It was fascinating in a way: When you start hunting around for professional recommendations as to the proper goals of a reading curriculum at the high school level, you come up surprisingly short.
I started, of course, with the National Council of Teachers of English: the NCTE, the largest and most venerable professional organization in my field. Here is what I found. It wasn’t much.
A general outline, first.
For the last five years at least, since I’ve joined, NCTE always feels to me like they’re gearing up for a “Field of Dreams”-style PTA meeting, where a bunch of Bible Belt housewives with bouffants try to purify the curriculum of “smut” and “filth” – which I guess is a real worry in a lot of parts of the country, but which always makes me a little uneasy, because when you make “beating the Sarah Palins” your main focus, you’re not really talking about principle anymore, you’re drawing partisan lines in the sand, and if you’re not careful, you turn into the very thing you hate, only on the opposite side. What I’m looking for is a true professional organization, dedicated to rock solid principles, unshakable by ideologues on the left and on the right, but that’s not what I see.
And it is in that spirt that we encounter NCTE’s 2019 “Statement on The Opportunity to Learn.” Although it’s focused less on curricular decisions and more on ensuring equal access to high quality education, there are still a number of revealing moments when value statements about curriculum seem to slip through, little clues as to what the NCTE currently believes about curriculum:
“We are reminded that historically the purpose of schooling and literacy learning has been to forward the largely assimilationist and often violent White imperial project . . .”
“Researchers in our field have consistently argued that ‘literacy educators are in a unique position to interrupt the violence, pedagogical injustices, and misrepresentations [that interfere with students’ opportunities to learn].’”
Sounds like there’s just as much “violence” in the curriculum as those right wing censors always thought.
And then a small sentence, a phrase, that nevertheless seems to get right to the heart of the matter, to summarize my discomfort with NCTE’s whole approach over the time I’ve been a member, which gets to the questions I have about the entire Social Justice Era conception of curriculum-as-resistance. Quite simply, it says:
“NCTE is committed to actively pursuing justice . . .”
That’s the central statement of the whole document, to me. And it’s the problem. The NCTE is not a law organization. It’s not a victim advocacy group. It’s a literacy organization. Its goals should be, ultimately, pedagogical, not political or legalistic. Education is a field that represents the cross-section of so many varied political goals and aspirations. It is hard to imagine that any educational organization would be prepared to cut through this morass of conflicting, roiling, ever-changing whims and aspirations and ideals and see the shimmering moral clarity on the other side. “Pursuing justice” are the words of a partisan group, fighters for a cause on behalf of the wronged. It’s the language of moral clarity, and education is the greyest of the grey.
Given this lens, it’s not surprising then when the policy recommendations for educators in this document include such statements as:
“Create curriculum inclusive of diverse students and faculty, including curriculum with positive representations of diverse student and faculty populations and accurate information on histories of diverse populations.”
Again, while it’s hard to argue with words like “inclusive” and “positive” and “accurate,” this recommendation is clearly couched not in the language of pedagogy, but in the language of distributive justice – a kind that is very much seeking to respond to a perceived “wrong”; it’s a statement of curricular justice being administered in response to past harms. It’s one thing to argue that all students need positive representations of themselves because one of the main goals of reading is to affirm student identities as a matter of good pedagogy, but it’s quite another to make this argument on the basis of distributive justice. I’m not comfortable with it because it’s outside our area of expertise.
Even more strident is NCTE’s “Position Statement on Indigenous Peoples and People of Color (IPOC) in English and Language Arts Materials.” This document also calls for school materials to “foster positive student self-images deeply rooted in a sense of personal dignity.” This message is communicated more as a demand than as a recommendation: “Classroom teachers are immediately responsible for continuing action to accomplish these ends.”
Again, to the extent that this is calling for culturally relevant pedagogy, I’m in. Those are the arguments of the Deweyian pragmatist: the curriculum must be more relevant, the teachers better equipped to understand a student’s starting point, his socio-cultural ecosystem, so that the teacher can better “psychologize” (in Dewey’s words) the curriculum, and even to better adapt the curriculum taught to what the students require.
I’d even be okay if the organization was making the social reconstructionist call for a changed curriculum to better combat the challenged times we’re in. If the document were to come out and say, “We’ve got future Trumpists everywhere, the school is teeming with kids who could be wearing the white hood in a few years – let’s revamp the curriculum to throw everything we can at the problem,” I’d be alright with that. Say that, and I can respect it. We can debate about to what extent that’s the right goal, and to what extent that’s an effective means, but at least it’s a pedagogical framing. But that’s not what’s happening – the arguments being made are not pedagogical; the arguments being made are the arguments of distributive justice, and that is a dangerous road to go down for a professional organization ostensibly dedicated to education, not to legal advocacy work.
There are several other NCTE guidelines, including the promising sounding “NCTE Statement on Guidelines for Selection of Materials,” but this turns out just to be another document saying that teachers should have specific goals for the books they pick and should select those books based on those goals:
“Instructional materials in the English language arts program should align with the general philosophy of the school or district, the curriculum goals and objectives of the English language arts program, and the learning outcomes of the particular course or grade level.”
Right, thanks for the guidance, NCTE.
What about when we look for curricular guidance beyond professional organizations?
The most famous essay on reading goals that I know about is Rudine Sims Bishop’s classic, Windows, Mirrors, Sliding Glass Doors.” It’s a classic, and it’s referenced all over the place. But in the end, although this is such a helpful, promising metaphor, it’s little more than that – just a short essay with a useful metaphor – not a fleshed-out, systematic treatment of the topic. I had trouble finding any amplification of these principles in a more philosophic, ordered fashion, either from Sims Bishop, or from other authors. It was odd – almost as though everyone has just stopped with her famous piece, and pushed no farther.
One of my favorite practitioner-level books in the English Language Arts sub-field, the fairly recent 180 Days, written by long-time educators Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle, perhaps the two best known practitioner-writers in the field, says almost nothing about the explicit goals of a reading curriculum. The book opens with a series of “beliefs” about reading that center on how to teach reading, not why. As with most professional books, it is taken for granted that reading in general is important. If anything, Kittle and Gallagher shade toward offering greater “choice” in reading as opposed to dictating what students should read. This is the argument that both of the authors, in various solo books, have promulgated over the past decade, partly in response to the conservative Test Prep era of NCLB and the Common Core. It’s not a bad argument, and it’s also one thoroughly steeped in Dewey-ian pragmatic principles of relevance and engagement. But it falls into the classic trap that the pragmatists have been susceptible to (ever since Dewey): a focus on process over product, process over content, ends-in-view over big picture goals. The morality is the scientific process of inquiry and experimentalism itself, rather than anything extrinsic. In its own way, even though it belongs to the child-centered wing of the progressive movement, rather than the utilitarian, social efficiency wing, it goes right along with the Common Core era in its abdication on questions of content.
Plus, I can never shake the feeling that the whole Choice Book Movement is just focused on getting kids to read YA fiction because . . . that’s better than video games. Reading is a better lifetime habit that intrinsically should bring joy to students. Yes, of course, yes. But . . . there’s something shallow and unserious there, too. A kind of version of Social Efficiency at its oddest: trying to get students to be able to have fun, rewarding hobbies. It’s sort of like the English equivalent of teaching “lifetime games” in PE: prepping kids for the real world be equipping them to enjoy badminton, volleyball, and, thanks to English class, beach reading. Teaching kids to love reading is a noble goal, yes, but you don’t stop there. That’s just a starting point from which to start enunciating *why* reading is important, and too much of the Choice Movement never really goes beyond that.
One source that did deliver on helping me understand the goals of a good reading curriculum was Louise Rosenblatt’s famous book, Literature as Exploration, from way back in 1933. I began reading this book over the Thanksgiving Break, and had to put it down once school started up, and haven’t picked it up again, but it is certainly a treasure trove. I read several other articles that related to this book and to the questions it raised, and – though I never found my way to the vein of golden research and scholarship that I’d hoped – I gleaned enough, based on these readings, based on my experience over the past 11 years in the classroom, and based on my discussions with colleagues, to come up some some basic thoughts on the goals of a good reading curriculum.
I’ll outline these goals in the next post.