Since the beginning of the common school movement in the 1800s, we have valued our institutions of public education for their unifying nature, and the creation of a literate populace is an essential element of that goal. But much modern-day English instruction accomplishes neither. These middle school and high school classrooms barely resemble what you or I remember from our school years. A common approach to literary instruction, the “workshop model,” features a different novel for every student—invariably always young-adult fiction—and no collective discussion of a shared text. Its most common manifestation, Lucy Calkins’s Units of Study, permeates thousands of schools across the country, while the general model is near ubiquitous.
In fact, calling Calkins’s approach a “curriculum” is charitable. It centers no specific books or knowledge and is more a set of practices for the teacher to follow. Despite its popularity, distinguished professor of education Timothy Shanahan has written that there’s “not a single study that supports its use.”
Among the faults of the workshop model is its lack of rigorous texts. Like strength training, the mind requires tension to grow. When students self-select novels, easier books appeal, and so, like lifting a bar with no weight over and again, literacy stagnates. Shanahan writes that students need “exposure to sophisticated vocabulary, rich content, and complex language” and a workshop model does not guarantee such exposure. Like a literary buffet, one student may spend a semester with varied, rigorous literature such as Edgar Allan Poe and another with Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
I’ve spent time as an instructional coach in classrooms that use both the workshop and traditional models, where a teacher guides students through challenging books. The best teachers struggle to get students to read self-selected books, with many slipping phones between the pages, but even the worst teachers can fumble through a classroom reading of Frederick Douglass’s vivid autobiography.
In the few instances where the Units of Study does foster a shared text, it comes in two forms. In one unit, they deem a whole class novel “too long” and so encourage teachers to only read short excerpts amounting to about twenty pages total. Otherwise, the unit only asks the teacher to show clips of a movie. It’s all a heroic act of lower expectations, and a collection of unproven teaching practices, both of which leave our students floundering. With inadequate approaches to basic literacy, the stabilizing structure of public education cracks.
The curriculum also falters because it lacks a robust sequence and a shared curriculum of literature and knowledge. E.D. Hirsch has spent a career advocating for the importance of what he originally called “cultural literacy,” the common knowledge of history, science, and literature that we all take for granted. His thesis is simple: Our knowledge determines our ability to read as much as an abstract reading skill. This simple conclusion explains why an American could easily follow a paragraph about football but lack all comprehension if reading about cricket. To grasp a typical op-ed, a student needs to know about our constitutional order, chattel slavery, World War II, great American heroes, and other important historical and scientific facts.
Another shortcoming arises, perhaps even more serious, when our schools lack shared texts: It atomizes the classroom and thus contributes to the atomization of society. When my school required me to use it, the Units of Study “curriculum” amounted to five to ten minutes of whole-group instruction before students spent the rest of class cloistered off into separate corners of the room, reading their own books with little to no sense of community. We didn’t laugh together at Mercutio’s jokes or lament Tom Robinson’s verdict.
We say that we value public education because of its unifying nature—these buildings bring together members of disparate communities with varied interests for a common purpose—and then foster a hyper-individualistic classroom culture and structure. The literature classroom is the ideal place for communitarian ideals. Here, students learn to discuss controversial ideas and share aesthetic experiences. But we squander this opportunity to strengthen society and forge citizenship.
“Don’t be a Scrooge.” “All men are created equal.” We value “the content of a man’s character.” These phrases and allusions are as much a part of our language as dependent clauses and conjugations. If anything, they are what give our language life and color. However frayed our country may be otherwise, they give us a commonality and shared worldview. But that only happens when everybody encounters and reflects on them. Much as an economy requires a common currency to function, we need a common language, which in turn requires a common set of texts.
I’ve seen a common literary culture foster community even at recess of all places. I required my students to memorize a poem. One young girl, new to our school, had remained on the fringes of social circles through the beginning of the year. However, as a group of friends practiced their poems while playing four-square, she finally had something in common with them, started reciting it with them, and so had an excuse to also join the game. That shared text built community.
Our schools ought to be places that foster this common development of a robust language through both basic literacy and shared texts. Alas, as our country fractures, things will continue to fall apart if our classrooms do not create a literate public, and the center certainly will not hold if our common schools do not even work to build a center.