Thursday, December 27, 2012

What Percentage of Crap is Appropriate?

I've been following a thread on Diane Ravitch's blog about the Common Core standards. This is written by a teacher who was "leary" of the standards. Perhaps this refers to Timothy Leary, who urged us all to turn on, tune in, and drop out. I myself am somewhat leery of this practice, as I fear the use of hallucinogenics might detract from my teaching. But I digress.

Apparently, it is vital that high school students read 70% non-fiction. This, of course, is because 69% is not enough and 71% is too much. David Coleman has reached into his extraordinarily gifted hind quarters and pulled out the perfect number. This is because students must be prepared to read things like train schedules and quarterly reports, and can't possibly do so unless we give them overt training.

I suppose that I am the exception to this rule. I can read all that stuff with no problem whatsoever, and none of my teachers showed me how. In fact, none of my teachers showed me context clues or any of the other things I've been compelled to teach over the years.

Here's what I have--I love to read. When I was young, I started reading comic books--Spider Man and Batman, and all sorts of nonsense like that. Then I found books lying around my house and read them too. In high school, I now realize many of my English teachers were simply awful. We did things like read novels aloud one page at a time, changing readers with each page. I read Silas Marner and The Old Man and the Sea like that. It was my practice to pay attention only when the girl in front of me was reading, and then to read the next page perfectly. I don't remember what I did the rest of the time.

Likely I was reading a book. I read intensely in high school, but almost never what was assigned. Actually, very little was assigned. I remember only having to read a handful of books, as my hippie teachers did things like play Neil Young's Little Cowgirl in the Sand and initiate tedious discussions over what it implied. I found it tough to participate, marveling that a man with a voice like that could make a living singing.

When I get a chance to teach literature, I pick only books that I love. My goal, simply, is to make the kids love these books as I do. Sometimes I succeed. Sometimes I fail. But I almost invariably choose fiction, because that's what I love to read.

Here's why--there is an abundance of great fiction. For fiction to be successful, it has to be well-written. Otherwise, no one will read it.

There's great non-fiction too. I love Frank McCourt and David Halberstam, for example. But when I was in school, no one ever asked me to read them. In fact, most of what I was required to read was crap. I read books full of bad writing, sometimes written by professors who made me lay out 30 bucks for the one book in the world that printed their single published essay, unreadable though it was.

What got me through that nonsense? My love of reading. I can plod through crap and, usually, pick out what matters and ignore the rest of it.

If I can make kids love to read, they'll take that with them. They'll read in their free time and put up with whatever crap they're forced to read.

But if I have any choice at all, I will select precisely zero percent crap for my kids.
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