Beyond the Stacks: Why High School English Teachers Should Be Talking about Books

By Thompson, Kierstin H. | English Journal, July 2014 | Go to article overview

Beyond the Stacks: Why High School English Teachers Should Be Talking about Books


Thompson, Kierstin H., English Journal


Greeks and Gospels?" the woman across from me interrupted. "That's what we had to read in high school, Greeks and Gospels." The woman, a guest at a party, found out I was an En- glish teacher and asked what books I taught. She answered before I could, but I was charmed and intrigued by her response, charmed because she as- sumed (in some cases accurately) that the literature that was taught 40 years ago is still being taught today and intrigued because she was actually inter- ested in discussing literature that I teach. Little did this woman know narratives about teaching high school literature have been at the center of con- troversy for many years. Inevitably, the problem with such debates over what literature is best for high school classrooms is that high school teach- ers, despite being the ones actually engaged with students and the texts in question, have little cred- ibility in the larger, public discourse and end up being interrupted, critiqued, or shouldered out of the conversation.

In this article, I look at how recent policies have shaped what and how literature is taught in the secondary classroom and how those policies af- fect professional and classroom conversations about literature. Then I share focused conversations I've had with high school English teachers from di- verse communities about the complex ways in which they engage their students with literature. Finally, I make an argument for why critical con- versations about the selection and use of literature, like the ones I had with the interviewees, should be an essential part of professional development for all English teachers, including those new to the profession.

How the Conversation Started

In terms of the national discourse about what lit- erature matters in high school, it's important to acknowledge that although some beliefs about curriculum have changed over the last 200 years, many remain. Oddly enough, the woman I spoke with at the party was likely in her 40s, and yet the "Greeks and Gospels" curriculum she described casts her in the 19th-century American classroom, where literature study was viewed only as part of teaching classical languages. Clearly, this attitude has changed. Rare is the public school that requires Latin over language arts. But as the 20th century turned, debates formed among university professors over whether the study of literature should involve personal, aesthetic readings or should apply far more "scientific" approaches (Graff). Another sub- ject of debate at the time was whether popular liter- ature should be part of classroom study. Such topics sound eerily familiar today where many ELA teach- ers aren't sure whether to place greater focus on strategies or texts and on which texts in particular. The canon? Multicultural literature? YA? Nonfic- tion? But the dilemma of how to balance strategies and texts has been exacerbated by the volley of con- tradictions teachers have been subject to under No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Common Core State Standards.

Allow me to illustrate the problem. In 2001-05, not long after NCLB legislation, literacy coaches and specialists were installed in 5,600 pub- lic elementary schools across the country because of Reading First Grants provided to major urban districts such as Chicago, New York, Los Ange- les, and San Diego (Atteberry and Bryk; Peterson et al.). Not much time passed before eight public high schools received similar grants and NCTE and IRA published standards of practice for literacy coaches (Blamey, Meyer, and Walpole). With the installation of literacy coaches came widespread change in the professional development available to teachers of all subject areas, a change that em- phasized reading strategies that could aid student comprehension. The movement took hold, but the trouble was that so much reading strategy instruc- tion was creating for English teachers what Lisa Schade Eckert describes as a "pedagogical gap" between literary and reading instruction. …

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