Monday, April 16, 2012

Shakespeare, or Life Skills

For the last four months I’ve been teaching a class on language-related disabilities to Teach for America students. Soon they’ll be finishing up their program and looking around for jobs. We chat about their career goals from time to time, and it turns out that not one of them has teaching as their first choice. The two years they’ve spent in Philadelphia’s special ed classrooms have totally turned them off to what they once thought they wanted to do.

It’s not just the workload, the paper work, the often challenging students, the often unreliable parents, the underuse of crucial assistive technology (hearing aids and eye glasses, needed but not yet acquired, or simply left at home) and/or facilitating technology (computers and iPads are no longer allowed in one of my students' classrooms because her students, severely emotionally disturbed, too often destroy them).

More than anything, it’s the inflexibility of the curriculum and the resulting hopelessness of the job they being are asked to do. Their students, regardless of their reading levels, are all supposed to be reading on-grade-level texts. Even those entering 1st grade already significantly delayed in language and other pre-reading skills (many didn’t attend kindergarten, which isn’t yet mandatory in Pennsylvania) are forced to read books they’re incapable of reading. From there, the gap between reading ability and reading task only widens--such that the teachers, unless they manage to sneak in more appropriate assignments, often end up resorting to audio tapes and movies.

So, forget all we know about scaffolding and Zone of Proximal Development: all “included” children must be reading grade level texts from day one. The only alternative, my TFA students tell me, is placement in Life Skills classes. What our schools are offering then, even to special ed students, is a one-size-fits-all, all-or-nothing curriculum. That's what No Child Left Behind has come to mean.

I see this at my end with J. Because he’s not in a life skills program, but, thankfully, attends regular classes in a science and engineering magnet school that mostly match his talents, this child, who reads at around a 6th to 7th grade level, is currently “reading” Romeo and Juliet and “learning” Shakespearian vocabulary. Perhaps he’s also basking in the beauty of great literature, and sensitizing himself to the tragedy of star-crossed love. Yup. But this sure as heck beats the alternative.


kathyiggy said...

I identify with this. My ASD 10th grader has to "read" Shakespeare, The Glass Menagerie, Huck Finn, etc. Her reading level is probably 6-7th grade or so, and she has major comprehension and vocabulary deficits. But the only other choice is "life skills." Maybe we can find a post-secondary program that can address that she needs both life skills and academic work. The "college for everyone" attitude is also annoying. The assumptions is that ALL kids except for severely impaired special ed kids, will go to college. But writing literary analysis and taking "college prep" courses is nothing but frustration for my daughter who scores at around the 20th percentile on standardized tests due to language deficiencies. But ask her to understand a video game manual or memorize a lengthy speech or play script in theatre and that is a whole different story!

Anonymous said...

And then there are the typical students who, by the age of 14, have jumped ship on the idea of spending an hour a day analyzing literature (or their feelings). They get after-school jobs (but no training) and their life begins to revolve around that instead of around school. They need, need, need pre-vocational and tech skills classes, but are told that they are losers if they aren't aiming for a 4-year college degree.

lgm said...

I would love it if my 14 yr old had been allowed to analyze lit. in his English class. Lucky him, he was treated to listening to audiofiles of the class novel while the teacher went around and opened the books of the included students to the right page so they could follow along. We thanked our lucky stars she didn't do round robin reading and we moved him into a nonincluded class the next year. What a waste of taxpayer money.

Catherine Johnson said...

such that the teachers, unless they manage to sneak in more appropriate assignments, often end up resorting to audio tapes and movies


I exchanged a series of emails with the middle school principal this year on the subject of the new Lucy Calkins reading program (which entails and extra period of ELA 3 times a week, I believe).

There are just two required novels in 7th grade, both of which have a 5th grade reading level. (One is The Outsiders - same novel Chris had to read in 7th grade 6 years ago.)

Then, in 8th grade, students all 'read' Midsummer Night's Dream.


Every student in the school goes from reading 5th grade level books to post-graduate Shakespeare in one year.

I asked Chris about it, and he said he thinks they watched a video of Midsummer Night's Dream when he was in 8th grade.

Catherine Johnson said...

Analyzing literature would be a great thing if students actually analyzed literature (and if teachers knew how to analyze literature).

I wish someone had taught me.

That said, I've come to feel that American kids are spending far too much time in school. I'd like to see much more efficient direct instruction over a much shorter period of time.

I think kids in Singapore attend school from age 6 to 16, right?

Not sure how many go on to college.

ChemProf said...

In Singapore, students graduate high school at 16 (in December), then spend two years in "college" (like a community college), and three at university. So they graduate at about the same age as kids here.

We had a group of sisters come through my college, as their father had worked out that they could be admitted to a US College and graduate a year earlier than they would have in Singapore. She decided to enter mid-year, in January, and graduated before she was 20.