Sunday, April 22, 2007

Why teach English?

Teaching English is more than a career; it forms an integral part of my identity. Below is a list of reasons why I choose to teach English rather than another discipline.

  • Communication is the foundation of human relationships. As an English teacher I equip my students with the tools to successfully communicate in a myriad of ways. At a basic level they learn the essentials of grammar and essay writing. My students also learn the different modes of writing as they practice crafting persuasive, narrative, and informative essays. English class is a rich environment for discussion, debate, and presentation of ideas. No other class focuses so whole-heartedly on the importance of meaningful communication.
  • Opportunities for critical thinking abound in an English classroom. Literature can be examined on a variety of different levels using different critical lenses. "What would a Marxist say about this work? A feminist?" Students study diction to gain an understanding of the power of words and connotation. Metacognition is another tool invaluable to the English teacher: I can see the lightbulbs going on over my students' heads when they realize that thinking about reading amplifies their understanding of the written word. When students begin taking notes while they read, they see a difference in their understanding which often translates into better grades and test scores. The opportunities to think critically are limitless in an English classroom and these skills extend into other facets of a student's life.
  • What subject can elicit more passion than the study of English? The beauty of words and their power to capture the human condition is at once awe-inspiring and accessible to English students. My students produce written work that makes me laugh out loud, and I have been moved to tears by their oral presentations. English teachers provide students with an outlet for expression that can open up a new world to them by providing a mirror with which to examine their heart, mind, and soul in earnest.
  • English is easily applicable to the world outside the schoolhouse. How do we use English lessons on a daily basis? On the same day a person may write a grocery list, memorandum, personal letter, e-mail, diary/blog entry, and business letter. They may tell a story, profess their love to a significant other, and argue persuasively (perhaps all at one time). They might summarize a reading, evaluate a work of art, and present their ideas to a group of colleagues. All of these incidentals of life require skills sharpened in an English class. It is my fervent belief that knowledge learned in English class is as directly relatable to a student's life as those learned in Driver's Education or Home Economics.
  • English is MY passion. I cannot imagine living in a world where I wasn't surrounded by books. I love reading fiction and non-fiction encompassing nearly every genre. I even take out movie scripts from the library and pore over them, dissecting the dialogue and reshooting the film with the camera in my mind. As a budding author I encourage my own students to, as Faulkner put it, "kill your darlings." If your writing can be improved, strike down your wilting words and replace them with writing that shows rather than tells. I am currently working on my second novel and actively shopping my first manuscript to agents, a process that gives me even greater appreciation for the authors we study in English class.

The study, consumption, and creation of English is an integral part of my life that I feel compelled to share with my students. I teach English because I believe firmly in the power of critical thinking and communication. I believe English class more than any other gives students passion and utility at the same time. As much as I am a man, or a New Englander, or anything else I may profess to be, I am an English Teacher. No other part of my identity instills me with more pride than that.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Raven and the Diamond

Ravens, like many bird species, are attracted to shiny objects. I read a story once about a homeless man who stumbled across a raven's treasure trove of objects inside a hollowed out elm tree. The stash included broken watches, discarded bottle caps, and a diamond ring. It seems so impractical: I mean, what's a raven doing with a diamond ring? I found myself thinking about this story at a staff meeting today. Months ago expensive new television sets, cameras, and speakers were installed haphazardly in our classrooms. We were given a remote control and told training would commence shortly. Today that training finally took place.

The idea is that the camera will videotape our lessons and students in the alternative school can get their lessons even while not physically in the room. We are expected to control the camera by remote control, zoom in on the board, and otherwise operate the camera while starring in the lesson. Oh, we're also supposed to teach 20-30 students who are in the room while we do this. I am skeptical about all this to say the least.

In my opinion, this is another example of school districts (not just mine) doing everything they can to cover their butt. If a child in alternative school failed a test or class, they could blame the school for not delivering instruction. Now, schools can give that child a live feed of our lessons. Realistically, this may have an extremely small positive effect for a small group of students. In other words, tens of thousands of dollars (perhaps more) have been spent to potentially help trouble-makers learn a little better. Maybe this would be less frustrating if we had the money at our school to buy copy paper.

No Child Left Behind really means cover your butt. Schools (and this is a generalization that does not only apply to my school) will do whatever it takes to keep up the appearance of progress. There is no incentive to innovate or try meaningful school growth, because you don't get any points for that. Cover your butt, teach to the test, and make it look like you are helping every student. It's not all bad, all this documentation and assessing, and schools should be held accountable. I just think we need to find practical solutions that help the largest number of students possible, rather than throwing out large sums of money to help a small group of students who chose to violate school rules.