High School English – The Right Argument

Kim Brooks has published an excellent piece in Salon.com entitled “Death to High School English,” and it’s spot on. So spot on, in fact, that it’s painful to read. I make the statement every day that I’m a writing teacher, and the statement becomes an argument over time. I love literature; like Brooks, my latter two years of high school English were an awakening for me, but so was photography and AP Art History, which she didn’t have a chance to take. For me, the opportunity to read around the canon, pieces like Cat’s Cradle and Travels With Charley did me a world of good, as did arguing vehemently through my ignorance with teachers and shaping my evolving arguments into cogent, well-organized paragraphs and essays. In university, I struggled to find a better meal ticket major than English Literature, but I stopped caring about other people’s concepts of my future and sank into a deep love of words, sentences, paragraphs, lines, stanzas, books, plays, films, and essays. This was for me, and I gave back, writing myself, mostly for myself, but loving every moment of the engagement with language.

Now, I teach high school English, and I’ve learned beyond the shadow of a doubt that I love teaching argument, media, nonfiction, and writing, writing, writing, but that it is really hard work. Unsurprisingly, I’ve had my best success in classes of between one and six. Today, I teach classes up to 18, which is still a fine number and in some ways better than a handful, because learning cooperatively often catalyzes persuasive writing and revision processes for kids who might be otherwise disengaged. Ironically, in my new position I am a literature teacher – AP Literature and courses for younger high school students designed to get them to literature, IB or AP. I have shaped my approach to non-fiction based courses like AP Language, for example, to AP Lit, working in essay forms, sentence writing, but not nearly enough grammar writ large, opting for more of a less intensive, personalized approach that doesn’t work so great. In fact, I’m looking for the grammar instruction cure all – if you’ve got it, send it my way. My personal goal for the past three consecutive years has been to improve my grammar instruction and I’ve failed three years in a row.  The good news is that it’s my goal for next year, and I’ve got two excellent partners teaching 10th grade English who share the goal.  Additionally, we share a goal to shape the curriculum at least equally around reading and writing, which is exciting. I’m bringing my experience in writing-first curriculum, which by no means abandons reading instruction, and shaping it to allow for exploration of texts through writing in addition to discussion. Or, at least that’s the plan.

Ultimately, high school English is about performance – what are we asking kids to do? Brooks’s students report:

Those who didn’t make it onto the honors or A.P. track hardly mention writing or reading at all. They talk about giving oral presentations and keeping reading journals evaluated with a big, meaningless check. They reveal putting on skits, reenacting some scene in a novel or play whose title they can’t recall. One student recounts a month of junior English class in which she and her classmates produced digital short film adaptations of the trial in “The Scarlet Letter.”

“Sounds fun,” I say to this student, a girl who would not know how to summarize a source or correct a sentence fragment if her life depended on it.

Obviously, these students are doing little to anything relevant either to themselves or their current or future language skill needs. I pick up hints of my own failings in that description, for sure. In a best case scenario, students are writing and reading a great deal, revising their work and reflecting on their learning outcomes. Mixed in there should be authentic tasks that aren’t writing and reading, but perhaps one or the other, or a media-based facsimile of writing skills, like outlining. Still, I’ve fallen prey to EnglishLite, with lots of presentations and media, and little writing or reading, justifying it by student choice. I should have worked harder and smarter to get everyone on board with what they needed to do, unit by unit.

So, what do students need to do? I take it as understood that nobody needs to read Faulkner or Joyce, Victorian novels, or Derek Walcott (everyone should read Derek Walcott, but only if they want to live a complete life as a human being, but maybe the world needs derivative traders, too). I also take it as understood that everyone should read an essay by David James Duncan, Richard Rodriguez, Judith Ortiz Cofer, Virginia Wolff, or Barbara Ehrenreich. Read, and then what?  Do they need to learn how to write? Brooks answers brilliantly:

I bounce the question off another friend, Amelia Shapiro, a longtime writing tutor and composition professor who now directs support services at a university in Hawaii.

“I hate that fucking question,” she replies. “I hear it all the time and I hate it. No one asks this question about calculus, but who uses calculus besides math majors? If the question’s going to be asked about writing it should be asked about every subject. Even students who aren’t going to stay in college need to know how to write. We’ve all gotten emails or cover letters where we’ve judged people based on the writing. It’s not an essay but it’s still communication and people fail at it all the time in profound and meaningful ways.”

When I ask her why she thinks there’s such resistance to prioritizing and teaching writing, given its numerous applications, given its overlap with critical thinking skills, analytical skills, basic communication skills, she hesitates for a moment, then answers in three words: “It’s not fun.”

True, but then, teaching (and for that matter, learning) isn’t always fun. Changing my kid’s dirty diapers isn’t fun. Dragging my fat ass onto a treadmill isn’t fun. Helping my grandmother “fix” her computer isn’t fun. Sometimes we do things not because they’re fun but because they’re important.

In a word: Word! This is it, the hard, painful truth. Teaching writing serves kids, and it’s important. Writing is communication. Every day colleagues write me emails that could mean at least two things, and even with what I like to consider advanced reading skills in English, I struggle to discern their meanings. I judge – I’m a teacher. You judge, too. Students should learn to write not because it’s a “21st Century Skill,” but because it is an essential skill. Also, writing is thinking about text, and about the world, and about our own values, and there’s nothing more engaging or authentic.

I could go on all night about what is true in this piece, but read it yourself and share a comment or two. Let’s discuss, in writing. After all, I’m a writing teacher.

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