No Novel Left Behind (NNLB)

In a stack of papers called Instruction.

  • Mar
  • 15
  • 2006

The sudden intake of air from shock over my suggestion, a true gasp filled the room rather quickly. A brief moment of silence punctuated the end of the gasp-sentence, an exclamation point for the clearly surprised opinion of a few gathered around the table. The words fell out of my mouth in a cluster and felt, to me, as if rocks loudly tumbled onto the floor, the rough sound of stone on stone. Not that the words proclaimed any significant weight, but the reaction from some made me feel as if I shouted words of heresy in church on Sunday afternoon, with the dawn of realization yet to hit me, oblivious to my utterance.

“I suggest that the fact we have not added any new books to this list in the last 10 years in really a non-issue. We should be focused on the standards and writing skills taught with the novel. The actual title of the work should be inconsequential. To give our teachers more options, why should we not add every single one of these books to the list?”

Interpreter of Maladies (Lahiri). The Bluest Eye (Morrison). Breaking Through (Jimenez). Novel titles littered the wall. Monster (Meyer). The Contender (Lipsyte). The Color of Water (McBride). The choice to approve or not approve each novel for classroom instruction rested squarely on the committee of 11 teachers. Time Machine (Wells). The Secret Life of Bees (Monk). The Things They Carried (O’Brien). Faced with making decisions with an impact on English classrooms in our district for quite possibly many decades, the directions bade us to consider the “literary worth” of a novel before recommending approval for instruction in the classroom. The Alchemist (Coelho). America Is In the Heart (Bulosan). Picture Bride (Uchido). Awards or honors received, vocabulary used, and length all listed among the other considerations. When The Emperor was Divine (Otsuka). Chronicle of a Death Foretold (Marquez). East Side Dreams (Rodriguez).

Interestingly (and perhaps ironically), items 3 and 6 on the “Criteria for Selecting/Recommending Literature” handout, “Cultural and Situational Relevance” and “State Content Standards for English-Language Arts,” never came up in the discussion of these titles.

I sat in on the kind of meeting that creates lists of “classic” literature, the very types of meetings that perpetuate the idea that worth exists in only a certain type of story, by certain authors, on certain subjects. Books without awards stood less of a chance than books with accolades in spades simply due to that fact. I know my reading includes many books that never make it to the Booker Award, Pulitzer Prize, or Margaret A. Edwards Award (who?) reading lists, let alone actually earn such honors. Should awards a novel garners even enter into the conversation? Shouldn’t the criteria center around the accessibility of the story?

Simple language often expresses complex ideas. Siddhartha shines as an example of that. Cannery Row, The House on Mango Street, Go Ask Alice, Kindred, Their Eyes Were Watching God, all carry on that ability to get at complicated thinking through simple words and all list among our currently approved instructional materials. To get reading comprehension out of the running as the primary stumbling block means greater attention on the philosophy of a story. Sure, challenge students and they grow; cater to the inabilities of students and they fester in their inability. But plenty of books on the approved reading lists push students to their linguistic limits.

Curse words as a basis for exclusion fades away in the face of The Catcher In The Rye and Beloved as approved novels (from The Crucible: “secretly be the devil’s bitch”). Race issues as a reason for elimination suffers in the light of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird already taught in classrooms across the district, often appearing on “mandatory reading” lists.

In the end, I voted down the approval of only one book. I did that simply to play the game and show that I do have some discretion, that I don’t think any old title is good enough to be taught to an entire class. I actually do think that validated my opinion, so it achieved its purpose and ensured that my thoughts weren’t completely dismissed. But even the book I voted down, who am I to say that no teacher anywhere in our district, at any time, will be able to teach that novel well and push his or her students as hard as I’ll push when teaching Heart of Darkness? Should school systems really be in the business of dictating the resources available when trying to promote reading and writing and talking and thinking? Goosebumps clearly is out. Within reason, though, why would we leave any novel behind?


1. Ben says:

[3/16/2006 - 4:23 pm]

Truly a very poetic post today Todd. I felt as if the “dawn of realization” would at any moment transform itself into the beast of intolerance and swallow you whole at the behest of your English Committee. I must admit that I’m impressed you said what you did at the meeting, as I have niether the expertise, nor the position to be making such inciteful and true comments about what novels should and shouldn’t be used in the classroom. Nice work!

On a side note, I thought you had gone on hiatus, until I realized that you’re old feeds were no longer working and I updated my Bloglines account.

2. Todd says:

[3/16/2006 - 9:17 pm]

I told another teacher about this today and she said she’s surprised I got out alive. I don’t think it’s all that radical, actually, but apparently it is a rather novel notion (no pun intended). And I think the beast of intolerance is the status quo in education systems across this country of ours, if not the globe. Whenever we can, we really need to stand up against it.

Thanks for noticing the style, Ben. I tried a slightly different approach on this one. It’s something I try to do every now and again. I think it paid off this time and I’m glad you enjoyed it.

And I put in a little notification to the old feed; I hope a few other people drop back in to see what’s happening here. Thanks for the subtle hint to let folks know of the change. I hadn’t even thought of it.