lessons, directions for setting up a
writer’s notebook, literary analysis questions, collaborative activities, handouts,
transparencies, 20 detailed lessons,
quizzes, and projects. The guide is 122
pages long and includes numerous
pages listing goals and “habits of
thinking” that teachers should foster in
Why is this guide so exhaustive?
Because it’s aligned to the massive
number of standards found on California’s standardized exams each spring.
As a result, teachers are driven into a
“teach all things in all books” approach.
I am not suggesting that the goals in
this unit of study are not worthy; they
are. But using all these lessons to teach
one novel, which teachers must do if
they are to prepare their students for
standardized exams, is a recipe for
readicide. If I were to follow this
curriculum guide step-by-step in my
own classroom, there is little doubt my
students would exit my class hating To
Kill a Mockingbird—and possibly all
In the quest to prepare students for
every standard that might be covered on
this year’s exams, teachers now chop
great books into so many pieces that the
books cease to be great. One teacher I
observed, for example, required
students to share their thinking on a
sticky note on every page of Romeo and
Juliet. As a result, this timeless work
became an extended worksheet. Its
beauty—its value—got lost in a sea of
sticky notes. Imagine going to see a
great movie, only to have the projectionist stop the film every four minutes
to see if you are taking notes. Now
imagine being forced to read a novel
this way, and you’ll see how overteaching destroys students’ desire to
The antidote to this practice is not to
simply assign great books and turn
students loose—this practice leads to its
own dangers—but to find what I call
the sweet spot of instruction that gives
students just the right amount of
support for complex texts. Let’s look at
the flip side of how many schools intro-
duce students to literature.
books when they read such books on
their own. Assigning a book is not the
same as teaching a book. When too
much assigning and not enough
teaching occurs, students are on the
road to readicide.
Teachers underteach books.
This may seem strange coming on the
heels of my argument that too much
teaching can kill a book, but underteaching a book can have equally devastating consequences.
At the end of her 10th grade year, my
Reversing the Trend
Realizing that neither chopping up
books nor handing students a classic
and wishing them good luck are the
way to get students to read deeply,
teachers must constantly search for the
sweet spot of just enough reading
instruction. To help find this balance, I
a book is not
the same as
teaching a book.
daughter was handed The Grapes of
Wrath and told to read it over the
summer. Her teacher did not “frame”
the novel for her in any way; she
provided little, if any, background information or support, and she communicated no purpose for reading the book
other than to prepare for an exam on
the first day of school. The assumption
was that, as an honor student, my
daughter could handle the task. You
might guess what happened. My
daughter started to read the novel,
became frustrated, turned to a summary
on Spark Notes, passed the test, and
grew into an adult who still thinks The
Grapes of Wrath is a lousy book.
If students could read academic texts
or challenging literary works by them-
selves, they would not need teachers.
But, of course, most cannot gain the full
benefit from—and enjoy—difficult
ask myself as I assign texts, How much
do my kids need me at this juncture of
reading? How much support would be
too much right now—or not enough?
You probably understood every word
in the above passage, but I am guessing
that unless you know baseball well, you
had a tough time comprehending it.
Your inability to understand the passage