Monday, March 31, 2014

Will the Author of St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Werewolves Please Step Forward.

Hello? Karen Russell? White Courtesy Telephone Please...

Loathe as I was to approach the much ballyhooed Karen Russell piece " St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Werewolves" I felt obliged to take a run at it for the sake of Lit. and because as usual there is the "gotcha" spectre hovering above our heads today as teachers  -- in the event that we neglect one of these morsels David Coleman et al found so frottage worthy. This is the story from which some Anti-Common Core Moms and others have extracted a scurrilous use of the term "frottage." And yes dear readers the context is the one used in Urban Dictionary, not the art text.  The work also comes with a 17 lesson script that metastasizes into a 211 pages module. And don't think for a second that these 17 lessons are going to be covered in 17 days. Not even happening. I had already peeked at my trusted colleague Reality Based Educator's website where I stumbled across this teacher's testimony of Karen Russell's short fiction after Common Core Appalachians went "Deliverance" on it: 

Here is how students have received the genius that is this EngageNY lesson module that uses one short story for three and a half weeks of lessons:
The first day, they're excited to start a new lesson and read a story that seems to be about werewolves.

By the third day, they're bored by reading and discussing the same story for three days straight and starting to get antsy.

By the sixth day, they're outwardly hostile to the lessons and the teacher for teaching the lessons. 

By the ninth day, they're totally disengaged from class and talk openly about how much they hate English.

By the twelve day, they no longer give a shit about anything - not the class, not the story, not the teacher, not the "assessment" (i.e., "test" for those of you who aren't fluent in reformy geekspeak) that is coming up on Day Seventeen.

It goes on but you get the idea. I introduced the piece with that old chestnut from Coleridge reminding them that in reading a story involving Werewolves they are being asked to "willingly suspend their disbelief." After which I cite several examples of people in annoying voices saying "Awww that aint real, that's stoo-pit!" O.k. we get it they say after my third or fourth annoying skeptical impression.  I felt compelled to say so because when I inquired who among them likes such fiction, you know spooky, supernatural, Steven Kingy... I got a roomful of 1000 yard stares. O.k. tough crowd, says I. So I remind them that we may be reading about something very human that's about more than werewolves or nuns or anything so odd and bizarre and I ask them to keep an open mind which they promise to do. 

Nobody catches the term "frottage" or even asks about it. So I offer it up and explain that some parents have complained that it's in a story being taught to 14 and 15 year olds. They shrug and say whatever but they do get why that might offend some people. The story is remarkably non controversial. Nuns are portrayed in a wooden and stereotypical fashion which doesn't matter anyway since none of these kids have or ever will experience them in an educational setting. My students shrug and smirk at the end. And when I ask them what they think of the story nobody wants to say anything. I think because they think I really liked it. Aww c'mon, it's o.k. if you didn't like it, Remember those awful Flannery O'Connor stories we read? Finally, one of the boys gives me a smile of condolence and says, I dunno, Corny... Really? Corny? Did you think it was corny? Heads begin to bob and a crack of nervous albeit relieved laughter arcs involuntarily from a girl who rarely offers much in the way of opinion. Yeah, she says, smiling. I was looking for the right word but that's it. It was just kind of corny...

Wow. After all that. These 21st century digital kids have dismissed a 211 page module neatly bisected into 17 skull splitting lessons with a single undramatic pejorative phrase. "Corny." Of course there's no way in hell I am dragging them through this Long March of a module. We ended up having some cross curricular discussions about scapegoats and their role in society through the centuries. Several kids thought of Hitler and the Jews. We also had some lively discussion about the idea that someone can be reprogrammed which veered off into the so called Pray Away the Gay therapies practiced by Michelle Bachman's husband Marcus among others. For a fee mind you. We discussed the likelihood of an imposed rehab vs. one that the rehabee seeks out for himself and which might have a better chance of changing a person. They talked about the premise that prison is supposedly a rehabilitative institution but rarely seems to do much more than churn out repeat offenders who never seem to change a thing. In all we were able to use this story for many worthwhile exercises none of which came from the module.

In my position I feel I have a fair degree of latitude in which I can still operate. My administration bends the knee and crosses the t's as needed but it's done with the understanding that we all know better and none of us wants the magnifying glass. I can't imagine the desperation of anyone bound to follow these insipid modules to the letter. Nor can I imagine being a student in a classroom and having the teacher of my favorite class drain all my love of literature, learning and intellect from me drip by drop like the worst kind of water torture. 

When Daniel Pinkwater's Eggplant and the Hare story was bought by a testing company and edited for use on standardized tests here in New York --apparently Pearson's people thought middle school kids didn't know what an egglant was -- he spoke up loudly and hammered State Ed and Pearson for using his fun nonsense story on a standardized test. He says the test company — which sells the test material for "vast sums of money" and pays the author "non-vast sums of money" — changed the story.

 He was quick to question Pearson's use of his story on a test of this nature especially when they seem to have missed the point of it being nonsense. Mr. Pinkwater (whose wife, Jill, is a former college remedial reading teacher) said he considered himself a nonsense writer, and the test-makers had taken his story far too seriously. “Well give me a break,” he said. “It’s a nonsense story and there isn’t an option for a nonsense answer.”

By now I am certain that the author Karen Russell has got wind of this mess. I know for one she has because I personal messaged her to her facebook account asking her what her thoughts were on her work being used to torture kids into hating English. I was slightly more complimentary and diplomatic. Not that I expected a response of course, I know better. The account could be handled by an assistant for all I know but a story about her was posted to her wall 5 hours previous to my message so I know it's active. I am sure there are those who'd say Aww Come on, what do you want from her? It's not her fault they put her story in there. To which I'd say no maybe not. But the fact is her work is included in a set of so called standards that are on record pace to make kids hate, skip and quit school. I think she has a moral obligation as a writer to speak up one way or the other. Either lambaste the Common Core or tell people like me to STFU. As my wife's old German grandpa used to say at the pinochle table : God hates a coward. 


  1. God must therefore be really pissed these days, Sean.

  2. No dearth of cowardice in the ed these days my friend.