The Me Curriculum

You couldn’t get much farther from the life of a Georgia teenager than the world of Ernest Hemingway’s 1933 short story “A Clean, Well-lighted Place.” There, an old man in a café drinks late into the night while two waiters discuss him. The older waiter goes home with fatalistic thoughts, at one point slipping into the Lord’s Prayer but substituting nada for “Father”— an expression of his atheism whose terrible loneliness he keeps at bay with bright, familiar spaces at home and work.

The irrelevance of that scene to Georgia teens, however, doesn’t prevent the Georgia Department of Education from recommending that 11th Grade teachers issue this writing assignment to English students:

The characters in Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” are all seeking a home, a place of refuge, a place that is “clean and pleasant.” Describe your own “clean, well-lighted place,” the place where you feel safe, secure, and most “at home.”

The assignment appears in a unit on “The Aftermath of Destruction: Reconstructing the American Dream,” with readings also by Stephen Crane, Faulkner, Frederick Douglass, and many others. It comes from a Web page on which the DOE posts lesson plans to help teachers with the Common Core Georgia Performance Standards.

But how does having students write an essay about a personal “refuge” enhance their knowledge of the literature and how to interpret it? Such prompts ask them to reveal things about themselves, not analyze the texts. Other prompts under “Argumentative/Opinion” and “Informative/Explanatory” do require critical judgments, but this one, under the “Narrative” label, solicits only a private description. Why does it show up at all?

It’s not the only one. Right next to it stands another one:

In her essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” Zora Neale Hurston defines her personal experience as an African-American female in early 20th century America. Using Hurston’s essay as a model, define how it feels to be yourself (as a male, as a female, as a member of any group) in early 21st century America.

And this one from a 7th grade unit on “Demonstrating character,” which starts by citing the Cuban Missile Crisis and asks students:

If you were President of your own country and had the power to make laws, start of stop wars, end hunger, etc., what would you do? Write about an imaginary country where you are the president. Make your country the way you wish it could be.

In fact, most specimens of narrative writing in the units involve some sort of personal experience, reflection, or opinion. One from a 7th-grade unit on Civil Rights may be the very worst, which asks students to pretend they were witnesses to the horrific bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church and a friend was seriously injured. “What emotions are you feeling?” it proposes. “How will these events affect your future? What will you do to see that justice is served?”

As a college teacher of freshman English, I can see no sense in these assignments. They don’t improve critical aptitude, and they encourage a mode of reading and writing that will likely never happen in a college major or their eventual job. There is a theory behind it, of course, holding that only if students can relate to their subjects will they do their best and most authentic writing, not to mention explore and develop their unique selves.

The notion sounds properly student-centered, the motives educational, but in practice few 14-year-olds have the intellectual and emotional equipment to respond. Puberty turns them inside out, the tribalisms of middle school confound them, the worlds seems awfully big, the message of youth culture impart fantastical versions of peers, and they’re not sure who they are.

What lurid imaginings do we throw them into when we tell them to witness a bombing? Do we really expect 7th graders to ruminate upon their integrity? Ponder these assignments closely and they start to look less benevolent and more coercive. One of them in an 8th grade unit on “Adolescent identities” mentions a short story involving self-sacrifice, then says,

Think of a time in your life where you have put someone else’s needs or wants, like a family member or friend, ahead of your own desires. Convey to an audience of your peers what the circumstances of that time were, who you sacrificed for and what led you to that decision.

A 14-year-old receiving it must wonder just how self-sacrificing he must appear. If the student doesn’t remember too much and still has to fill more pages, she will fabricate the necessary details. Should he admit to having resented the self-sacrifice? Should she congratulate herself for her good deeds? The whole exercise involves so many tricky expectations that the student wonders what implicit lesson he should take from it.

Supporters of these kinds of personal experience/expression exercises will probably turn such complications into a teachable moment. But we may find another reason to eliminate them: they undermine the very standards they herald. The units claim to align with Common Core, the national initiative adopted by Georgia, each unit matching English Language Arts standards (I played a small role in early drafts of them).

Common Core, too, includes narrative as one of the three main modes in its writing standards, one for 7th grade, for instance, stating, “Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, relevant descriptive details, and well-structured event sequences”

But what Common Core means here is decidedly not what these Georgia assignments assume. Common Core wants students to know how to tell a story, recount an event, and reproduce settings clearly and sequentially. Explaining how one action succeeds another, detailing people and places, getting times right . . . these objective features Common Core favors. It does not solicit personal feelings, identity ruminations, and fantasy opinions (“what would you do if you were president?”).

The DOE needs to review these units and remove the personal assignments. It should also reconsider the philosophy that led to their inclusion in the curriculum. Georgia has adopted Common Core and these materials contravene it. More importantly, if the state wants its high school graduates to succeed in college and the workplace, it needs to stop telling them, “Narrative writing is all about me.”

-Mark Bauerlein

This blog entry first appeared on Maureen Downey’s Get Schooled blog on the website of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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