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“High-Impact” Teaching and the Role of Literature

This post is by NCTE member, Cody Miller. 

Cody MillerI was recently named “one of the highest impact teachers” in my state. This title was bestowed to public school teachers by the Florida Department of Education for high value-added model (VAM) rankings. Like many fellow teachers and teacher educators across the country, I find the emphasis on standardized assessments misguided. Yet, I must navigate teaching in a post-NCLB environment daily.

I teach at the University of Florida’s laboratory school, P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School. Our school’s mission includes designing and implementing instructional practices that will help all learners achieve. Our population, mandated by state law, must reflect the demographics of Florida. Our student body makeup is important because we know that too often students from middle-to-upper class families receive robust literature instruction, while the remainder of students are left with narrow curriculum that prohibits students from exploring important topics raised by literature. English classes are detracked at my school, meaning that all students are enrolled in my English Honors course, regardless of test scores. This situation requires me to constantly think about differentiation in instruction while maintaining a high standard for quality work. It also means that my class discussions are rich because of the diverse perspectives my students bring. All students read at least seven books throughout the year, ranging from YAL to AP texts. My focus on literature may seem notable in the age of Common Core, but it shouldn’t be.

It’s important to note that the Common Core’s call for texts to be 70 percent nonfiction by high school includes reading across all content areas. I often hear of teachers feeling that their ability to teach literature has been diminished since the introduction of the standards. I do not blame teachers for substituting literary works for nonfiction texts in order to secure their professional livelihoods. Indeed, I believe teachers should help students understand standardized assessments as a unique genre. However, I am suggesting a literature-rich curriculum prepares students for annual standardized assessments. More importantly, this type of curriculum helps prepare students to be critical and empathetic citizens. For example, my students make connections to current social movements like marriage equality when reading Romeo and Juliet. They read across texts and write from multiple perspectives; they analyze and synthesize in their writing. In short, they read the word and the world by engaging in literature, poetry, media, and art. And they still succeed on the standardized tests because they’re engaged in more challenging work throughout the year.

When I received the notification that I had been named a “high-impact” teacher I felt a sigh of relief. Teachers, regardless of their feelings about mandated assessments, feel the pressure of the results. It is an unfortunate feeling, but it cannot be ignored. I feel strongly that quality instruction that goes beyond the demands of the tests will result in students reaching the mandated benchmark. But more importantly, quality literature instruction will cultivate a sense of justice within students, and that is the greatest impact a teacher can have.

Cody Miller teaches ninth-grade English Language Arts at P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School, the University of Florida’s affiliated K12 laboratory school. He can be reached at cmiller@pky.ufl.edu or on Twitter @CodyMillerPKY.