I am now almost finished with my second year as Director of Educational Technology at my current school, and my experiences have left me reflecting about the role of the secondary school in education.
Over my thirteen years as an English educator, my classroom strategies changed as my understanding of the role of an English teacher in the larger world evolved. Like many new teachers, I spent my first years in the classroom convinced that I would change my students’ lives for the better by running them through a typical English college program. They would compose essays using refined arguments and incontrovertible evidence, read the great literary classics to become cultured and well-rounded human beings, understand the intricacies of English grammar so they would never come across as illiterate when writing, and engage essays by renowned literary scholars with unrivaled critical thinking skills. At the end of the year, my 9th graders were frustrated and no closer to mastering the skills of a college graduate with a BA in English Literature than when we started. I was devastated. They just didn’t try hard enough, I would say to myself. They didn’t push themselves like students at a Catholic college prep school should. Unfortunately, I continued along the same vein for a few years, believing it my sacred responsibility to ensure my students have the skills necessary to succeed in any college they wanted.
It was not until I started teaching at a Catholic school for the underserved that I discovered how wrong I was.
The teenagers at this particular school would not normally have had the opportunity to receive a Catholic education because of financial restraints. There I realized that my responsibility was to ensure my students had the literacy skills needed to survive in the world – the real world, not the shielded educational world found on college and university campuses. All of a sudden, teaching Beowulf did not seem as vitally important as teaching the basics of written communication so they could write emails and cover letters. My students were not, as a general rule, college-bound. They were work-bound, and the role of the high school went from preparing them to succeed in college to preparing them to succeed in life.
The internal quandary in which I found myself was born from my struggle to reconcile the two goals: why couldn’t I prepare them for both college studies and real world jobs? The act of learning is not relegated to classrooms only, and my students would have to be ready when faced with the unknown, ready to respond with skills that would help them find their way out of potential problems. My pedagogical strategies were completely revamped, and while I was always an out-of-the-box thinker as an educator (a gift that saved many of my blunders early in my teaching career), I dove head-first into the unknown world of giving my students a say in their own education. They would get to choose their own methods for demonstrating mastery of the course outcomes. The majority of novels the students would read would be books of their choosing, and I would choose a few class novels based on their ability to demonstrate certain writing skills well, giving my students a practical reason to read the novel rather than just “because it’s a classic.”*
The results spoke for themselves. The students’ written communication improved, as did their reading comprehension. That was a turning point in my evolution as an English/Language Arts educator. I started to understand that my role as a secondary school teacher was to open my students to the art of learning, helping them flex their skills until those skills became strong enough to test on anything. Content became secondary, a mere tool I could use to help my students learn to be literate human beings. It did not matter if they went off to Harvard, attended a local community college, or went to work at the nearby oil refinery. Wherever they went, it was my hope that they would have the skills necessary to overcome any obstacle they encountered. This is the role of the secondary school: to train students in the art of learning itself.
*I want it made very clear that I do not believe you ever need a reason to read a novel. Reading should be relaxing and enjoyable. Unfortunately, we English teachers turned what should be an enjoyable activity into an exercise of frustration for many students, settling on the “because it’s a classic” rationale rather than “because it’s enjoyable.” As a result, I believe it is imperative we give our students a reason to open a book they would normally not read, a practical and reachable goal that will set them up for success, not failure. I know I sound reductionistic by saying that we must justify all choices we make in the classroom. Do you really need a reason to read Beowulf? Isn’t it enough that it is the first known epic poem in the English language? (Well, Old English, but just a technicality). It should be enough, yes. I wish that our students would read simply because it is an enjoyable activity. And they will – if they get to choose the book themselves. However, when we teachers assign it, it should be for a good reason.