Monday, June 16, 2008

Today's Lesson: Speak Up

I avoid conflict. I withdraw from situations where I am asked to stand apart from my peers. I am much more content to quietly lead by example, to sit back and listen while others debate. I rarely speak up in department meetings, workshops, trainings, or conferences unless called upon. I can be painfully quiet. I realize this is rather strange coming from a high school teacher who stands in front about 90 students on a daily basis, but when it comes to touting my accomplishments, arguing my position, or debating whether or not something should or shouldn’t be in the curriculum, I am much more comfortable listening and analyzing rather than jumping into the ring. That said, I find myself recently in a number of frustrating positions where I’ve been forced out of my comfort zone.

This morning’s three hour curriculum meeting left me drained. Although I find it intensely useful to question what we teach and how, to revisit our focus and methodologies, I find it immensely frustrating when as educators we are asked to reinvent the wheel in a different format every few years.

A few years back, the curriculum that I now love to teach was a bit all over the place, each teacher doing his or her own thing, using different books and materials. In the course of the past few years, my English colleagues and our social studies counterparts set about establishing a connection between the themes taught in the world literatures course with those taught in the world history course that students take in the same semester. Over the past few summers, we established core skills and themes: what grammar, writing, and reading skills students should leave the course with in order to be successful. Our goal was to have students walk out of our two classrooms, history and English, feeling empowered, seeing connections between what they learned in class and what they encounter in their world, and feeling more confident as critical consumers of the information they are inundated with on a daily basis. We wanted to get away from didactic teaching methodologies in favor of engaging students in the learning process. In order to be successful, students must own their learning and know their voice matters. Granted, this is also my personal take on education as well. I firmly believe that true education happens when students are in the driver’s seat and can prove their understanding in authentic situations.

Stemming from this philosophy, I developed a culminating research project about four years ago which was later adopted by all the teachers in my grade level. Based on the ideals of formative assessment (now known as assessment for learning) and authentic assessment strategies, the research project not only incorporates traditional research and expository writing skills, but most importantly, requires students find ways to share their research outside our classroom community in authentic writing and presentation situations. In the last few years, I’ve had students teach their topic to middle and elementary school students, start student clubs based on their research, write senators, create online web pages and communities dedicated to their topic, compose articles for local newspapers, sponsor community-wide fund drives, and host school-wide fairs. Students have taken this research project beyond the realms of the classroom, beyond the confines of the course, and continue to be engaged with their topics even after graduation.

Unfortunately, some of my colleagues have not seen similar levels of success. This is in part due to the fact that my grade level has seen a number of faces come and go in the last five years, which translates into a curriculum that remains a bit fragmented. This morning’s curriculum meeting was to be a time to re-establish and clarify those initial goals. So when a couple of colleagues today suggested that our research project was not "Englishy" enough, and that perhaps we should return to a final English project that asks students to analyze a literary piece, at first I sat quietly and listened.

As I heard a peer suggest that our English curriculum should focus more on teaching literary analysis and devices, about writing papers for the teacher, and reading literature in order to dissect it, I grew more and more frustrated. It is not that I think these activities don’t have value (ask any of my students what a microcosm is and they’re libel to rattle off not only a definition but a nearly infinite number of examples). However, if this is all we do in an English classroom, we are doing our students a great disservice. If students do not have the opportunity to write for a real audience, to write, read, and speak about issues that have meaning and value for them, as teachers we have failed them. Teaching English should be helping students develop an appreciation of literature and writing by guiding them through diverse and authentic interactions with reading and writing, not by dictating that appreciation to them. Very few of our students will be asked to regurgitate a definition of metonymy once they leave academia. However, all students, regardless of if they go to college, trade school, or immediately enter the working world following high school must know how to critically decipher the bias inherent in the magazine articles they read, must know how to use rhetoric in order to persuade, must know how to write for a real audience. I cringe at the thought of going back to a curriculum that is based on a set of terms and not on a set of skills. Unfortunately, teaching terms is easier, more measurable than teaching skills.

Realistically, however, I also know that as this was my initial project, and I have more investment in it than some of my peers. But I don’t think that my frustration lies with the dismembering of a research project. My frustration is born in what that project represents. I see a divide among my peers, not just those within my department but within the curriculum as a whole. On the one side are the traditionalists who argue that the teaching of literature and writing should take the shape of a more formalist approach, understanding the merits of a work’s style, devices, and diction in order to pass on the beauty inherent in a particular work of literature. On the flip side are those that argue anything can be literature – from a pamphlet, to a billboard, to a blog entry – and that it is the role of the teacher to help students critically engage and produce texts of all sorts. Granted, this is an oversimplification, but it is one that I saw emerge in today’s meeting.

I understand my role of teacher to be somewhere in the middle. I cannot force my students to appreciate literature, but perhaps I can guide them in that direction. I understand that there is usefulness in simply memorizing some things (if you know your 23 auxiliary/to be verbs, you are more likely to use action verbs to structure better sentences). However, the lessons that students remember beyond high school usually cannot be reduced to a single multiple-choice exam. As a colleague asked of us today – do you remember the questions on any particular test that you took in high school? However, you probably do remember an assignment where a teacher asked you to produce something, to be the owner of your education. And if that’s the case, shouldn’t more of our learning opportunities be structured around this philosophy. What is it that we want our students to know? More importantly, what is it that we want our students to understand and why?

What should English teachers teach?
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