Maybe some of you remember a time in grade school when you and your classmates read a whole novel–Charlotte’s Web, Where the Red Fern Grows, The House on Mango Street, The Outsiders–the list goes on. You took your time, several weeks or longer. You had discussions, small group and large. You wrote journal entries about the characters. You staged debates. Sometimes you even drew pictures or wrote songs.
Not anymore, particularly for students who attend schools with sizable populations of students with challenging “socio-economic” profiles–the kinds of schools that tend to score lower on one-shot sit-and-deliver tests every spring. Under immense pressure to improve their students’ scores, most of the teachers in these schools don’t have the time for novels. Fiction in general has been relegated to a lesser status. Non-fiction is what the policy-makers have deemed most indispensible in order to prepare our youth for the world of work, a readiness which is now determined by whether or not our schools are whipping Singapore’s ass on standardized test scores.
Instead of whole books, what constitutes “reading” has become a frantic race to cover as many short pieces as can be crammed down a kid’s throat as possible, and every damn one of them followed up by a quiz that will be added to a chart that theoretically measures progress or a lack thereof. A widely-used curriculum, Fountas and Pinnell, features “58,743 books submitted by over 300 publishers. Every book is meticulously reviewed and leveled by Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell in conjunction with their team of hand-selected levelers using the F&P Text Level Gradient™.”
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry!
Wait a minute. That’s a whole book. It’s about racism, and the reader experiences it through the voice of Cassie Logan, a fictional nine-year-old in rural Mississippi. What she and her family experiences is horrible. In a vicarious way the reader undergoes the same injustices, and feels the pain and fear and outrage. A lot of kids growing up in pre-test-mania America got to feel those emotions in the safety of a classroom, and that had to effect a lot of White kids in a way that was much deeper than someone telling them racism is bad.
That kind of power can’t be duplicated by a twenty-minute stand-alone non-fiction or even a fiction piece, followed by a test. The purpose of reading becomes moving up a chart. The reading of a novel, especially before grade seven, has become a rare or non-existent occurrence.
This is not the choice of the teachers. Many of them love novels and have fond memories of reading them in school. They hoped to share that same experience with their own students. But they have too many other things to “cover,” and when the principal asks about students’ growth, it will refer only to their comprehension scores.
Bummer, huh? This is not a good trend for authors, unless you happen to be cranking out short non-fiction with vocabulary choices that are easily leveled.