Tuesday, May 17, 2011

English Class - Business or Pleasure

Recent comments from a reader, as well as curricular discussions with colleagues, have led me to recently ponder the English classroom and the phrase "life long lovers of reading."

That phrase has always bothered me, especially when it is used in reference to the job of an English teacher and the role of the English classroom. There is a clear line between reading for pleasure and the study of literature, and no English class/curriculum should be designed with the goal of "creating life-long lovers of reading." We can, and should, teach them to "appreciate literature," but not to love it. No math teacher is tasked with making students "love" the "joy" of a "wonderful algorithm." No social studies teachers is expected to pursue the goal of "loving" the timeline of the Civil War. No science teacher is expecting "love" for the beauty of a graph or chemical reaction. We don't expect for schools to create life long lovers of jazz music or basketball or writing or texting or nursing or fixing pipes or installing software or filing or calculating or .... or anything.

English classes are about developing literacy and critical thinking skills - not developing hobbies. Simply because there is an "artistic quality" to the content, does not mean that "loving" the art is the purpose of the class. Literary analysis is not about discovering the joy of a wonderful book, though that can certainly happen -it's about understanding important societal themes and appreciating effective use of language. And no author ever wrote a novel or poem with the intention of it being assigned to students to read and deconstruct. It just so happens that great literature is the perfect content for students to practice the higher level thinking skills of rhetorical analysis. And the themes of great literature also allows schools to be purveyors of culture and sources of character instructions as the stories allow students to understand literature as a "record of the human experience."

But loving reading? You can't teach anyone to like something. And you shouldn't try.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Teaching and Facilitating

Darren at RightOnTheLeftCoast addresses the issue of "teaching" versus "facilitating learning." Here are my thoughts:

Years ago, when I agreed to take on a student teacher, I first heard the term "learner facilitator" from the college's education department chair who introduced candidates that way at a meet and greet. And I mocked the term endlessly after that. In the classroom, I have always been a traditional, classical instructor, and am wary of "foo foo" education.

In my high school honors freshman English classes, I spend 3/4 of the year instructing my students on how to study literature as high school students, rather than the middle school language arts focus of simply reading and commenting on stories. We learn to analyze language and literature by focusing of diction, syntax, tone, mode/genre, allusion, allegory, rhetorical strategies, as well as thematic analysis. We also develop skills of rhetorical analysis in our writing, focusing of modes of literary analysis, style analysis, and argumentation.

In the final quarter of the year, I literally use the terms "sage of the stage" and "guide on the side," as well as "teacher/learner facilitator" when I expect them to put into practice the skills they have learned during the year. With the final works of the year - pieces such as Old Man and the Sea and Beowulf - the responsibility is on them. They lead discussion, research the scholarly work, develop a research assignment, and prepare for the final evaluation of their skills. Of course, I am there for guidance and will not let them miss an idea or perpetuate a misinterpretation. But they really need to walk the walk and put skills into practice. And the evaluation is literally weeks long.

The focus is on skill, not content, and they must apply the skills to all content. So, there is a time and place for "facilitating learning" in the classroom. That is true for my students as they work toward the AP language exam where the content is a mystery and they must be able to apply the skills I have "taught" them to any content. My pass rate of 94%, with more than 3/4 of students receiving 4s and 5s, validates the success of this model.

That said, teaching or facilitating isn't really the point, as long as learning is happening. Thus, in the grand scheme of public education, "Best Practice" is really about whatever works.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Politics and Double Speak

In this era of partisan politics run amok, there is no greater time for citizens to be attuned to what George Orwell called the politics of the English language. With that in mind, I always seek in my classroom to help my students become "people on whom nothing is lost." It is an imperative that they become astute and aware to manipulation by language. The example I give them at the beginning of the year is the clever wording that a Gingrich-led GOP was able to institute regarding taxation on inherited income. By effectively switching the terminology from the traditional "inheritance" or "estate" tax to the more negatively connoted "death tax," they re-framed the issue and fundamentally changed the debate. The problems of this were nowhere more evident than in a national poll where 75% of Americans said they supported the estate tax, but 75% of them opposed the death tax. It was the same poll to the same group of people - these potential voters were so manipulated by language, they didn't even know what they believed.

With this in mind, I think it's worth taking a look at what is arguably one of the greatest example of political doublespeak in the history of American politics. It's the infamous "whiskey speech" by Mississippi legislator Noah Sweat. This speech was delivered on the floor of the legislature in response to questions about his position of laws limiting the production and sale of alcohol.

My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about whiskey. All right, here is how I feel about whiskey:
If when you say whiskey you mean the devil's brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it.
But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman's step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life's great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it.
This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.

Spoken like a true politician - a unique species always worthy of study.