Monday, December 22, 2014

Reading Not To Write

This is why I love the blogosphere. Ideas get bounced back and forth and become shiny and polished, like stones in a polishing drum.

A week or so ago, several of us picked up and responded to a David Coleman piece about how to teach reading the Common Core way with Nifty Questions. But the cherry on top of the sundae that was that conversation comes today from Daniel Katz. The post is entitled "On the twelfth day of Common Core, David Coleman gave to me..." and it is A) not a hilarious rewrite of the Twelve Days of Christmas and it is B) long but C) you should read it anyway.

Because, after all the many ways we have tried to explain and distill what's wrong and lacking and Less Than about Coleman's approach to reading, Katz brings us to the simplest, clearest explanation yet.

Coleman thinks the reason to read a work of literature is to prepare to write an English 101 paper about it.

There are a million useful ways to interact with literature. And I would not be an English teacher if I did not believe that there are many benefits to be derived from reading great literature even if you're not going to be an English teacher when you grow up and even if you are not going to be an English major and even if you are not going to go to college at all.

I believe the point of reading and wading into and wrestling with and experiencing literature is to become more fully human, to become (excuse the cheesy cliche) a better person. Coleman believes that the reason to read literature is to write a better term paper.

It's as clear a way as any to capture how Coleman's vision of language education is cramped and small and limited and meager. But you should click on over to Katz's blog and check it out. Because his piece, like many other pieces of writing in the world, is well worth reading even if you aren't going to have to write a paper about it.


  1. Definitely worth reading.

    I'm not an English teacher, but my idea for anchor standards for ELA would be:

    Learn to clearly and effectively communicate with most kinds of audiences, for any of various purposes, in both speaking and writing.

    Read literature for appreciation of its art and how it was crafted, and as an illustration of human nature. Make connections to other times and cultures, to other arts, and to personal experience.

  2. I would add to your last sentence..." well worth reading, even if you aren't going to have to write a paper about it or be quizzed or tested." How about just enjoying a wonderful discussion that goes in many different directions and having the experience of intelligent conversation? How about enjoying the freedom to associate with the literature from one's unique perspective and to hear how others related to the experience? The most powerful learning moments that last a lifetime have strong emotions associated with them. It would be great if those emotions were positive, even for a piece of literature that isn't one's favorite. The experience of the literature is transformative. These days, because it can never be captured in an algorithm, taking to time to personally integrate literature isn't validated and in the end, justifiable. How sad. Students do not have the freedom to take in art on their own terms. Those terms are rigidly dictated. No wonder they lose interest. Guidance is one thing. Dictating terms is another. Despite the idea that a term paper might be the opportunity to express one's perspective, in the end, the paper is an exercise. The transcendent experience of the arts is lost in the mechanics of outlines and quotations. I want my students to carry the golden moments of literature with them for the rest of their lives. I do not want those golden moments associated with a personal performance measure.

  3. Jacquez Barzun, in a talk to a national convention of public school art teachers years ago, warned teachers about the danger of being co-opted by an ignorantly greedy public by falsely promising what should be done in their classrooms.

    Reminiscent of the Coleman's abominable pretense that reading is for test prep, Barzun word's, like those of Kobis, above, remind us that conversation informed by reading is education. After suggesting that high school art teachers, who must teach the rudiments of their subject if students are to be properly grounded, should stop trying to meet public expectations that they be all things to all people, goes on to prescribe how teachers should begin to re-learn how to teach: "But good or bad, my suggestion does not tell you what to do, and without some indicated path you can hardly muster new courage and strength for the real work I keep referring to. True, yet I am confident that many of you already have implicit answers to the question, What to do? and I am sure that when you are liberated from present theoretical shackles, the result will be better than what has been. Even so, I should like to recommend to both the self-assured and the hesitant that they start with an act which our crowded lives rarely permit -- to think. To think, not with the aid of books or articles or studies, but nakedly, with the bare mind; and again, to think not lofty thoughts in big words, as if for publication, but think plainly and privately; don't get up on a ladder but think like Richard II when he said: "For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings." Sit on the ground and tell yourself what you know -- what you know about art, about teaching, about people young and old."
    --Jacques Barzun, reprinted in Begin Here:
    The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning, pg 110

  4. We should stop pretending that there is any kind of theoretical underpinning (such as New Criticism) to David Coleman’s notions about literature. Could it possibly be a coincidence that his approach will prompt the very type of essays that are the easiest for a “context-free” computer to grade? Coleman was not so much the architect of the Common Core as a contractor working for Pearson and his current employer, the College Board.

    Mr. Greene, I love your blog! And so I hope you will forgive a little comic emulation here, with a Greene-ish analogy: Coleman wrapped the bacon of New Criticism around the prune of algorithmic data analysis. (I teach English in Ohio, but I’m currently on a teacher exchange for a year in France, and yes they do have this appetizer! And it’s good, too.)

    Chris Cotton

  5. Let's not forget those worse sin of all with this kind of reading — it's abominably boring. Does Mr. Coleman truly think this is what gets kids to read?

  6. I agree with you entirely on the purpose of reading. And I agree with Mr. Cotton, above: David Coleman is not a theorist. It's not just computer-graded essays, though; the premise of any standardized test of "skills" has to be that background knowledge does not matter. So students have, say, a little selection of Ovid to read and to "analyze" by choosing a, b, c, or d response to questions. The test-makers have to be able to claim that such testing does not privilege students who have read Ovid before or have studied the Greek myths on which his stories are based. Of course, it does, and there is research evidence showing that students do better on tests of reading comprehension when they are knowledgeable about &/or interested in the subject matter of the reading passage. But in order to claim that the test scores are valid measures of testable skills, we have to ignore this evidence and pretend that students do not rely on prior knowledge in order to make sense of a newly encountered text. It floors me that Core Knowledge proponents would ever want to defend David "no context necessary!" Coleman and his bizarrely knowledge-free approach to teaching literature. What gives?

  7. Coleman thinks the reason to read a work of literature is to prepare to write an English 101 paper about it.

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