Saturday, August 21, 2010

Waiting for Daedalus: James Joyce in 8th Grade?

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was...a gigantic mistake.

The Common Core Curriculum Maps.

Yep. I had hope to exhaust what I might have to say about these maps in my last posting, but then I read the middle school maps and found more words to speak. The 8th grade maps, especially the fourth unit, simply defy common sense.   In the "Authors and Artists," a four-week unit,  the "essential" question: How are artists and authors similar is posed.  I'm a bit unclear as to why and for whom that question is essential, but was willing to pretend it could be essential to someone, somewhere.  What baffled me though was the list of 4 stories that were offered as the stories for the unit. They were:

From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (E.L. Konigsburg)
Leaving Eldorado (Joann Mazzio)
Talking With Tebe: Clementine Hunter, Memory Artist (Mary E. Lyons) (easier)
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (James Joyce) (advanced)

Okay, Mixed Up Files, a story about an 11-year-old girl and her younger brother who run away from home and head to the Met. Perhaps a bit young for 8th grade, but it could fit.  Leaving Eldorado, an epistolary novel features 14 year old Maude who turns down marriage to become an artist. Historical fiction that could be an appealing read for some 8th graders, especially girls. Talking With Tebe: Clementine Hunter, Memory Artist, a picture book biography about an African-American sharecropper who was an artist is intended for younger audience, but certainly might be appealing to 8th graders as a quick read. Three books with three strong female protagonists.  

What about boys? Well, I guess that would leave the last selection. Let's see what was that?  James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  It does feature a male protagonist. But wait a minute.  Portrait in middle school? 

Yes, Portrait. 

I had to reread the map a few times to be sure that I hadn't taken a wrong turn.  Perhaps there was in some parallel universe another text by the same name.  But no, it's the moo cow coming down along a very slippery slope.  There was one assignment provided to guide the reading of the text. Yes, just one. I know it's hard to image any one task could sufficiently scaffold a teen's reading of a novel, especially one as complex as Portrait, but just one was provided:

Literary Response
How does James Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness style in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man help you understand the character’s motivations? Write responses to these questions in your journal, citing specific examples/page numbers from the text. 

Okay, so I'm a slow study, but at 51, I am still trying to understand Stephen's motivation and that's after reading and teaching Portrait, Dubliners and reading Ulysses as an adult.  I can't imagine why a 13-year-old would care to read Portrait, nor why educators would offer it as one of four choices for a unit about artists and authors. Surely there must be other texts more worthy, more appealing to young teens; one's teens might offer.  

This brings me back to the point I raised in the post prior to this: who did these educators have in mind when they wrote these maps?  Did they imagine that at the end of reading Portrait (if some student actually got that far) that the student(s), like Stephen, would declare: 
Welcome, O life, I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality
of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated
conscience of my race...Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.

This is the problem with epic constructs, such as curriculum maps, made by others and offered as national models--they are without location--without voice and context.  Rather, these maps privilege paper and pencil tasks that find their expression mostly in the completion of essayist compositions.  In crafting these units, the educators seem to have confused rigor with difficulty and relevance with elitism.  Offering Joyce to 13 years old will do nothing more than frustrate them and their teachers.  

Finally, how does reading these texts or any of the ones offered or writing the essays assigned actually help a student to answer the "essential" question: How are artists and authors similar?  I always thought authors were artist. Isn't that what Stephen is declaring?


  1. It does boggle the mind and make you question the motivation behind so much that is in the maps. I'll often shake my head and think "This is essential? To whom?"

  2. I think we need to ask about the motivation behind these maps. I'm not so sure it is just misguided work. Thanks Amy for posting a response.

  3. I have an MA in English and still struggled with Portrait - and Joyce for that matter. To me he was pure drudgery.

  4. I hear you Kim. Although I loved Portrait, I can't imagine why I would want to have 8th graders read it.