mrs. Mullins has had a hand in encouraging. The issue is what literature should be the used in an advanced college preparatory course. I have yet to see anyone make a cogent argument that popular and passing teen fiction has any role in furthering the purposes of such a class.

I believe people are honing in on your criticisms of these Young Adult books because you talk poorly of them after admitting that you've never read them. By doing so, you've damaged your credibility in this post.

It is somewhat difficult to form an argument about this point when people do not know which AP class Mrs. Mullins was teaching (was it language and composition? Literature?). Either way, it is up to the individual teacher to discover a successful way to incorporate YA books into the curriculum. Some, like you, will be opposed to this method, choosing instead to include literature only... and that's okay. Other teachers, like Mrs. Mullins, will discover a way to successfully incorporate teen reads into the course while also instilling a love for reading. I personally think that, as long as half the books in that course are literature, including teen reads can actually make the AP class a more diverse and rich experience. These books can be used in an approach towards reinforcing the lessons one has previously taught.

Let's pretend Mrs. Mullins was teaching AP Language and Composition. Students are learning about sentence structures and the like, while also learning how to think and read critically. That sort of lesson is dry and boring for most students uninterested in these sorts of classes (even if they are taking this class by choice). By including a few books in a genre that is "intended" to appeal to them, the teacher is not only encouraging analysis, but they are also encouraging reading. My high school English teacher actually did this by allowing us to watch movies. We received a break from definitions and reading dry material by watching movies and analyzing what happened, if there was a message, if one of the definitions we learned applied, etc.

The thing about the AP exam is that you need to think critically and outside the box. By forcing students to read nothing but literature, they create a sort of "method" of approach towards reading the text and everything soon becomes robotic. By including a diverse range of texts, writing styles, and subjects, you're breaking that monotony.

Jordan said...

Ah, Martin, I believe I have just realised what Anon. was referring to. Ms Mullins tried to post a comment some time ago (search for your blog name) and has not seen it published, by which token she understands it to have been deleted. It is possible that she encountered similar technical issues when posting, perhaps?

Martin Cothran said...

Jordan,

I addressed this in my more recent post. I would loved to have allowed her post to come through, but I never saw any evidence that an attempt had been made. I'm assuming there was some technical issue that interfered.

Court said...

Thomas (& Martin, to some degree),

I was not arguing that all students in a college prep course (or any other) are comprehensively illiterate. I work directly with high school seniors entering college and new college students. Most are exceptionally bright young people who will be the engineers, architects, and educators of our collective future. To my great dismay, most do not enjoy reading. I've had this conversation dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times with students. Uniformly, they point at their study of the classics in their grade school curriculum to explain their distaste of recreational reading.

This is heartbreaking for a lover of literature and reading in general, like myself. I'd much prefer to interact with students who've learned a love for reading and recommend to them my favorite classics, rather than with students who passionately believe that reading is a waste of their time.

The raw fact is that for every student whose love of literature is sparked by high school curriculum, there are no less than a dozen who are turned off utterly from the activity of reading anything. We do deal with a literacy problem in this country, and while I'd never argue this is a product of the study of classical literature, I'd suggest that a resolution doesn't come closer by virtue of a 500 year-old text. What we more commonly see, though, are bright students who excel in other areas of study and vow to themselves never to pick up another book again. The competition for students' attention has never been greater; positioning one's self as indignantly above this fact doesn't make it less true.

And, while Calculus might well be among the pinnacle of modern applied mathematics, we don't force students to learn this first. I'd argue that enjoyment of reading is a similar prerequisite for appreciating classical literature.

Zach Hudson said...

I see a trend among many of the posts which defend the removal of these disputed books: the assertion that because a book is written recently and concerns the lives of modern teenagers, it is inferior to "classics". First, please look at some classics and their subject matter. Think of Pride and Prejudice--it's all social struggles of young people, who is in and who is out, miscommunication... Think of Madame Bovary-- it is an examination of sex, boredom and shallowness, but apparently it's OK because it's old. Remember that Madame Bovary was banned when it was published, as were countless other classics you would now presumably endorse.

It seems to me that what is going on here is that some people think that Old is Good and Literature should take Work. But no one (outside of James Joyce, maybe) intended their novels to be difficult to the audience of their time. Good books are written to be accessible. Not fluffy, but accessible. When Shakespeare wrote his plays, they were populist, meant to be enjoyed by the rabble. The classics at that time were in Greek. When Blake was writing, no teacher would have dreamed of teaching his poems. They were all teaching Shakespeare. Did any school teacher teach Virginia Woofe’s novels when she wrote them? Of course not: they were teaching Blake. Someday Laurie Halse Anderson will be considered a classic. It depresses me to think that when that time comes, someone will be trying to shut out whatever new books are being written.

Alex said...

Maybe allowing teenagers to read what they want isn't such a bad idea because they aren't ready for the classics. While Adolescent literature may not have all the depth and literary value you may want it to have, it has something 'The Classics' are lacking, and that something is context. Adolescent literature speaks to young adults in a way they understand, communicates experiences that are relevant to them, and in discussing controversial subject matter prepares them for college a lot better than trying to decypher Romeo and Juliet.(It isn't an awful piece of literature, it is just too awkward a read for that age group.) On a different note, maybe try and be a bit less condescending in future articles. Despite your extensive vocabulary, you came off as kind of rude and snobbish, and I don't think that impresses anyone.

Thomas said...

Court,

"Most are exceptionally bright young people .... To my great dismay, most do not enjoy reading.... Uniformly, they point at their study of the classics in their grade school curriculum to explain their distaste of recreational reading."

Now you seem to be saying the reason classics shouldn't be taught lies not in students' intellectual inabilities, but in the fact that they are not inspired by the material. A big part of a teacher's job is to provide that inspiration to students. Not everybody will get it, but that doesn't mean teachers should stop trying. In my experience as a student, the benefit of a class often does not become clear to me until years after the course. Those are the valuable classes.

I wasn't the best student in high school. It wasn't terribly rare for me not to bother reading the material. But had my teachers expected less of me, and not given me the benefit of at least being exposed to great literature, I would have felt cheated. Now that I'm (somewhat) older and am going back to read the material I neglected, I'm grateful that my teachers didn't neglect them--if they had, they would have neglected me.

If students are not performing up to expectations, the worst thing one can do is lower expectations. And the absolute worst person a teacher could consult about what to teach in class or the level to teach it at is a student. Teachers should expect more of their students than students expect of themselves, and even if students fall short of those expectations, they at least know that they are capable of more.

SafeLibraries said...

As an aside, let me point out Thomas just said, "And the absolute worst person a teacher could consult about what to teach in class or the level to teach it at is a student."

Thomas, get a load of this:

School Media Specialist Passes Sexual Content Review to Students; Dee Venuto Says It Is Discrimination to Keep Children From Material Including Lengthy, Vivid Descriptions of a Ménage a Trois

Evan Waters said...

You have to crawl before you can leap- going right to Shakespeare isn't necessarily going to work, not the least because a lot of Shakespeare's value derives from the complex use of language in his work. On top of which, the classics are all products of their time and you have to be able to put them in historical context before they become accessible.

It can take some really deep literary analysis to wrestle with some of his material, and if you can start by engaging the kids with more contemporary material, and use that to get them introduced to basic skills of literary analysis before applying those skills to something more complex, I'm not really seeing the evil in that.