Earlier this week, I suggested that teachers should be courageous in their attempts to advocate for the use of great literature in the classroom. I also advised that the challenges that come with such a task may include criticism, isolation, disbelief, and disparagement from colleagues. Little did I know that I would encounter these very perils within 24 hours of writing that last post and would, quite literally, have to practice what I preached.
Yesterday I attended a training session to prepare teachers for collecting evidence for alternative assessment portfolios, required for students not proficient enough in English to meaningfully participate in a grade-level assessments. Our readers may remember that last year some of my students were required to complete these portfolios and used their Tolkien studies to demonstrate their knowledge of various language arts standards. Imagine my surprise when, at a certain point in the presentation, I discovered a slide titled “Appropriately Leveled Text”. On this slide there was a picture of Alan Lee’s illustrated edition of Lord of the Rings and a fill-in-the-blank statement that said, ” This text is appropriate for_______________.”
I immediately began to feel a bit anxious, as I knew it was unlikely any other teachers in my school district had used Lord of the Rings as the basis for evidence collection. “They must be referring to me,” I thought, as I braced myself for the public humiliation I was about to receive. Finally, we reached that slide in the presentation and to my horror, the presenter spent the next five minutes publicly berating the judgement of “a teacher” to use Lord of the Rings with ESL students, who “clearly are not capable of reading such a difficult book.” She complained that Lord of the Rings is “not appropriate” for ESL students and that if these students truly could read and understand a book like that, then they don’t need to participate in alternative assessments.
It was very difficult for me to sit there silently and endure public humiliation in front of hundreds of colleagues while the presenter misrepresented my intentions and inaccurately represented my students. Though it was not the appropriate setting for me to argue Tolkien’s merits in the classroom, I found her argument for whether it is appropriate reading material or not to be weak, and comparing apples to oranges when using it as a determining factor for assessment participation. Teaching Tolkien has also served as a platform for me to advocate for ESL students. Their abilities are often underestimated, and my experience yesterday proved that sometimes the very people who are supposed to be advocating for this population are also guilty of placing unfair limitations on these same students.
Once you tell a child they are not capable of reading a book, you have already told them their intellectual potential is limited. When skeptical colleagues question why I expose my students to challenging literature, I like to share a story with them. When I was in 3rd grade (ironically at the very same school I now teach at), I spent a lot of time in the library. I would peruse the shelves searching for interesting books. Reading was always easy for me and encouraged in my house, so I never feared books. One day I discovered Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Struggling to remove its massive weight off the shelves, I estimated it to be the largest book in our library. I was determined to read that book, and I did; every word of it. Did I understand it all? No, but I felt a sense of pride that I had “read” it and later on rediscovered that book, when I was old enough to fully comprehend it, and was open to the experience because of my positive early exposure.
Do I expect my students to understand every word or nuance of The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings? No, but I am giving them an opportunity to have a positive initial experience with Tolkien. Whether they take to it or not is entirely up to them, but I have planted the seed. I must admit that yesterday’s experience was not the first time I have been publicly ridiculed for my educational views. I had a similar encounter at a training session several years ago, where I was singled out for using Shakespeare with ESL students. Though it is a little frustrating to keep feeling that your personal philosophy on literacy is a solitary one, as Polonius said in Hamlet, “to thine own self be true,” and that’s exactly what I intend to do.