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Literature

Dumbing Down

  • Great Literature Enables Students to Understand Themselves and Others Terrence Moore, Ph.D., May 2004. "Unfortunately, the humane study of literature today has been all but ruined by the methods of a great many school curricula, modern textbooks, and even literature teachers themselves. The greatest sin of school curricula is not to allow young students to read serious literature before high school. Some of the great authors in the English language, such as Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Mark Twain, wrote books for children, but often these authors are not encountered in elementary and middle schools. Literature textbooks are guilty of several faults. Most of them are anthologies that do not feature whole works of fiction. Thus students cannot see the themes and characters of the stories all the way through. Furthermore, the selections end with the most rudimentary and ridiculous of questions designed to do little more than see if the students actually read the story. Some of the newer textbooks have so many colors, useless prompts and anecdotes, and pure trivia physically surrounding the text that readers are distracted away from the author's words. Publishing companies have taken marketing lessons from MTV. Worst of all, these publishing companies also provide teachers with elaborate "teacher's editions" that offer in the margins the "answers" to those ridiculous and rudimentary questions. Drawing upon the paraphernalia of these textbooks and the teaching methods learned in education schools, literature teachers often reduce the interesting and complex representations of the human condition found in literature into simplified plot structures."

  • Classic Lit No Longer Fit by Julia Steiny, Providence Journal, September 21, 2003. Excerpt:
    "For years I had wondered why the kids in schools seemed to be reading such dreck in their English classes. Not all, but much of the assigned reading and classroom textbooks seemed awkward, vacuously well-meaning and written with bland prose that had a programmed feel to it.
       "In the 'serious literature,' gratuitously depressing darkness seemed to be taking the place of real depth. What passed as passion often sounded to me like whining. When the classics make it into the syllabus, which is rare except for the obligatory Shakespeare, only the same tedious handful seem to be acceptable, never Twain, George Elliot or my dear Dickens, all of whom seem to have disappeared from education. Literary canons need to be flexible about including new and rediscovered writers, but why completely chuck the old masters?
       "In the summer of 2002, I found my answer in Diane Ravitch's Daedalus article, 'Education after the Culture Wars,' [PDF doc] which was expanded into her chilling book, The Language Police.
       ...As she puts it: 'That helps to explain why so many American children now arrive in college without every having read anything by writers such as Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ralph Ellison, Joseph Conrad, Willa Cather, W.E.B. DuBois, Jack London, Edith Wharton, John Steinbeck, Richard Wright, George Orwell, or Charles Dickens.'"

  • The Demise of Literature by George Will, July 22, 2004

  • How Do You Make Children Articulate? It's a Long Story ... by Sarah Cassidy and Richard Garner, The Independent [UK], January 3, 2005. A new scheme that involves reading the classics to primary pupils aims to improve standards of spoken English among Britain's five-year-olds. ... The idea is not only to foster a love of books among today's primary school children but also raise standards in spoken English.

  • Dumbing Down: Why Children's Books are Being Simplified And What This Means for All of Us by John E. Mitchell. "Is children's literature being dumbed down? The answer isn't always clear, but the evidence that something is happening lies on store shelves around the country. 'They have these My First Little House on the Prairie books,' laments author/illustrator and Emerson College Writer-In-Residence Lisa Jahn-Clough. 'And that's ridiculous because that is rewriting them and trying to introduce them at an earlier age, and I think that takes away from the Laura Ingalls Wilder books.' Plenty of similar works, including William Joyce's Santa Calls, have received the abridged board-book treatment. Most Richard Scarry books are routinely abridged, cut and pasted, rewritten and redrawn. Margaret Wise Brown's Color Kittens has been redrawn and edited in recent editions. When you add to this the proliferation of substandard original works, especially in the Young Adults market where Goosebumps and Sweet Valley High sell serialized fourth-grade reading levels to teens, along with countless media tie-ins -- thank goodness that all they're doing to Harry Potter is changing Briticisms."

  • Thoreau-lite: Anthologies leave students with only some snippets, Christian Science Monitor, October 19, 1999

  • What Happened to the Great Ideas? by John Berlau, Insight Magazine, August 27, 2001. "From the 1920s until his death, [Mortimer] Adler most often was a voice in the wilderness crying out against educational trends he saw as destructive. He fought progressive education's child-centered academic curriculum and vocation-centered training. Instead he championed general education in the classics. At a time when moral relativism has become dominant, Adler proclaimed that there still were universal moral truths to be found in the works of Plato and Aristotle. ...
    Adler ... inspired legions of followers who have formed colleges, homeschooling cooperatives and Great Books discussion groups in major cities based on his ideas about education. ...
    'The Great Books are alive and well as a powerful approach to education,' Stephen Balch, president of the ... National Association of Scholars, a group that pushes for a core curriculum of Western classics... 'It's alive and well in large part because of his efforts as the architect of this kind of grand design for education. Those who favor an education in the service of civilization are in his debt for all the work he did over the years to establish the Great Books model and to bring the Great Books to the American population generally, not just those at colleges and universities. He certainly wanted as many people to read the Great Books as possible, based on a belief that they did speak to everybody.'"

  • "Mankind would lose half its wisdom built up over centuries if it lost its great sayings. They contain the best parts of the best books." -- Thomas Jefferson
    Also see our extensive page on education quotations.

  • "Weighing the Classics," by Tim Rutten, Los Angeles Times, July 15, 2001. Excerpt: "America's culture war has been fought on many battlefields over the last decade, but few have been as bitterly contested as the question of which books public school students ought to read."

  • No 'Great Expectations' when schools shun the classics by Kathleen Parker. Excerpt: "Call me a grouch. Call me a fuddy-duddy. Call me when it's over. I'm talking about the latest fad of shelving literary classics in favor of contemporary, more fun-to-read books, which is now being advanced by the nation's oops-educationists. Johnny can't read? It must be the books. Thus, teachers in growing numbers are tossing literature's old fogies -- Shakespeare, Chaucer, Faulkner, that ilk -- from school curriculums, and substituting more 'with-it' storytellers. You've never heard of these authors, and they won't be remembered long, even by the teens for whom they write."

  • The Classics in the Slums by Jonathan Rose, City Journal, Autumn 2004. "In 1988, Barbara Herrnstein Smith, president of the Modern Language Association, authoritatively stated ... that classic literature was always irrelevant to underprivileged people who were not classically educated. ... One should not be too hard on Professor Smith. She was merely echoing what was, at the time, standard academic opinion ... And like so many postmodern critics, Professor Smith could be naively confident that she was in full possession of the facts, even without the benefit of research. But her theory had no visible means of support. Whenever it was tested, the results were diametrically opposed to what she predicted: in fact 'the canon' enabled 'the masses' to become thinking individuals."

  • Turning to Classics to Stir Troubled Youth by Samuel G. Freedman, New York Times, August 18, 2004 "When Kurt Wootton was fresh out of graduate school and brimming with idealism, he took a job here teaching English at Hope High School. He was white, his students were black, and so he assumed the best way to reach them was through relevancy. ... Almost a decade later, Mr. Wootton remains every bit as convinced of education's power to transform stunted lives. He has changed his tool of choice, however, from a mirror in which students see only reflections of themselves to a window that opens onto the rest of the world. [Now he] teaches literacy to children in some of Rhode Island's most troubled schools though performances of texts, many of them classics of the Western literary canon."

  • From noted author Ray Bradbury:
    Some five years back, the editors of yet another anthology for school readers put together a volume with some 400 (count 'em) short stories in it. How do you cram 400 short stories by Twain, Irving, Poe, Maupassant and Bierce into one book? Simplicity itself. Skin, debone, demarrow, scarify, melt, render down and destroy. Every adjective that counted, every verb that moved, every metaphor that weighed more than a mosquito -- out! Every simile that would have made a sub-moron's mouth twitch -- gone! Any aside that explained the two-bit philosophy of a first-rate writer -- lost! Every story, slenderized, starved, bluepenciled, leeched and bled white, resembled every other story. Twain read like Poe read like Shakespeare read like Dostoevsky read like -- in the finale -- Edgar Guest. Every word of more than three syllables had been razored. Every image that demanded so much as one instant's attention -- shot dead.
  • How Students Learn To Loathe Lit by Christina Moreno, The Johns Hopkins News-Letter, October 28, 1999

  • The Decline of the English Department: How It Happened and What Could Be Done To Reverse It by William M. Chace. American Scholar (Phi Beta Kappa), Autumn 2009.
    "What was the appeal of English during those now long-ago days? ... What we read forced us to think about the words on the page, their meaning, their ethical and psychological implications, and what we could contrive (in 500-word essays each week) to write about them. With the books in front of us, we were taught the skills of interpretation. Our tasks were difficult, the books (Emerson's essays, David Copperfield, Shaw's Major Barbara, the poetry of Emily Dickinson, and a dozen other works) were masterly, and our teacher possessed an authority it would have been 'bootless' (his word) to question.
         "Studying English taught us how to write and think better, and to make articulate many of the inchoate impulses and confusions of our post-adolescent minds. We began to see, as we had not before, how such books could shape and refine our thinking. We began to understand why generations of people coming before us had kept them in libraries and bookstores and in classes such as ours. There was, we got to know, a tradition, a historical culture, that had been assembled around these books. Shakespeare had indeed made a difference‹to people before us, now to us, and forever to the language of English-speaking people."

  • A case-in-point on lightweight children's "literature": "Grim Tales" by Kari Jenson Gold, a comparison of two versions of "The Little Mermaid", the original by Hans Christian Andersen and a book based on the Disney movie that the author found in her daughter's classroom.

  • "Critics lament lack of children's books with illustrations that whisper", Columbus Dispatch, February 10, 2002.

  • Many education reformers point to weak and theory-based schools of education as the source of many of the problems in today's schools. In many states, an ed school student can graduate from college having sailed through a lot of coursework in theory, or group projects, or education history, but surprisingly little actual subject-matter content compared to students in the more demanding disciplines of the college. In "Can Little Mary Learn if Teacher's in the Dark? 'Technique' gang aims to steer the college training away from content" (Los Angeles Times, October 27, 2003) Jerry Griswold asks, "What happens when [ed school] content classes get eliminated or watered down? Consider literature. Teachers who haven't been required to read and study a rich range of writers are not likely to introduce your kids to socially significant books and classic masterpieces. Forget To Kill a Mockingbird and Charlotte's Web -- for these kinds of teachers, selecting class reading material gets narrowed to ransacking the library shelves for, say, Halloween-themed books. Even in school districts that require the use of quality literature, if future teachers aren't taught to recognize the meanings of stories, they will perpetuate superficial reading in their students. And poor reading skills mean poor performance on state and national exams."

  • Fiction Is Subject With A History -- It Should Be Taught That Way by Flannery O'Connor, March 21, 1963. (Note: some references to this essay have cited its name as "Total Effect and the Eighth Grade".) "In other ages the attention of children was held by Homer and Virgil, among others, but by the reverse evolutionary process, that is no longer possible; our children are too stupid now to enter the past imaginatively. ... Like the college student who wrote in her paper on Lincoln that he went to the movies and got shot, many students go to college unaware that the world was not made yesterday; their studies began with the present and dipped backward occasionally when that seemed necessary or unavoidable."

Lack of Common Content

  • Excerpt from "The Knowledge Deficit" by Diane Ravitch: "Today's English tests never ask questions about literature, except for poems or short passages that are included on the test. Test writers cannot assume that students have previously read anything in particular. Few states require students to read any specific author or literary work."

Non-Fiction

  • Bibliophobia by Will Fitzhugh, The Concord Review, July 6, 2006 "I have a fair amount of anecdotal evidence ... that nonfiction books, for instance history books, are not being assigned at all. ... For the last two decades, I have been working to encourage the writing of history research papers by our high school students, but it has become apparent to me that one of the many problems in getting students to undertake such a task is that so many do not read any history, and so have nothing to write about. But as I began to try to find out about the reading of nonfiction books, I have found more and more apathy and acceptance of the situation in which as long as the English department controls reading and writing in our schools, the reading will be fiction, and the writing will be personal, creative or the five-paragraph essay. ... Ignoring academic writing and the reading of nonfiction books at the high school level can only prolong, it seems to me, the high levels of remediation and failure in college that we already have."

  • Filling the Great Void: Why We Should Bring Nonfiction into the Early-Grade Classroom by Nell K. Duke, V. Susan Bennett-Armistead, and Ebony M. Roberts, American Educator (American Federation of Teachers), Spring 2003. The authors report that only 14 percent of materials that primary-grade teachers reported reading aloud on a given day were informational, and that as little as 12 percent of the content in some basal readers is informational. They blame the lack of interesting, substantive material on three "unsupported beliefs":
       1. Young Children Cannot Handle Informational Text
       2. Young Children Do Not Like Informational Text
       3. Young Children Should First Learn To Read and Then Read To Learn
    The authors tackle each of these falsehoods in turn, and explore the harm that they can do.

  • The Latest Dismal NAEP Scores by E. D. Hirsch Jr., Education Week, May 2, 2001: "instead of the term 'reading gap,' clarity would be better served by using a more descriptive term like 'language gap' or 'verbal gap.' ... No schools that I know of, including those calling themselves 'comprehensive' and those calling themselves 'Core Knowledge,' have effectively integrated the time spent on reading 'skills' with time spent on 'subject matters' during the long periods devoted to 'language arts' in the early grades. Instead, those critical periods of the day are devoted to a fragmented hodge-podge of mainly fictional stories -- on the unexamined assumption that fiction is the essence of 'language arts.' This emphasis on 'imaginative fiction' and this lack of emphasis on history and science, or even on systematically enhancing basic speaking and listening skills, is yet another vestige of the romantic movement's emphasis on natural development and 'creative imagination,' and yet another barrier to narrowing the equity gap."

  • Reading Too Much Into the Need for Reading Instruction by Karin Chenoweth, Washington Post, June 10, 2004. Excerpts: "Not only can schools combine reading with social studies and science, they must do so. Otherwise, they don't get readers; they get decoders who cannot understand what they are reading. Schools and school systems that cut back on social studies and science in favor of reading instruction have misinterpreted what reading is..."

  • William Zinsser, in his book Writing Well, says, "The great preponderance of what writers now write and sell, what book and magazine publishers publish, and what readers demand is non-fiction."

  • Thomas Jefferson had a rather pointed view on the role of fiction in education:
    A great obstacle to good education is the inordinate passion prevalent for novels, and the time lost in that reading which should be instructively employed. When this poison infects the mind, it destroys its tone and revolts it against wholesome reading. Reason and fact, plain and unadorned, are rejected. Nothing can engage attention unless dressed in all the figments of fancy, and nothing so bedecked comes amiss. The result is a bloated imagination, sickly judgment, and disgust towards all the real businesses of life.
    -- Thomas Jefferson, 1818
    (Jefferson did made an exception in favor of works that inculcated a "sound morality.")
    Also see:
    • ...our page on the use of story as a powerful vehicle for non-fiction instructional content.
    • ...the section on the crisis in literacy in our page on reading.

"Stark'n'Dark" --
Disturbing and Bleak Content

    "There is no sadder sight than a young pessimist."
    -- Mark Twain
  • The Case for Good Taste in Children's Books by Meghan Cox Gurdon, Children's Book Reviewer, Wall Street Journal published in Imprimis, July/August 2013. "Books tell children what to expect, what life is, what culture is, how we are expected to behave‹what the spectrum is. Books don¹t just cater to tastes. They form tastes. They create norms -- and as the examples above show, the norms young people take away are not necessarily the norms adults intend. This is why I am skeptical of the social utility of so-called 'problem novels' -- books that have a troubled main character, such as a girl with a father who started raping her when she was a toddler and anonymously provides her with knives when she is a teenager hoping that she will cut herself to death."

  • Reflections on the "Problem Novel": Do These Calamity-Filled Books Serve Up Too Much, Too Often, Too Early? by Barbara Feinberg, American Educator (American Federation of Teachers), Winter 2004/2005. Subhead: "Once upon a time, the books we gave our young may have been too sweet, too removed from reality. Has the pendulum swung too far in the other direction? A writer and mother reflects on the pros and cons of the 'problem novel' -- that ubiquitous subgenre of adolescent literature in which tragedy piles on tragedy."

  • The theme of the above article is explored further by its author Barbara Feinberg in her book, "Welcome to Lizard Motel: Children, Stories, and the Mystery of Making Things Up."

  • The Scream!, a review by Diane Ravitch of Barbara Feinberg's "Welcome to Lizard Motel." Excerpts:
       "Barbara Feinberg contends that most of the young adult novels that teachers assign to teenagers are dreary, depressing, and didactic. Rather than encouraging impressionable students to read more, these so-called problem novels turn young people into reluctant readers. Furthermore, she holds that the writers' workshops that have spread like kudzu through American elementary schools ... deaden children's creativity.
       "She listens to her 12-year-old son and his friends as they discuss the novels that their teachers have told them to read over the summer. The boys don't like them. They seem, in fact, to hate them. The books that her son, Alex, and his friends are compelled to read are highly regarded by teachers and professors of education. Many come decorated with Newbery medals and endorsements by the American Library Association. They are books known in the field of children's literature as Young Adult (YA) literature. All are highly realistic, written in a confessional tone, usually in the first-person voice of an angry or alienated teenager. The protagonist deals with traumatic experiences: murder, suicide, the death of a parent or friend, incest, sexual abuse, rape, drugs, abortion, kidnapping, abandonment. Friendly or protective adults are virtually nonexistent; the main character's mother ... is dead, missing, or nonfunctional. Children in these novels almost never play. Often they feel guilty for whatever catastrophe befalls them. The books are uniformly humorless, earnest, and depressing. Their message, to the extent that they have one: the world is a nasty and brutish place, and you can depend only on yourself.
    "They give me a headache in my stomach."
       "What is missing from YA books, says Feinberg, is any recognition of the role that imagination and fantasy play in children's ways of experiencing life. Instead, the books seem dedicated to shocking children, destroying their fantasies, and giving them a mean dose of reality. One of the children that Feinberg knows said of these books, 'They give me a headache in my stomach.' It is as though the authors, the publishers, the teachers, and the professors of education share a bizarre consensus that ordinary children need to be shaken out of their complacency, stripped of their innocence, and frightened by the horrors that the world has in store for them at any moment. ...
       "What Feinberg nicely exposes is that the entire field of children's literature specialists has bought a flawed bill of goods and has sold it to the nation's teachers. They have persuaded themselves that their job is not to promote excellent literature, but to promote depressing problem novels. In doing so, they seem to be turning young people away from literature in droves. Last year the National Endowment for the Arts issued a report called 'Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America,' which found that the proportion of young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 who read literature has declined sharply in the past two decades. Perhaps the professors should ask themselves whether their prescriptions have contributed to this unfortunate trend."

  • "Youth Fiction Takes a Stark, Eerie Turn", by Julia Duin, The Washington Times, December 17, 1999. The subhead is, "Literature for teens is full of images of rape, demons, torture and more. It's a hard, cruel world out there in books for the younger set." Here is an excerpt: "Teen-age literature, termed "young adult" for those 12 and over, is full of adult themes such as gangs, rape, mental illness, animal torture and demon possession. Ann Tobias, a children's book agent ... calls them 'four D books' -- about death, divorce, drugs or dismemberment."

  • Young Readers, Harsh Reality by Martin Arnold, New York Times, June 13, 2002. Excerpt: "These included stories about a boy accused of putting his baby sister into a coma, a young master criminal robbing fairies of their gold, a 14-year-old pondering not only her lingerie but also which way to turn her head when kissing, a parentless child with cerebral palsy and a tattooed druggie, and a brilliant, stunted 12-year-old and his gigantic friend whose father is in prison for killing his wife. There's also a book about a boy being beaten to death with a baseball bat by classmates ... And oh yes, there's a graphic comic strip novelization of 'Remembrance of Things Past' in which an adolescent Proust is 'receiving some rather interesting attention from an older man,' according to the publicity material."

  • Are Your Kids Reading Rot? by Rebecca Hagelin, August 16, 2005, Excerpt: "Don't let the following scenario unfold in your home: Mrs. Jones hands out a book report assignment that includes several books for her class to choose from. Mom dutifully drives Suzi to the local library and browses while Suzi selects her book. Within half an hour, book in hand, everyone is feeling rather satisfied that they have been so responsible in starting on the project early. Mom and Suzi arrive home, and while mom begins making dinner, the conscientious and responsible Suzi heads to her room and begins to consume what turns out to be highly sexualized, vulgar garbage, filled with four-letter words and enough verbal porn to embarrass even an ol' salt."

  • Should Raunchy Be the Fourth R? by Warren Throckmorton, Ph.D., August 18, 2005. "School districts have been facing decisions over what should be in the library as long as there have been libraries, but recent changes in the world of children's literature and our society have focused the debates on teen sexuality."

  • Popular Culture and the Threat to Rational Inquiry by Douglas R. Hofstadter. Excerpt: "A couple of years ago my son Danny, then 8, was obsessed, as were so many kids of his age, with the Goosebumps books ... with these high- and pop-culture trends comes a profoundly disturbing collective shift in attitude. The general public no longer views science, let alone the ultimate truths of the universe, with a sense of awe and mystery, but instead considers it conservative and mundane, 'trapped' in logical thinking. ... The great danger, in my estimation, is not so much that vast numbers of children and adults will get sucked wholesale into truly goofy belief systems (channeling, abduction, and so on), but that they will be misled into accepting the implicit message that science is boring, conservative, closed-minded, devoid of mystery, and a negative force in society. Again, this message is not overt, but tacit, perhaps not even consciously intended. Yet it is precisely this subliminality that makes it so insidious and dangerous." (See another excerpt from this article in the section here on science.)

  • This point of view is worth considering: Anti-Catholic Bias in Children's Literature by Inez Fitzgerald Storck

  • The Corruption of Children's Literature (Even In Catholic Schools) by Inez Fitzgerald Storck, New Oxford Review, June 1998. "It is tragic that authentic literature is slowly disappearing from public and school libraries, and being replaced by a tidal wave of children's books written by people who appear to have been convinced by cultic psychology..."

  • 2 Lazy 2 Teach by Michelle Malkin, June 30, 2004. "Some lame-brained school officials have decided to ditch the sonnets of Shakespeare for the tripe of ... slain gangsta rapper Tupac Shakur ... The presumption that children -- and particularly inner-city children -- can only be stimulated by the contemporary and familiar smacks of lazy elitism and latent racism. These educators, and I use that term as loosely as gangster rappers wear their pants, are clearly more interested in appearing cool than in inculcating a refined literary sense in students. Their aim is not enlightenment but dumbed-down ghetto entertainment."

  • Gender Bias: On our page about gender bias and equity, see this section on Portrayals of Boys and Men.

  • "I think all the depressing books we read in school discourages the student body to read outside of class."
    -- a high school junior quoted in the New Trier school newspaper, December 7, 2007, in an article about national reports of a dramatic decline in reading and literacy.

Illinois' Rebecca Caudill Awards

    Are your kids in 4th, 5th or 6th grade in an Illinois public school? Do you know what books are being suggested to them at school? Postive, wholesome stories of adventure, discovery, inspiration and achievement? Guess again. You will want to read this list of "Rebecca Caudill" books that kids in public schools all over Illinois are encouraged to read.

    Also, check out our "Caudill-O-Meter" for a quick insight into what many schools want Illinois children to read.

Questionable Content

    What is an "objectionable" book? Books that contain obscenities? Graphic sex and extreme violence? Sacriligious dialog?

    What some people see as a matter of simple decency other people see as censorship and book-burning. That makes this issue difficult and thorny to sort out. In thinking about this, two key questions arise:

    1. How far is too far? What is merely "edgy" and what is generally offensive?
    2. Why should a government school district, rather than parents, make this determination?

  • Books Too Obscene to Describe in Newspaper, but OK for D214 Students? by David E. Smith, Senior Policy Analyst, Illinois Family Institute, May 22, 2006. "A school board member in [Arlington Heights] school District 214, Illinois' second largest school district with appoximately 12,500 children, is opposing the purchase of some very controversial reading materials for students--including one book, Perks of a Wallflower, with numerous graphic sex depictions. Leslie Pinney, a newly elected member of District 214's school board, recently informed us that on Thursday, May 25th, the board will be voting on a request for Perks and several other books that, according to the Daily Herald newspaper, include 'references to sexual acts including masturbation, bestiality and homosexuality.' One parent, as quoted in the Herald article reviewed one of the adolescent books targeted by Pinney, and said: 'I don't find the content of the book to be appropriate for 15- to 18-year-old children ... What I've read so far, to me, defines pornography.'"

  • Parents Riled Over Raunchy Sixth-Grade Lit New York Daily News, December 7, 2006. "Sixth-graders at a Queens school were getting quite an education - in homosexuality, French kissing and cursing -- thanks to three books widely available in classroom libraries. ... Several parents learned of the racy books after overhearing their kids snickering about the sexual themes. The poem 'I Hate School' in a book called 'You Hear Me?' includes the rhyme, 'F--- this s---, up the a--. I don't think I'll ever pass.' Another poem compares eating an orange to having sex, while several passages repeatedly use vulgar slang for genitalia. ... Principal Carmen Parache said she had not reviewed the books until she received complaints but said they were 'definitely inappropriate.' She said classroom materials would be more carefully screened in the future. ... "You Hear Me?" was suggested for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders by the Columbia University Teachers College's Reading and Writing Project because it is the only anthology with poems written by minority teenagers, said Lucy Calkins, its founding director."

  • Beware Teen Summer-Reading Lists by Rebecca Hagelin, June 6, 2006. "This time of year, kids of all ages come home with the oft-dreaded 'Summer Reading List' from which they make their choices. ... Many of the books from the recommended lists are filled with perverted 'love' stories, sexual activity and crude behavior -- anything and everything, it seems, to get our kids' hormones heated up for the summer (as if they need any help). Of course, if you're going to challenge authorities or librarians about the appropriateness of such material for kids, as one of my readers did, be prepared to be labeled a 'right wing crusader.' ... So if your children prefer books to video games, great -- but monitor what they read. ... Talk with other parents who share your values. And, for goodness sake, spend the extra time to preview books before handing them to your impressionable young children."

  • Citizens for Literary Standards in Schools: a parents group in Overland Park, Kansas, with details and reviews for a long list of literature titles used in their local high school.

  • Excuses Excuses, prepared by Citizens for Literary Standards in Schools. Here's a thought-provoking set of responses for some of the common "excuses" for assigning questionable books in schools, such as:
    • It's "out there," so the kids are going to learn about this sometime.
    • The kids need to read this stuff to prepare for college (or to take an AP (Advanced Placement) exam).
    • These books are interesting to the kids.
    • Taken in context, the offensive material is OK.
    • The excerpts are too specific. They make the book look bad.
    • If we take a book out of the required curriculum, that is censorship, right?
    • But if these books are so bad, why are we graduating so many good kids?
    • But isn't Shakespeare also full of objectionable content? Do you also oppose Shakespeare?

    Parents Are Concerned Across the U.S., prepared by Citizens for Literary Standards in Schools. Here's an up-to-date report on battles about questionable assignments from all over the country.

    Book Reviews for Concerned Parents

  • Facts on Fiction: What Are Your Kids Reading? This site provides reviews of many books, both classics and recent, and both very positive and very troubling. Good information for the most part, though requires a maddening number of clicks to navigate.

  • Citizens for Academic Responsibility: a parents group in Richland, Washington, with details and reviews for a number of literature titles used in their local high school.

  • The name is simplistic, the tone is a bit extreme, and there is a tendency to mix the truly awful with the honestly thought-provoking. Having made that clear, it's hard to find a better source of details about what some people find objectionable about certain books than the website of Parents Against Bad Books In Schools. If you want exact excerpts from a book that you've heard might be questionable for a younger reader, this is the place to go. Just be careful not to condemn all of these books for all children. As even this website itself says, "Bad is not for us to determine. Bad is what you determine is bad."

    Movie Reviews for Concerned Parents

    As long as we've mentioned book review sites, we should also mention some resources for determining whether the content of a movie is appropriate. Parents, if you're not sure whether your child is ready for that movie that "all of the other kids" have seen, these are the places to check it out.

  • Screen-It

  • Plugged-In

Poetry

  • In Defense of Memorization: Progressive educators call it "drill and kill," but learning poetry by heart empowers kids by Michael Knox Beran, City Journal, Summer 2004. Excerpt: "If there's one thing progressive educators don't like it's rote learning. As a result, we now have several generations of Americans who've never memorized much of anything. Even highly educated people in their thirties and forties are often unable to recite half a dozen lines of classic poetry or prose. ... Should we care? Aren't exercises in memorizing and reciting poetry and passages of prose an archaic curiosity, without educative value? That too-common view is sadly wrong. Kids need both the poetry and the memorization. As educators have known for centuries, these exercises deliver unique cognitive benefits, benefits that are of special importance for kids who come from homes where books are scarce and the level of literacy low. In addition, such exercises etch the ideals of their civilization on children's minds and hearts."

  • A Lost Eloquence by Carol Muske-Dukes, New York Times December 29, 2002. "The poem in my head goes something like this:
    Sunset and evening star/
    And one clear call for me!/
    O Captain my Captain!/
    Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers/
    I'm nobody - Who are you?
    These fragments were put there by my mother, who can recite, by heart, pages and pages of verse by Tennyson, Milton, Wordsworth, Longfellow and Dickinson. On occasion, I can manage to recite the poems that contribute to my voice-over poem in their entirety. My mother -- whose voice (like the sound of waves, a kind of sea of words) is one of my earliest memories, my first sense of consciousness and language -- gave me this gift. She is 85, a member of perhaps the last generation of Americans who learned poems and orations by rote in classes dedicated to the art of elocution. This long-ago discredited pedagogical tradition generated a commonplace eloquence among ordinary Americans who knew how to (as they put it) 'quote.'"

  • What Children's Poetry Is For by J. Bottum, American Educator (American Federation of Teachers), Fall 1997. Caption: "What poems to choose for children? And why? And what might we reasonable hope that children may gain?"

  • Where Have All the Poets Gone? by Hal G.P. Colebatch, American Spectator, January 26, 2007. "Previous ages, from that of Homer to that of Rudyard Kipling, thought there was nothing odd about patriotic poetry, or about the idea that great poetry could rouse and rally and inspire a nation in a difficult struggle. But perhaps Kipling was the last great patriotic poet who was also technically accomplished, with highly effective use of imagery, metaphor, rhyme, rhythm, assonance, onomatopoeia, symbolism and even, sometimes, understatement. He combined poetic strength and vigor with artistic sensitivity and intelligence."

Political Correctness

  • "Education After the Culture Wars" (PDF doc) by Diane Ravitch, Daedalus, Journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, Summer 2002. This well-researched and powerful article decries the evisceration of literature textbooks due to publisher guidelines for cultural "sensitivities."

  • The Bottom Line In Kids' Books Is Udderly Unreal by Chee Chee Leung, The Age [Australia], April 1, 2006. "One highly successful book was not accepted in the US because it showed a bare baby's bottom. Another illustrator was asked not to draw any udders in a book about cows. Illustrators have been asked to avoid showing uncut loaves of bread and freestanding wardrobes because they might be unfamiliar to American readers. Others report being given strict ratios about the gender and multicultural balance of characters, but without too much physical detail. ... illustrator Roland Harvey, who abandoned an educational project several years ago because of what he believed were excessive demands, described it as political correctness gone mad. 'It's not only gone mad, I think it's completely irrational ... to start to think that portraying a race in a true and honest way is somehow derogatory or demeaning.'"

  • Brainwashing in Grade School by Edgar B. Anderson, October 23, 2002. Excerpt: "[McDougal Littell's] Bridges to Literature and [Globe Fearon's] American Literature present the worst that can possibly be dredged up about the United States. The apparent goal is to teach students to be ashamed of their country, especially its military. Children are encouraged not to see themselves as Americans possessing a common humanity but rather to view the world though the prism of race and ethnicity and to regard white people as the oppressor."

  • Pap for the Course by Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post, September 13, 1999. "[I]t has always been an uphill fight for literature, but never more so than now, when the forces arrayed against it are more numerous, importunate and powerful than ever before. ... But literature has other enemies as well, not least among them the prevailing assumption--especially among those who run the nation's schools and colleges--that it exists not to provide its own pleasures and riches but to serve the selfish interests of those who are forced to read it and to reinforce the 'soporific moral blather' that our self-satisfied age has embraced. That quotation comes from an essay in the current issue of Harper's magazine by Francine Prose, a respected novelist and occasional writer of literary criticism. Under the provocative title 'I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read,' Prose argues that in high school, 'where literary tastes and allegiances are formed,' American teenagers are being fed 'regimens of trash and semi-trash, taught for reasons that have nothing to do with how well a book is written.' Taking as her text '80 or so reading lists from high schools throughout the country,' she found 'a numbing sameness, unaffected by geography, region or community size...'"

Reading Lists

    Given the deficiencies in the typical school's literature program, it is often difficult to find suggestions for children's books that are challenging yet interesting and rewarding. Here are some sites with helpful recommendations for quality children's literature:

    • "Books to Build on : A Grade-By-Grade Resource Guide for Parents and Teachers" by E. D. Hirsch: lists of recommended books, aligned with the Core Knowledge Sequence.
    • In the Hillsdale Academy Reference Guide, look for curriculum specs for numerous specific literature titles.
    • Reading suggestions from the Texas Alternative Document, excerpted by Donna Garner, a Texas teacher who played a major role in the development of the TAD.
    • Donna Gardner's Reading List: Mrs. Gardner also provides a terrific reading list in her classes. There are some just wonderful books on her list that do not always appear on other lists. Plus, Mrs. Garner's list has a very healthy selection of non-fiction books, a category that is often woefully sparse on lists of reading suggestions.
    • "The Atkinson-Ravitch Sampler of Classic Literature for Home and School" -- This 32-page appendix in Diane Ravitch's much-praised book The Language Police lists a healthy canon of traditional literature from grade 3 through sophomore year of high school.
    • Reading lists from " IMSkool": Literature lists that are strong on classic American and British titles.
    • A particularly rich and detailed literature list is provided by Avonworth School District in Pennsylvania. You'll find their literature list on pages 38-62 of their Standards and Benchmarks document (PDF).
    • Moral Literature: lists of "gems" that have "stood the test of time" and have made "a difference in students' lives."
    • Classic Children's Literature
    • A political newsletter called The Federalist offers a list they call the "Patriot's Youth Library". Although the source is conservative with a special interest in the Constitution, the book list is very broad with an interesting mix of classics and fantasy, fiction and biography, and varying from simple and charming to challenging authors like C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton. It's worth a look!
    • (We welcome your suggestions for more lists of quality children's literature!)

Sources for Great Literature

    Here are some Internet sources for classic literature:

  • Project Gutenberg: "Project Gutenberg is the oldest producer of free electronic books (eBooks or etexts) on the Internet. Our collection of more than 13.000 eBooks was produced by hundreds of volunteers. Most of the Project Gutenberg eBooks are older literary works that are in the public domain in the United States. All may be freely downloaded and read, and redistributed for non-commercial use."

  • Bartleby Library: Great Books Online: "The preeminent Internet publisher of literature, reference and verse providing students, researchers and the intellectually curious with unlimited access to books and information on the web, free of charge."

  • University of Virginia Electronic Text Center, Online Resources in English

  • Study of American Culture, University of Virginia: Dozens of classic American books, documents and texts.

  • The Internet Classics Archive at MIT: "This archive contains 441 works of classical literature by 59 different authors, including user-driven commentary and "reader's choice" Web sites. Includes classics of Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Aristotle, Euripides, Herodotus, Hippocrates, Homer, Marcus Aurelius Antonius, Machiavelli, Tacitus, Plato, Plotinus, Plutarch, Sophocles, Thucydides, Titus Lucretius Carus, and Virgil, all in English translation."

  • Romantic Circles, University of Maryland: Byron, the Shelleys, Keats, and their contemporaries.

  • American Verse Project: University of Michigan

  • Renaissance Electronic Texts, University of Toronto: "A series of old-spelling editions of early individual copies of English Renaissance books and manuscripts, and of plain transcriptions of such works, published on the World Wide Web as a free resource for students of the period."

  • Bibliomania Classic Fiction: "Thousands of e-books, poems, articles, short stories and plays including Dickens and Joyce, Sherlock Holmes mysteries, all Shakespeare's plays, Mark Twain, Anton Chekov and Edgar Allan Poe." Annoyingly, each page of each book is on a separate web page. However, there is a search facility to find text within a book.

Links

    Links to some excellent other sites about LITERATURE issues in schools:

  • Martin Kozloff's collection of resources on literature

  • Texas Alternative Document (TAD): website offers a wealth of information for building a language arts curriculum that is grounded in phonemic awareness and phonics, followed by a wide variety of quality literature. For additional information, read further background on TAD, as well as statements of support for TAD from major education leaders.

  • From our extensive list of books on education, see this section on books about reading and literature.

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