All teachers are incredibly important, but high school English teachers will always have a special place in my heart.
I am in my fourth decade as an educator, spending almost two decades as a public high school English teacher (many years coaching and teaching/advising journalism/newspaper as well) and now in my second decade as a teacher educator (primarily working with future secondary ELA teachers) and a first year writing instructor.
Significant in my teaching journey are being in my area National Writing Project (Spartanburg Writing Project) and then serving as a lead co-instructor in that same project for a couple years.
Concurrent with my career as an educator, I have been a serious and published writer for about thirty years. And of course I have been madly in love with books of all kinds since before memory.
I write this specifically to my colleagues who are high school English teachers, but all teachers really, out of my greatest respect for teacher professionalism, importance, and autonomy—as well as my deepest commitment, the sacredness of every single student who enters any teacher’s classroom.
While at times this may read as scolding, preaching, or prescribing, I am seeking here to invite every teacher to do what I have done my entire career—stepping back from practice as often as possible, checking practice against my most authentic and critical goals, and then changing that practice if those do not match.
I am fortunate that my students often contact me, email or Facebook are common, and generally they are too kind. Typically, they reach out to thank me for preparing them as writers, and few things could make me prouder to be a teacher.
But these moments are tempered at times because they are speaking from decades ago—during years when I now know my practice was off, sincere but flawed.
So I come to teachers with this invitation from many years thinking hard about teaching literacy, focusing on writing, and being a serious writer myself. These thoughts are informed by years teaching English, years teaching young people to be teachers, and years teaching other teachers as well as observing practicing teachers in the field.
I have been fortunate recently to teach four young women who have secured their first teaching jobs as English teachers. Working with them has impacted me profoundly because they are wonderful additions to our field, but also they have encountered a field and practicing teachers who have routinely discouraged them and me about who teaches and how we teach English.
Michelle Kenney’s The Politics of the Paragraph coming in the wake of two separate debates about the use of “they” as a singular gender-free pronoun (see my The Politics of Teaching Grammar) along with my current literacy graduate course has all spurred me to the thoughts below—this rising concern about how English teachers impact our students as free people and as literate people.
My lessons also are strongly shaded by the history of the field of education broadly and English teaching narrowly as I have come to understand both through the lens of Lou LaBrant. Teaching and teachers have been profoundly and negatively impacted by eternal forces for a century at least, and those corrosive forces have been intensified during the recent thirty-plus years of accountability driven by standards and high-stakes testing.
Now, then, I offer this invitation to consider lessons I have learned about teaching English:
- Begin with and remain true to authentic literacy, and then comply with standards and testing mandates within that greater commitment. Our planning and practice must start with our students’ literacy being sacred—seeking ways to foster eager readers and writers who still must often demonstrate literacy proficiency in the worst possible settings. This is not a call to be negligent, but to be dedicated to the power of literacy first and bureaucracy second.
- Forefront your expertise and professionalism 24/7. Teachers have never received the professional respect we deserve, and during the accountability era, our professionalism has been even further eroded by shifting all the authority for how and what we teach to standards and high-stakes test. Our expertise and professionalism are our only weapons for demanding the authority for teaching be with us—not bureaucratic mandates, or commercial programs. Every moment of our lives we are teachers, and every moment we are representing our profession.
- Teach students—not programs, standards, test-prep, or your discipline. Especially at the high school level, and particularly during the accountability era, we are apt to lose sight of our central purpose in teaching English—our students.
- Resist teaching so that students acquire fixed content and instead foster students as ongoing learners. Recently one of my teacher candidates attended a course in which fellow English teachers were adamant they needed students to learn to cite using MLA by memory. My former student resisted this, suggesting that students should understand citation broadly and then be equipped to follow the ever-changing and different citation guides they will encounter as college students and beyond. This exemplifies a central flaw in teaching English that views learning as acquiring fixed content. Read Lou LaBrant’s New Bottles for New Wine (1952), in which she implores: “Do our students know that our language is changing, that it is the product of all the people, each trying to tell what is in his mind? Do they understand their own share in its making and re-creation?” (p. 342).
- Become and remain a student of language. What is your background in the history of the English language? How much linguistics have you studied? For me, a key shift in teaching English was embracing a descriptive grammarian stance informed by linguistics and the history of the language. This allows me to view student language use as part of that history, and helps me focus on teaching students to play with language and then to edit and revise their writing, instead of focusing on “correcting.” This is central to having a low-stakes classroom that sees language as investigation.
- Reject deficit views of language and students. The prescriptive grammarian comes from a history that linked language use with people’s character—a false link. While ideas such as the “word gap” is compelling, it is both false (based on one flawed study) and counter to what we know about literacy and power. Language changes, and claims about “correctness” are always more about power than either language development or literacy. Please read James Baldwin’s If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is? and Ralph Ellison’s What These Children Are Like.
- Foster genre awareness in students while interrogating authentic texts (and rejecting artificial writing templates). As Kenney details, writing templates may prepare students for artificial demonstrations of literacy (high-stakes tests), but they ultimately fail authentic writing and literacy goals. Published writing nearly never follows the 5-paragraph essay template, and the whole thesis idea is equally rare in published writing. Students as writers need to be eager readers who are encouraged to mine that reading constantly for greater genre awareness about how any writer makes a piece what the writer is seeking to accomplish. What is an Op-Ed? A memoir? Investigative journalism? A feature story on an Olympic athlete? The essay form, even in academia, is a question, not a template. Please read Ann John’s Genre awareness for the novice academic student: An ongoing quest and Neil Gaiman’s “The Pornography of Genre, or the Genre of Pornography” (it is clean, I promise, and from his collection, The View from the Cheap Seats).
- Be a dedicated reader and writer yourself. While I argue above for being a professional educator 24/7, I caution here about allowing our teacher Selves to erase our literate Selves. My voracious reading life and my co-career as a writer are invaluable and inseparable from my being an effective teacher. Our reading and writing lives keep us grounded in our authentic goals eroded by accountability.
- Choice, joy, and kindness. Writing in 1949, LaBrant warned: “On the other hand, we should not, under the guise of developing literary standards, merely pass along adult weariness” (p. 276). How often have we allowed prescription and standards-based, test-prep instruction to instill in our students a distaste for reading and writing? If we demand all students read Shakespeare or The Scarlet Letter, and then most of them come to hate reading, if we hammer the five-paragraph essay into students who wish never to write again, what have we accomplished?
And to offer an umbrella under which my invitation to my lessons rest, I believe we must heed John Dewey:
What avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his own soul: loses his appreciation of things worth while, of the values to which these things are relative; if he loses desire to apply what he has learned and, above all, loses the ability to extract meaning from his future experiences as they occur? (Experience and Education, p. 49)