I recently got my hands on a teacher’s edition of the 11th-grade textbook for American literature that is used in most Virginia public schools. (Why American literature, you may ask? Well, I’m looking for ways to connect Shakespeare to American lit, which actually isn’t as difficult or as incongruous as it may at first sound). To get a better sense of what I’m aiming at, I’ve been reading through some of the sections. It’s been a while since I was in the 11th grade, after all, and as an AP student, my material was somewhat different. We actually didn’t use a textbook that year; we had class sets of individual books. So I wanted to see what it is that most 11th-graders get.
Frankly, I’m alarmed. Not by the selection of works — it all seems pretty standard, but still comprehensive, hitting the major authors, all of the overarching trends, while also introducing some offbeat selections and some cultural diversity. The book is well-organized, arranged chronologically but also cross-referenced by genre. The layout is accessible and easy-to-follow. What concerns and troubles me is how low the bar seems to be set for these students.
Should words like “habitually,” “morbid,” or “comply” really be words that sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds need defined in the margins for them? “Lucid”? “Virtuous”? “Obstinate”? (Personally, “obstinate” was a word I had in my lexicon by the time I was 8, mostly because my mother used it to describe me so often. As for “pillage” and “plunder,” also terms the book thinks need defining, I think the recent crazes for pirates and fantasy worlds have assured widespread knowledge of those concepts). These are just a few examples — I’m actually keeping a running list as I go through of terms that the book thinks are beyond the grasp of 11th-graders, that I know I remember being on vocab lists when I was in 6th or 7th grade — and it’s a long list. But the problems extend beyond underwhelming vocabulary. Do you really need to be an “advanced learner” to talk about how an author’s use of adjectives creates mood and atmosphere? Shouldn’t identifying cause and effect be something an 11th-grader already knows how to do? Or choosing the correct case for a pronoun?
This is not to say everything in the textbook is so appalling. The selection of works seems appropriate, an analogous to what I remember being the major topics and heavy-hitters of American lit. There are quite a few good ideas in here — I particularly enjoy some of the creative writing prompts, imitating different styles or genres, such as satire or Gothic romance, or playing with conventions like frame stories. Many of the activities, essay prompts, and discussion topics are thoughtful and appropriate. Working with metaphors, exploring ethos and pathos with advanced learners, applying an author’s perspective to the word choices he or she makes — these are worthy ideas. (There are also, though, some terribly misleading ideas — like suggesting that the narrative of Poe’s “The Raven” what’s important about the poem, moreso than the rhyme and rhythm). Some of the cross-curriculum connections open up wonderful opportunities for exploration. And I have no problem with defining obscure or archaic terms, like “binnacle” in Moby Dick or “termagant” in The Devil and Tom Webster, or with identifying allusions, such as references to scripture or to historical places and people, that could easily be lost on modern readers. Those are all good and useful margin notes. If this was a 7th or 8th grade textbook, I’d be perfectly content with it. It seems about on the level of what I remember from middle school. But for the 11th grade? For 16- and 17-year-olds, who are only a year or so away from college? It’s a little absurd.
Here at the OCS, in all of our seminars and workshops, we tell teachers and students alike that Shakespeare’s language just isn’t that hard. 98.5% of his words are still in use — and The fault, then, dear readers, is not in the vocabulary, but in ourselves. Because the thing is, if you tell students they won’t understand the words — as this textbook does, by over-defining words well within the grasp of your average 16-year-old — then they’re more likely to decide that whatever they’re reading is just “too hard” and to consign it away to something they can’t do, could never understand, and, subsequently, won’t do. Tell them it’s too difficult, tell them these words are beyond their understanding, tell them something written in the past is removed from their own experience, and you’re giving them permission to fail. Tell them it’s within their grasp, that it applies to them, and that you expect them to get it, and they just might believe you, put in the effort, and succeed.
We should expect better. Is teaching to the lowest common denominator really the best way of approaching material? How many of those kids who we think “couldn’t” keep up just haven’t ever been properly challenged? I know I always performed better in classes where more was expected of me, not less. When teachers expect little, little is what they’ll get.
Clearly, it needs to start well before the 11th grade. Language skills and reading comprehension need to be fostered much earlier. Kids also need to know from the start that the expectations are high. They’ll learn to meet them. But if the expectations are always low, they’ll pretty quickly figure out just how little they have to do to get by.
So, my challenge to teachers — and one that I put myself to as well — is this: Set the bar high. They’ll clear it. They might need your help to do so, but that’s what you’re there for. Judging by this textbook, right now the bar is so low they’re more in danger of tripping on it.