Saturday, September 29, 2007

Novels a No-No

Southern California's Riverside Unified School District (RUSD), which at the beginning of the 2002-03 academic year instituted a "no novels" policy for lower level English classes grades 7-12, has now upped the stakes. As of Fall 2007-08, even Honors courses are bound by the policy, demanding that teachers stick to the letter of the Holt, Rhinehart & Winston textbook and curriculum planning map and avoid primary sources of literature.

Now, as then, district officials deny in public that there is an official ban, while telling teachers through meetings and memos about the need for uniformity and consensus on the subject of "no novels" and curriculum maps for classes. The dissonance is migraine inducing.

While there was some limited outcry and public discussion in 2002, district officials had little trouble containing the opposition because the most vocal cohort of students and parents were apparently exempt from the ban. Nevermind the groundwork laid by the district with its stance that reading whole novels, or for that matter any genre of complete, unadulterated text (a former colleague was chided two years ago for using a nonfiction book) was detrimental and distracting in an English class.

At the heart of this, of course, lies concern about test scores. Superintendent Susan Rainey currently reasons that novels are "based on literature" rather than "based on the standards." Perfectly consistent with the 2002 view.

The current shock of parents, Honors teachers, and students unfortunately comes five years too late. Coverage in the local press, along with indignant presentations to the school board, have as yet made no mention of the history and precedent already in place. I'd like to cheer for the protesters, but the disconnect remains a depressing commentary on the amnesia fostered by disinformation in school districts.

The current outcry also smacks, however unintentionally, of elitism: The lower-level students may not need literature, but we at the top deserve it.

Ironically, the most accelerated levels of students in RUSD tend to purchase their own books anyway, and no one can stop them from continuing to do that on their own. Even if the district does relent on the ban for Honors students, there will be no remedy for the majority of kids whose main opportunity and motivation for getting access to books remains through school resources. The ban for them was set five years ago.

I've already heard that the "wiggle room" allowed by the district for Honors courses (to pacify instructors) will go something like this: Once you finish covering everything on the planning map, go ahead and use real literature; just make sure you teach the novels using materials provided by the Holt standardized curriculum. (Several teachers report that this is a step forward, a victory....) The same "compromise" was vetted five years ago for non-accelerated, non-Honors courses and guess what? There's little real whole-book reading going on in those classes anymore.

Which is more Orwellian: that RUSD decided books have nothing to do with learning, or that people are shocked after five years to discover that the district really does mean it, and thinks this principle should apply to all students?