Many years ago, I was sitting in the last class session of the capstone secondary ELA methods course as part of my M.Ed. The guest speaker that day was my high school English teacher, the man responsible for my primary career path, Lynn Harrill.
Lynn was friends with the professor, who was then working at the state department of education, I believe.
Toward the end of the class, the professor asked what we wanted our students to know when they left our classes. That question was followed by lingering silence.
Ever the eager student, I said, “I want them to know themselves,” and I caught a glimpse of Lynn smiling widely.
Of course, that is what Lynn had taught me, although most people probably assumed it was reading and writing Lynn had so expertly given his students (which, by the way, was also true).
This moment—one of a very idealistic and naive young teacher, me—comes back to me often, and despite my many failures as a teacher, that grounding goal has always guided me. Not to be simplistic, but I teach students—that’s why I teach.
While reading Four Stories That Homework Tells Children About School, Learning, & Life, I was struck by “STORY #3: School Is More Important Than Other Pursuits/Interests/Activities.”
And now I have to investigate that memory again.
Yes, Lynn Harrill changed my life by being my sophomore and junior English teacher in high school. He was gracious, kind, and encouraging to a deeply insecure and anxious teen (me) who had decided he was a math and science person—because that is what school had told me.
Junior high English classes had been mostly draconian English teachers, grammar book exercises, and diagramming sentences. The “English” content of those classes was easy (I made As), but I loathed it all, even the texts we were assigned to read (much of which we did not read).
Now, before I launch into whining, let me be clear that my story is about how school failed me—but that because of my tremendous privilege (white, male and—according to traditional schooling and standardized tests—high verbal and mathematical intelligence), the consequences of those failures were miniscule. I attended college and continued to make As (easily), leading to an MEd and EdD.
I share this, then, not to bemoan poor pitiful me (or to brag), but to highlight that schools often fail students in ways we do not acknowledge and that the consequences for those students who need schooling most are monumental.
While I was begrudgingly playing school and succeeding, at home I was engaged in a rich array of hobbies and interests that school not only ignored, but also indirectly refuted (even Lynn told me as a 10th grader I needed to stop reading science fiction [SF] and start reading real literature such as Fitzgerald).
I was collecting, reading, and drawing from thousands of Marvel comic books. I was voraciously listening to popular music and studying the lyrics. And I was doing the same with comedy albums, mostly George Carlin and Richard Pryor.
My reading life, as I noted above, was Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, Arthur C. Clarke, and whatever works were prompted by my mother’s SF film fascination. I fell in love with The Andromeda Strain because of the film, and much of my formative life was driven by the five Planet of the Apes films and TV’s Star Trek.
My response to the real literature endorsed by Lynn was tepid (but always the mama’s boy, I did as teachers told me to do), but my life was irrevocably changed when he also recommended writers I would never be assigned in the rural South of the 1970s—notably D.H. Lawrence.
Well, damn, I thought. This is literature?
My journey from student to teacher began in my sophomore year of high school as I began to untangle the false narratives school had taught me and came to embrace the authentic narratives of my real life, my real Self, outside of school.
More than a decade into my teaching career (in the position Lynn left at my high school) and in the same doctoral program Lynn had completed, I finally discovered critical pedagogy as the complete vision of student-centered teaching and learning I had been haphazardly practicing.
Regretfully, my entire career as an educator (18 years as a high school ELA teacher and then 14 more years, and counting, as an English educator and first-year writing professor) has occurred under the antithesis of student-centered critical education—the high-stakes accountability movement.
All of which, ironically, I have been prepared for by the very reading material school marginalized, science fiction and dystopian fiction.
Standards, high-stakes tests, and accountability fail students, fail teachers. They conspire to do exactly what homework accomplishes in story #3 above.
I cannot step away form this: I must teach those students placed in my care, and that duty requires me to find out who they are, what they know, and what they want so that we can work together so that they find who they are and who they want to be.
So, I wonder with the new year, and the allure of resolutions—who is with me in 2016? Can we make this about students and not standards, not tests?