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?


Janice Campbell said...

Absolutely stunning. The arrogance! The insanity! The thought of an educational institution banning the reading of novels in favor of pre-digested pablum is appalling.

And here I've been, slaving away over the past several years to finish writing an entire five-year literature curriculum based on (gasp) novels! And not just any novels-- classic ones. Books that people have read and thought about for years. Centuries, even. My, my. Maybe I should ditch the effort and jump on the pablum bandwagon also. After all, we wouldn't want students exposed to any un-pre-digested ideas, would we?

It's news like this that makes me glad there is such a thing as alternative education...

Mike said...

Well. I give up. I'm too tired to fight it anymore, so here's my design, fully in line with the anti-novel, scripted curriculum school of thought, for an ideal high school.

On need only build several large, long, low metal buildings, and in each building will be row upon row of tables. On those tables will be scores of individual, lowest bid computers, one per child. I suppose we'll have to air condition the buildings in places like Texas because too much heat would cause the computer to fail, but think of the cost savings in spite of that frivility!

At least 60% of the curriculm will be devoted entirely to drill aimed at passing the all important tests that are the sole reason schools exist these days. The remaining 40% will be a strictly scripted, approved curriculum so stringently intellectually filtered that it could not possibly offend (or inform) anyone.

And a large part of the beauty of it all is that the software will do the teaching! We'd need only, say, two behavior monitors per 100 students. Think of the savings!

So we can be absolutely sure that no student will ever feel inferior to anyone else, the curriculum will insure that everyone in a given grade is reading page 903, paragraph 3, sentence 2, word 6 of the approved text on April 4 at 9:03:33 AM, etc.

It's the wave of the future folks. Catch the wave.

Greg Laden said...

It is being suggested (elsewhere) that there is a stunning lack of documentation or news on this policy. Can you point us to any documents by the district, or news coverage?

Standards are good, if they are used as standards. But if they are used as goals, that is a problem. (And that may also lead to a call for standards ... to guide teachers to the goal of meeting the standards ... and on and on..)

Jo Scott-Coe said...

For sources:

Yes, it doesn't sound real.

This account comes from primary research involving testimony from multiple teacher sources throughout RUSD, as well as newspaper accounts and local district history.

Yes, you're right: this story has never made it past local media.

When the original policy for non-Honors courses was instituted "informally" five years ago, in Fall 2002, RUSD similarly demanded to teachers and then denied in public its "no novels, stick to the textbook only" lesson plan. Teachers were left to flounder with the dissonance.

Local columnist Dan Bernstein covered the "rumor" then, with much less indignation than now (see link below).

A prominent parent/union activist at Riverside Community College, along with myself (then chair of English department at Poly High School), both had letters publicizing and criticizing the practice in the Press Enterprise September 2002. District officials were careful to be vague enough in memos but direct enough in meetings that teachers were silenced as hysterical and out of-line for challenging the policy.

A public relations campaign by RUSD instigated a lengthy follow-up piece in the local section of the Riverside Press-Enterprise on pages B1 and B7 October 12, 2002.

The district then, as now, said publicly that novels "weren't banned, just not required." However, I was chided officially both for my public letter to the newspaper and for emails communicating departmental frustration to the district in early September 2002. (Email quote from district official to my principal, dated 9/5/02: "I find it interesting that Ms. Scott still refers to 'teaching novels.' Hasn't she seen the test scores yet?")

The Press Enterprise has, for this new round of discussion, published two letters regarding the policy, including one letter from a current teacher (10/1/07). The teacher has allegedly been "called in" to his site administrator for speaking up.

Here is columnist Dan Bernstein's most recent account of the public controversy, which made its way to the school board. Check out the link before it goes away. If you need to follow-up, you'll find the article dated Friday 9/28/07, Local section of Riverside Press Enterprise, B1, Dan Bernstein's Column "A Novel Approach."

NO press coverage--even Bernstein, who has covered the story now for a second time in five years--has referred to the history of this district-denied "policy."

While I welcome the skepticism, I find it incredibly difficult to believe that readers (teachers!) can't understand why this story hasn't made the national news.

Greg Laden said...

thanks, that's very helpful.

I would love to have seen the material in the Press Enterprise but their website is abysmally stupid, and thinks that an 11 letter password is not long enough (the minimum length required is 6. Apparently in Riverside, 6>11 ... must be the school district!)

Anyway, that information is very helpful.

How's the teaching of evolution going out your way?

Kathryne B Alfred said...

Fuse #8 sent me. Wow. Thank goodness I don't teach there--that would be the end of my career teaching secondary English. Just knowing it happened somewhere makes my stomach hurt.

"Teaches literature and not the standards." Why did this person even go into education? What do they think standards are for???

Anonymous said...

Riverside is the most backward armpit of Southern California. Except for the Mission Inn there is nothing of any cultural significance there. I lived at the Mission Inn and attended Ramona High School.

Polyester suit wearing Republican used car salesmen, pesticide salesmen, cheap stick frame house developers, lots of illegals and 3rd generation okies, that's what Riverside is.

Anonymous said...

I may be paranoid, but to me this sounds suspiciously like a test case -- tried first in a district like Riverside where opposition is likely to be weakest. It's getting hard for me to believe that the "dumbing down of America" is a series of bad policies instituted because decsion-makers don't know any better. Let's hope Riverside parents get themselves together soon so other California districts don't have to contend with this absurd attack on intelligence.

Anonymous said...

An English class without novels is like administrative leadership without a brain ... or a heart!

If the administrators thought test score results were low with novel reading, just wait until all the kids that are tested read nothing more serious than the pablum schlock that permeates the Texas based publishing companies' lit anthologies. "The American people deserve the govenment that they elect" - Will Rogers.

NO NOVELS LEFT BEHIND is more like it.

Peter Kalnin
Riverside CA
(And HEY, Anonymous, not everything/everyone in Riverside is so dismal and primitive. We do have SOME thinking and culturally aware humans living in these parts.)

loonyhiker said...

This was so sad! As a special ed teacher, this sounds like we are setting the lower level kids up for the self fulfilling prophecy. I used 2 novels every year to teach my students (some with severe reading disabilities) and they were more effective than any textbook that I was given!