Making Kids Hate Great Literature, One “Interim Assessment” at a Time

In my 22+ years of teaching, one of my all-time teaching joys has been having kids read Frederick Douglass’ first Narrative published in 1845.  This first of three autobiographies covers his young life up to the point of his emancipation as a young man.  One hardly knows where to start when listing reasons why this thin volume is one of the great documents in American Literature and History.  I especially like this “Barnes & Noble Classics” edition, which includes a preface written by Profession Robert O’Meally.  The preface includes a fall-down funny anecdote of teaching Douglass in Boston during its time of forced busing.  You’ll just have to read it.

And if it’s one of those classics that has slipped by, you absolutely have to read the Narrative itself.  My 8th Graders, students identified as “Gifted,” have often looked warily at the book at first, for despite it thinness (ALWAYS a good quality in a book to your typical 8th Grader), it is written in the prose style of 1845.  It takes my kids a few pages, and a bit of guidance and encouragement, to understand the style and start to “get it.”  Soon though, in very large part due to Douglass deliberately and adeptly writing with a young audience in mind, the students lose their wariness and, on their own, comprehend the incredible, often horrific, tale Douglass relates.  The adjustment to 1845 prose ends and an extremely profound level of understanding about the pure banal evils of slavery takes it place.

Which gets me to the very, very recent Albuquerque Public School English Language Arts Performance-Based Task for 7th Grade (yeah, we teachers have the longest titles for everything EVER.).

I’ve written a bit about this new “interim assessment” recently.   I can’t say I’m unhappy the “testing window” is just about closed, but I’ll avoid ranting about the whole idea of “interim assessment” APS style for now.  Instead, let’s focus on the following.  The 7th Grade ELA essay “prompt” was a passage from the 1845 Narrative.  This essay “task” included none of the following:

  • Any substantive preface of who Frederick Douglass was;
  • Any meaningful context to the events surrounding writing of the book, particularly where the publication date of 1845 sits on the timeline of slavery/The Civil War, etc.;
  • Any help with any of the circa-1845 prose whatsoever; and, 
  • Any encouragement to ever, ever read anything by Frederick Douglass again.

Not to be conspiratorial, but if someone were to be in charge of an Anti-Frederick Douglass Committee, nobody at any Committee meeting EVER could come up with a better plan to make sure kids started hating Frederick Douglass than the roll-out of the aforementioned overly long-titled “Task.”  And every 7th Grader in the District had this prompt.  Naturally, the essay directions were full of deliberately confusing Common Core teacher mumbo-jumbo designed to trip up those who didn’t realize “analytical” means the same as “analyze” and other designed befuddlements.  The end result, not only in my class of Gifted 7th Graders, was long, painful staring, perhaps punctuated by interior monologue along the lines of “I don’t know who this Frederick Douglass is, but I hate his guts.”  My kids ended up writing essays, but after it they felt neither good about themselves nor Frederick Douglass.

Need I mention that I’m saying all this as a huge lover of the Narrative?  My love for this book and its author’s ability to tell his story so forcefully and in a language kids, even in 2015, can eventually understand, is just about endless. I guess that’s why seeing this prompt and the heinous lack of teaching/guidance is so repulsive to me.  How could you ruin such a wonderful experience, folks?

Before I go, I’ll leave you with a certain photo I used to bounce off the aforementioned preface by Dr. O’Meally written at the time of forced busing in Boston.  I’d show the photo below and ask my Albuquerque kids, having told them nothing about the photo’s context, time period, etc., what they thought was happening in the picture.  Naturally, after much guessing and critical thinking I’d provide the context, time period, etc. and explain that this famous photo was taken during Boston’s struggle with busing and tie it back to Professor O’Meally’s preface.  Then we’d start reading the Narrative.

I know it might sound boastful, but it’s just plain damn teaching sense.  THAT’S HOW you teach Frederick Douglass, APS.  That’s how.

Oh, and now the photo…

Soiling_of_Old_Glory

Source:  “Soiling of Old Glory”. Via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Soiling_of_Old_Glory.jpg#/media/File:Soiling_of_Old_Glory.jpg

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