Wednesday, June 15, 2011

An Education Tragedy

I'm going to print and keep this WSJ article just in case anyone ever questions why we read so much non-fiction in my English II class:

Fewer than a quarter of American 12th-graders knew China was North Korea's ally during the Korean War, and only 35% of fourth-graders knew the purpose of the Declaration of Independence, according to national history-test scores released Tuesday.


Only 20% of U.S. fourth-graders and 17% of eighth-graders who took the 2010 history exam were "proficient" or "advanced," unchanged since the test was last administered in 2006. Proficient means students have a solid understanding of the material.


The news was even more dire in high school, where 12% of 12th-graders were proficient, unchanged since 2006. More than half of all seniors posted scores at the lowest achievement level, "below basic." While the nation's fourth- and eighth-graders have seen a slight uptick in scores since the exam was first administered in 1994, 12th-graders haven't.
I'm an avid reader of non-fiction and have long believed that reading non-fiction can not only build reading skills but teach history at the same time.

It is difficult to blame the teachers for this tragedy completely.  In English, for example, we are given a "pacing guide" and a curriculum we must follow.  We have a sort of checklist of things we must read and teach.  All that "accountability" business.

I don't teach history (formally) so I can't speak to what goes on in a history classroom.  I do know that in my class we read a lot of non-fiction:  Night, for example.  I do an entire unit on the Holocaust.  Shockingly, many of my students don't know what that is before the unit.  Some of them have heard of Anne Frank but that might be the extent of it.  There are exceptions, of course.

We do another unit on the Titanic.  There is an essay in our text by Hanson W. Baldwin.  We watch a documentary, we read the essay, we do timelines, and we discuss what life was like at that time in history.  Many students believe that "Jack" and "Rose" were real people until we complete the unit.

That being said, we read fiction in my class too, but I often use it to teach history, too.  In To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, there are certainly lessons about the Depression and segregation that can be discussed.  When reading A Separate Peace, I can teach a lot about WWII and that time period.

At the end of the year during evaluations, many of my students express their appreciation of the history they learned in ENGLISH class and say that those units were their favorite.  My point is that history can be integrated across the curriculum fairly easily. 

Ann Althouse expressed a similar thought in this post:

I have discussed this issue before, and I know people have a problem with it, but schoolchildren don't need to read fiction to learn how to read. Let them choose their own fiction books for reading outside of school. 

And like Ann, I can't understand why No Child Left Behind takes the blame for this.   NCLB is full of faults, to be sure, but I'm not sure you can pin this one on it.

(H/T:  Mike)

More at Memeorandum.

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