Monday, November 23, 2015

Teaching English, Not Just Literature

High school English teachers are tasked with a pretty significant curriculum load when you consider how extensively they must be teachers of content and teachers of skill.

English teachers are asked to teach a variety of literary ideas from a seemingly endless list of titles, and there is often no rhyme nor reason to why one book is chosen, other than the fact that the teacher likes it. Of course, there are the standards of the canon, and certain genres are common as part of American history and culture. Accordingly, the challenging nature of the language and the themes should increase with each grade level - for example, Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens is probably much more effective with juniors, whereas Lord of the Flies can probably be included in most freshman classes. The goal of a literature-based curriculum is, of course, two-fold: teachers are asked to impart and develop literacy in terms of skills of reading and critical analysis while they are also asked to be "purveyors of culture." Arguably, character education is the goal.

However, beyond the literature-based components of the job, English teachers are tasked with teaching students how to write - and this is often the most neglected part of the job. The reason is obvious: to assess writing, teachers end up buried under mountains of essays. And far too many high school English teachers do not consider themselves composition teachers. For some, they just love their novels and stories too much. Others, perhaps, simply don't really know how to teach writing. And, alas, there are some - perhaps many - who simply don't like to grade essays, so they don't assign them. In discussing pedagogy with teachers, I understand all too well the challenge of actually "teaching English" well. Beyond curriculum - which often contains more than good teaching could accomplish in several years - teachers must culttivate skills which kids master at wildly different intervals. This is a problem.

Ultimately, teaching English is about develop competence, then mastery, with facilitating language. But what that looks like on a daily basis varies widely.

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