Viewpoints

To pass English, students should read a full book

Tiffani Harper, a nursing student at the University of Central Florida, takes notes for her online class last November.
Tiffani Harper, a nursing student at the University of Central Florida, takes notes for her online class last November. Orlando Sentinel

I recently went back to high school, in a very minor way and on my living room couch: I took an online credit-recovery course in junior year English.

The main idea was to see whether these courses, which have become a big thing among schools trying to push their graduation rates higher, are a reasonable way for students to make up courses they previously flunked, or whether they represent a shortcut to graduation.

The answer was a little of both: The course I took, which is the one offered this year by the Los Angeles Unified School District, was pretty rigorous. The readings were from classical literature and sometimes challenging. The video lectures were well done.

On the disappointing side, school districts can set up the courses so that students can pretest out of most of the units – including writing assignments – by passing a fairly easy 10-question, multiple-choice test. In fact, a couple of students I talked to said they had pretested their way through most of the course I took.

But here was the most startling thing: Through the whole course, only one book had to be read in its entirety.

This is an accredited course that has University of California approval as a college-prep English class. It’s the direction we’re moving in under Common Core, UC and other education officials told me – more excerpts and essays, not entire books. That’s true of some in-school courses as well.

I have nothing against excerpts, essays, short stories, poetry and the like. They’re part of the canon of great literature and it’s no problem to drop a book or two to make room for them.

But if we’re supposedly preparing students for college or for a future as educated adults and lifelong learners, they need to be able to read books, more than one whole book in an entire academic year.

We all should be able to appreciate books. Not only are many of them noble works of art, but they require us to focus longer than a slapdash post on Facebook or other social media ever will, and to think at least somewhat more deeply than our meme-driven society encourages us to do now.

The issue goes beyond that, though. Reading excerpts of books instead of entire books changes the nature of how literature is taught.

In the course I took online, for example, there is a reading from “The Scarlet Letter,” not easy material to tackle, and the course handles it well. But what students learn from this unit is about the use of words to create the setting and mood. In the excerpt from that even-tougher read, “Moby Dick,” the lesson is on symbolism. For “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” it’s the role of dialect and humor, including satire.

Important and apt lessons all, but they miss the true worth of literature.

Great books use many of these elements, and so much more: Lyrical word choice, compelling characters, narrative arc, insightful and brave messages. Reducing each snippet of literature to a single analytical feature negates the brilliance and beauty in works of great writing.

So let’s bring back the books, delicious, long (or long-ish) whole stories of fiction and truth. And while we’re teaching about important individual elements that help students analyze literature, let’s not forget to teach about how they come together to make unforgettable, mind-opening reading.

Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at ochikes@yahoo.com.

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