An Old 9th Grade English Notebook…
and What we Think We Know About Education These Days
Everybody knows that our schools are in crisis. It’s common knowledge the quality of our schools has been declining since
since we were younger (whenever that was). Over the years, the curriculum has been watered down, or dumbed down, to make it easier for “those people” to pass. Who exactly those people are depends on one’s personal bent. Some may say that we stopped failing students because of those people with low self-esteem. A racial component is often added to discourse when the claim is made that schooling has never been the same sine Brown v. Board of Education when perfectly good white schools had to make the curriculum easier for
you know who.
So when my father showed me his first wife’s ninth grade English notebook from 1933 I was very interested in its contents. Given what “everybody knows” above, it’s common sense that the contents of this notebook would be much higher than anything being learned in 9th grade today.
Robert A. Heinlein once wrote, “If everybody knows such-and-such, the it ain’t so, by at least ten thousand to one.” So it is with this notebook, though I’m not clear on the ratio.
The notebook opens with two sheets, most likely prepared by the instructor listing about sixty questions or prompts which the student is either expected to know or to respond to. The two pages may be a study guide. I’m not sure. The sheets cover everything from Elizabethan literature to twentieth century literature (up to 1933, as that is the date on the notebook). Using Blooms Taxonomy to analyze the prompts I was shocked to discover that almost every single one is a low order, or content level, question. Such examples include, “1. Find as many definitions as you can of the word, ‘poetry’.” Or “17. What is the meaning of meter in poetry?” There were a number of explanation questions, my favorite being the awkward, “62. Explain Pilgrim’s Progress.” Yes, that’s a complicated question, but still largely content or comprehension level knowledge.
None of the prompts required higher order thinking skills such as analysis, evaluation or creation. At best, one prompt, “14. Write a verse of a narrative poem; give its title and author,” requires the student to apply her knowledge of narrative poetry to identify such a piece. Nowhere did the teacher require the student to, say, compare and contrast Elizabethan poetry to twentieth century poetry, or to assess the value of folk tales as means of transmitting culture, or, heaven forbid, ask the student to write a Shakespearean Sonnet.
As I continued on, the notebook appeared to be a portfolio project on Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. Now this looks a little better for sustaining the claim that that, compared to 1933, 2013 curriculum is lower. According the Accelerated Reader, Scott’s original Ivanhoe is a 12.9 grade level, meaning that it is written at the reading level of a high school senior in her ninth month. I do not know if the student was using the original, but let’s make that assumption.
The notebook continues on with mostly content level questions and information. There is very little feedback from the teacher, but each page is marked with a red check. There are some comments written in red, in different writing than that of the student. I think it is safe to assume that the red pencil is that of the teacher’s. The red check almost certainly indicates that the student satisfied the requirement. So this is not a case where I’m analyzing a low level student’s work and assuming that it represents the standards of the teacher. Evidence indicates that the work did satisfy the requirements for the project. The notebook included many character sketches of the main characters of the book. These sketches were strictly descriptive. There’s no indication of the character’s motives or perspective. Nothing suggesting that the student is expected to understand point of view.
Finally, the portfolio ends with an essay titled “William the Conqueror.” Again, the essay has the teacher’s red check of approval. I’m not sure of the rubric used by the teacher to grade the essay, but I noticed one problem. The student did not stay in context. Her introduction was a single paragraph, presumably the thesis, “One purpose of Scott in writing Ivanhoe, was to show how the Anglo-Saxons, who inhabited England, were treated by their conquerors, the Normans.” Not bad. I would suggest that this is a pretty strong thesis for a ninth grader. I would be impressed to see even my eleventh graders write such a thesis. However, this student does not actually address the thesis in her essay. She goes on to describe the Norman Invasion and the Battle of Hastings. She does this well. The essay ends with a brief explanation of how English is a derivation of Anglo-Saxon and French. Now, in ninth grade, this happens, but there’s not comment from the teacher written in the notebook. Of course, that’s not to say that the teacher did not comment verbally.
Regardless, there’s nothing in this notebook to suggest that the quality of education being received by this student is any better than the quality received by students today. Indeed, such a portfolio project given today would be expected to be balanced in all of the domains of Blooms Taxonomy. Florida Sunshine State Standards do expect the student to be able to explain the text, but also provide analysis of things like historicity and author’s intent, comparative analysis, etc. Indeed, this portfolio project only satisfies one component of today’s Common Core Standards. That is, the student is clearly demonstrating that she can read on grade level. In fact, she can read well above grade level.¹ Otherwise, this project is not up to the demands for satisfying contemporary curriculum requirements.
To be fair, the innovations I used in this post did not exist in 1933. The first iteration of Blooms Taxonomy came out in the late fifties. Accelerated Reader was developed by Judi Paul in 1984. The Common Core standards are in the process of being implemented as I type this sentence. But that’s just the point, isn’t it. Students today have so much more potential to develop in the classroom and in the school environment because teachers have so many tools at their disposal to ensure success.
I do have one concern with regard to contemporary students as compared to this student from 1933. This student actually had the opportunity to read a great book like Ivanhoe. Her teacher clearly had the opportunity to expose this student to a great deal of great literature. With all of the tools at our disposal to guarantee the success and development of our students, oftentimes these gifts are misdirected toward raising test scores rather than enlightening young people. This was a constraint that the student of 1933 did not have to worry about.
- As an aside, the student has great handwriting. I don’t know if this represents an expectation of the teacher, or is simply her handwriting, but every teacher I know would love all of their students to have such handwriting.