Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Do Students Need Four Years of English .... or homework?

I once taught in a school where a single research paper in English class, including the creation of "fifty note cards," was an actual graduation requirement. It was a stupid idea at best, but it more likely bordered on educational malpractice.

As an English teacher with a passion for teaching reading and writing and roughly twenty-five years of experience in the classroom, I probably shouldn't be asking this, but do high school students really need four years of high school English class? It is a pretty standard mantra nationwide that high school graduation requirements include an indisputable "four years of English" and then variations of two to four years of math, science, social studies, foreign language, and the fine/practical arts. And, I'm thinking that this conventional wisdom is naive at best, but probably more ineffective and even detrimental to the K-12 education process in this country. It is, of course, colleges and universities that drive this requirement, or expectation, (which is really a mandate). But let's be honest:  if a student took five years of math, four years of  science, and two or three of English, social studies, and fine arts, would he be "less prepared" for college and university classes?

Of course not.

Granted, the general roles of reading  and writing in the success of college students cannot be disputed. Certainly, "Composition 101" remains the flunk out course for so many colleges nationwide, and if a student can't read and understand his textbooks or write decent essays and research papers, he will truly stuggle and probably not finish his degree, which is a very real problem in this country. That said, the expectation that four years of English class will solve the problem and equip students with all the study skills they need to be successful is a bit of an exaggeration, if not an actual absurd assumption. Merely taking four years of English in high school is not a guarantee of college readiness, and students may cultivate reading and writing skills just as effectively in a social studies or science class. It's undeniable that many high school classes nationwide simply aren't that challenging - and a high school creative writing class won't automatically included a quality and rigorous workload of college prep writing. And, over several decades I have been frustrated and disappointed by knowledge of students who "didn't graduate" because they had all their credits except one semester of English or a single research paper. It's simply ridiculous.

For far too long, I have worried about the expectation and understanding that the high school English class is the only place where students actually learn to read and write. They should be learning those skill in all the content areas. Few English teachers, I believe, would disagree with me. Yet, if the understanding is that students learn the skills of reading and writing and thinking in all classes, then we must let go of the misguided belief that all students need more English classes than any other curriculum, core or otherwise.

Of course, this won't end until colleges and universities ease their dictatorial control of the classes that they mandate high school students must take in order to be "college ready."

Let's start an honest conversation about "what students really need to know."

Oh, and to be true to my post title: we need to cut down on the homework at the high school level. School should be like Disneyland because the classroom is "where the magic happens."