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10th June

First Published in The New York Sun, June 10, 2005

By Andrew Wolf

Classes in New York City public schools are unlikely to be reading Ray Bradbury’s science-fiction novel about censorship, “Fahrenheit 451.” Instead, they may be victimized by a radical pedagogical movement that has prevented entire classes from reading any full-length work of literature. Call it a kind of divide-and-conquer censorship, the sort of thinking that has some of our best teachers heading for the doors.
I know of one seventh-grade English teacher in a city public school who is filling cartons now with the materials and memorabilia of the four years she has spent in her Queens classroom. She is leaving the city system for greener pastures: a job in one of the suburban districts.

What has pushed this teacher over the edge is the loss of control over the way she teaches, imposed on her from above. When teaching the appreciation of literature, she prefers having her entire class read a complete novel at the same time. This is a traditional way of teaching literature, one that has stood the test of time.
But many teachers, including my friend from Queens, can no longer assign a complete book to their classes. Gone are the days when all the children were given copies of J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” and spent weeks discussing the plot, the characters, and the meaning behind Mr. Salinger’s words. This is the way many teachers prefer, the way she was permitted to teach during her first two years in the classroom.

Now, under the Department of Education mandates as interpreted by her region, my friend is required to use short pieces of literature with the whole class in the required 10-minute “mini lesson.” In at least one of the 10 regions, stopwatches were issued to teachers lest they exceed or fall short of this mandate. During the rest of the class period, students may read books individually or work in “book club” groups or “literature circles.” This is a progressive instructional model promoted by Columbia University Teachers College.

The desks are arranged so that the students in each group are facing each other. It is unacceptable to have all the desks face the front of the room, the traditional classroom formation dismissively termed by those in charge as “Nazi rows.” Blackboard use is discouraged, and in many rooms the boards have been covered over with a variety of approved materials. Teachers are cautioned never to be the “sage on the stage,” but instead to be the “guide on the side.”

The departing teacher reports that the book closets in her school have been emptied of complete sets of novels. They have been replaced with “leveled” classroom libraries of approved books, which provide each class with only a handful of copies of any given title.

Since it is unacceptable to the “progressives” running the system for the whole grade to be organized into “homogeneous” classgroupings of students of similar ability, each class is divided into five or six groups of five or six children. My friend reluctantly uses the approved “book club” model where each of the groups read a separate “leveled” book. For most of the class period, each group discusses its book among its members.

Teachers move from group to group to “facilitate” the discussion and check to see that the children are using “accountable talk.”This is approved educational jargon, right out of the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute for Learning, which translates as “make sure they aren’t discussing the latest gossip about Jennifer Lopez instead of the book.”

This way of teaching suits some and is by far the preferred pedagogy taught in our teachers’ colleges, the true source of most of America’s education problems. This teacher in Queens finds that the mandated method works neither for her nor her students.

“The reality falls depressingly short of the theorized outcome,” she said. “When it comes to the struggling readers, the ones this program is supposed to target, it is a lesson in futility.” With an average of 33 students in each of her classes, the small-group model stretches her too much.“I cannot possibly confer with every struggling student on a daily basis.”

But when the entire class read the same book, my friend found that struggling students were naturally able to gain understanding of the text. That success was driven by wholeclass instruction and discussion led by the teacher. Six groups working independently, reading six different books, was not as effective. This is an example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

Next year, this dedicated educator will be teaching the way she prefers, the way she believes works best for her students. But not here in New York City. I suspect she will be successfully transmitting her love of literature to generations of suburban students, touching the lives of thousands of children. Perhaps next year, she’ll spend a few weeks discussing “Fahrenheit 451” with her class in the way she was forbidden to do in Queens.

How many great teachers will be lost to the city school system as we strive for one-size-fitsall? Can we afford to lose even one?

© 2005 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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