My daughter and her high school english teacher shared a really insightful article with me that has me thinking again of balance in education. Claire Hollander’s opinion piece in The New York Times, “Teach the Books, Touch the Heart” discusses her conflict over knowing that exposing students to great literature teaches then not only to read but to understand. Hollander’s middle school students made genuine connections to the characters in Of Mice and Men and Catcher in the Rye. She goes on, however, to lament that “my students’ test scores did not reliably indicate that reading classic literature added value,” and she felt compelled to cut back on the teaching of classics in favor of teaching reading test prep. Hollander knew it was wrong but she felt pressured by the “data informed instruction” charge from her school district to change her teaching.
Perhaps it is because I lead a school in Vermont, a state that has taken a much more sane approach to teaching, but I know we really do not have to choose between either teaching our students to love literature or to score well on tests. Here is where I see the balance coming in. I have known English teachers in my many years in public schools who would be proud to say they teach Catcher in the Rye due to their expertise with J.D. Salinger’s writing. In this kind of class, the students who are ready for the text excel, some keep up with SparkNotes, and others fail. Once Catcher in the Rye is done, the teacher moves on to the next novel. Here is where I say we need to use data, but not the kind of data that comes from the state exam. This is where we need the kind of teacher who does not teach Catcher in the Rye but, rather, teaches middle school students to read and understand Salinger’s writing. It’s a huge difference. When you teach middle school students a text, you check in with them along the way. The skilled and observant teacher finds many ways to be informed of his or her students’ progress. Once you have this genuine data, you can provide differentiated experiences so every student learns from the text.
Hollander concludes her opinion piece by saying that “We cannot enrich the minds of our students by testing them on texts that purposely ignore their hearts.” I wholeheartedly agree with her. I argue that we do not have to choose between data and our students love of literature.