The excellent author and librarian Leda Schubert sent me the following survey, which you all should read — not just in its headline points, but in its revealing details: http://www.educationnews.org/commentaries/insights_on_education/101641.html The authors set out to look at why reading ability (not reading choices, but the actual skill in reading carefull) is declining in America. They chose to focus on what it is that high school English students are reading and are required to read — the “broad middle” of students, not AP, not IB, but the generic student body. As you will see, the key concusions are — the reading is an ecclectic mix, defined by teachers here and there; the reading does not get progressively more challenging grade by grade; the responses students are asked to give to the books do not require close, careful reading but are often either personal/impressionistic or biographical social-cultural; and — you need to read further into the actual study to see this — there is almost no non-fiction, and if there is any it is either biography/memoir, or bits from some larger anthology, often enough one of a very small number of speeches by Dr. King or President Lincoln.
This new report is a cross-section of reading in high school today, and it shows a significant shift from the last such report — undertaken in 1993. Then the issue was the the books required were still very often the hoary old standards of a curriculum based on English Literature Classica — Silas Marner was still frequently required in High School, and the report was urging a more diverse selection of books, authors, and subjects. Well we got that — but as this survey shows, the price of opening up the curriculum is that it lost not only coherence but in a sense purpose. If students are not required to read books carefully, if they do not have the cultural and historical background to bring to books — and do not get that from their teachers, and if books (poems, plays, speeches, non-fiction) do not increasingly tax their knowledge and require them to grow in skill and understanding, then it really doesn’t matter if they read the phone book, or a website, or a YA novel, or Shakespeare — it is all just stuff on a page to get through.
I see this paper as a Call to Action because while my cause is non-fiction, I share the view of the paper’s authors that we need to use High School reading to develop student’s thinking skills. I would submit that non-fiction is particularly good for that, since the students can be taught to consider literary craft issues, point of view, and the subjects themselves — the there are at least those three different opportunities for critical thinking (looking carefully at art and illustration would make a fourth, a kind of visual literacy). If we can agree with English teachers that the skill of close reading is crucial to what you need to learn in High School, then it should be easy enough to suggest non-fiction book that they might assign.
But whether we wave the flag of nonfiction, or merely listen in as the fiction folks speak, this study is a portrait of a chaotic and personalistic approach to teaching English in High School — and anyone who works with high school or college students can easily recognize the unfortunate results it produces.