A Question of Curriculum: When Is It Time to Revise?

posted Mar 3, 2015, 1:47 PM by peter richmond   [ updated Mar 11, 2015, 12:30 AM by Margaret Riel ]

             "The teacher's thinking is authenticated only by the authenticity of the students' thinking." -- Paulo Freire, "The Pedagogy of the Oppressed."


            "Cogito, ergo sum." Rene Descartes' seminal pronouncement of what makes us who we are has long been at the foundation of Western philosophical thought. We think, and so we exist, because we know we exist.

            But wouldn't an action-researcher tweak this axiom, in her/his ongoing questioning of his practice? Wouldn't he (if he were versed in Latin!) offer another axiom: "Dubito, ergo sum"?

            I doubt, therefore I am?

            To "doubt" doesn't have to infer that what has been established as "real" isn't real. It can mean that after you've established a basis for "reality," you can now question the truth of the reality. You can seek a real-er truth.

            And that's how I took some action in my Young Adult Novel literature class this semester: by questioning existing reality...and discovering some truths about an essential part of my own practice: The way I arrive at a curriculum.

            Sometimes I find myself forgetting an obvious axiom: that to facilitate effectively, we need effective and innovative tools -- a truth that was first driven home seven years ago, when I was teaching ninth-grade English at a private intermediate school in Connecticut.

            We'd read "Catcher in the Rye," and I polled the class of a dozen or so 15-year-olds: Should next year's ninth-graders read this book? The "no's" won out. I was surprised. Wouldn't J.D. Salinger's tale of adolescence be relevant to 15-year-olds -- affluent, and familiar since childhood with Manhattan? But Holden Caulfield's episodic exploits were of their time, and not compelling. Salinger's dusty Manhattan held, for them, no magic.  

            The next year I taught The Great Gatsby instead, with its myriad of syntactical challenges, but a more universal theme. The students enjoyed it. The children of the One Percent, they were compelled by a plot with which they could identify. The worlds of the monied, with their peaks and valleys, will always provide for great storytelling.  

            Flash-forward to this past January. In the second class of our YA novel class (for whose syllabus I'd tossed out a few old standards and inserted some new ones, after surveying my freshman English class in the autumn). I asked the 28 freshmen and sophomores to pair off and interview each other about what their favorite and least favorite books in high school were. Then each partner told the class of her or his partner's choices.

            When one student offered, "Kim's least favorite book is To Kill a Mockingbird," I was a little taken aback. Harper Lee's 1960 novel about race relations in the Deep South is ingrained in the cultural conversation -- well, my cultural conversation, anyway. In fact, three weeks earlier, on vacation, my wife and I had taken a side-trip to Monroeville, Ala., to visit the museum named for the book in the local courthouse.  This was one novel that had stood the test of time. Or had it?

            "What was Kim's reason?" I asked.

            The student checked her notebook, and said, "She said she thought the writing was boring."

            A few minutes later, another student said, "Jessie's least favorite book is The Kite-Runner." Again, I was a little surprised. This tale of an Afghani child and his father was topical, had a dramatic story arc, and was a New York Times bestseller for two years,


            "It was padded." Jessie said. Jessie is a pretty savvy critic: the novel was, indeed, first a short story, rejected by two major magazines. But perhaps Kim was equally astute in her harsh judgment of Mockingbird. If it bored her, whatever the reason, then this was the wrong text to spark a love of reading and writing in this very smart student. 

          According to the British Broadcasting Corporation, Lee's novel has been read as much as The Bible. But continually passing a work on down through generation after generation because it resonated with past readers: is this a diligent way of deciding whether it should be on any and all reading lists?

            It's been 55 years since Lee published her book. The relationship between the races has changed. American students are thoroughly well-educated from elementary school on about the sordid history of race relations in their native country. Maybe Mockingbird has run its course. Maybe another book should take its place.

            If one of the reasons to assign book-reading to adolescents is to engage them in the world of literature in hopes of boosting their love of reading, and its exchange of ideas within every text, shouldn't we constantly be examining and revising our syllabi and reading lists? Is it time to ask ourselves whether we continue to teach the adolescent classics because we ourselves loved them so much, but are remiss in exchanging ideas with colleagues in the field about what the newer classics are?

            In literature classes, of course, my tools are pretty different than a math or science or history teacher's. But no matter what the discipline, wouldn't a critical, questioning, doubting eye be a useful tool in finding new, relevant and compelling texts? Classroom tools and models and technologies? Ways of fostering curiosity about the subject matter? In an age which is exponentially more able to summon old "knowledge" in a heartbeat, and might respond to a more relevant curriculum?

            At the very least, shouldn't we question whether the tools that have been handed down to us are still useful in stimulating young brains to question, to be curious, to want to learn? I'm by no means calling for a "throw out the old!" ideology. But I am doubting that the way I learned should automatically be the way my students learn.