Friday, May 13, 2011

Response to "Death to High School English"

Yesterday one of our colleagues shared a link to a very thought-provoking article in Slate by Kim Brooks called "Death to High School English." I've had many similar sentiments about my own students' lack of preparation for college writing. And since I have also been a high school English teacher at one point in my life, I decided to write my initial response to the article.

First of all, I completely agree with Brooks that large class sizes and high volumes of students are one of the main reasons why writing is not the primary focus of high school English. I think that I learned how to write in college (as opposed to high school) because I wrote a lot of papers for my degree and I consequently received a lot of feedback from each of my professors on those papers. For that reason, I think that students best learn to write both by practicing a lot and by being mentored one-on-one by a more advanced writer. I try to give my students this same experience by meeting with them individually to discuss their papers. This helps me to show them how the general principles we discussed in class can apply to their papers specifically. I have found that this is one of the best things I can do as a teacher. However, the very nature of high school English works against the mentorship model, as was eloquently expressed in this essay. Providing one-on-one feedback to my students is hard enough teaching 23-69 students here at UVU, let alone the 130-200 high school students that an average high school teacher has here in Utah.

Brooks also mentioned that she is doubtful that reading classical literature is an effective way to develop critical thinking skills. She writes:

They read these works and then they talked about them in class discussions or small groups, and then they composed an essay on the subject, received a grade, and moved on to the next masterpiece. Did their exposure to a few of the great works challenge or change them, did it spur them to read more widely or more critically, or did it make them better writers? Occasionally, I guess. Mostly, they seem to recall struggling with comprehension of these classics, feeling as though they just didn't "get it," and for those students who know they will not major in English, does it really matter, they wonder.

When I was a high school English teacher, I saw the beginning of a trend among my fellow teachers to de-emphasize classical literature in favor of using adolescent literature instead. Their hope was that if they used literature that was more accessible and fun, the students would learn to enjoy reading more and would naturally develop analytical skills because they would read more frequently. While I see a lot of value in this approach, I am beginning to question the merits of a curriculum that myopically focuses on fiction alone.

I think fiction has the potential to teach our kids empathy, to give them exposure to different life experiences and perspectives, and to stimulate their imaginations and creativity. But if we ignore non-fiction texts (especially texts that forward an argument using research and evidence), we do so at our student's peril. It is largely through engaging with argumentative texts that we learn how to critically analyze an argument and form intelligent responses to them that are backed by sound logic and reasoning. When we regularly read and respond to high-quality arguments, we learn how to form more effective arguments of our own. The ability to argue meaningfully is incredibly valuable in college, in the workplace, and in a democratic society---and it is absolutely essential to being a successful college writer. But perhaps the lack of student engagement with argumentative texts has to do with attitudes about non-fiction texts being the "vegetables"---something good for you but not enjoyable. Personally, I think this notion is misguided. For me, argumentative texts offer a different kind of pleasure. They expand my understanding of the world I live in and they cause me to introspectively reflect on how I should think or act in light of new evidence. And there's something fun about engaging in a dialogue with other people about ideas that matter. It just takes a teacher with the right kind of passion and a careful selection of engaging non-fiction texts to help students see that level of enjoyment as well.

Perhaps one might argue that students get enough non-fiction material in their other classes in the form of textbooks. That is only partially true. Although all textbooks contain arguments (for example, a history textbook makes a value judgment on what aspects of history are worthy of study as "history" or not---never mind the spin that a textbook may put on a particular historical event), they are not presented as something that one can reasonably disagree with. Rather, they are presented as something to be passively consumed as "fact" or "truth" or "reality." In other words, textbooks do not present themselves straightforwardly as an argument. Because textbook arguments are too subtle, it is difficult for students to learn to how to parse out the arguments that are being presented in them. It takes a higher level of reading comprehension (and life experience) to draw out an argument from an average textbook and so it is better to begin with texts that present themselves as an argument more straightforwardly.

Another reason students don't learn how to write effective arguments is that they write in a vacuum. In the real world, we write because we are motivated by some important circumstance that demands our commentary. In school, the circumstances for writing are often created artificially by the teacher. Unless students can see how the topic is intuitively interesting or important to them, they may feel demotivated or adopt an attitude that the assignment is a hoop they need to jump through to pass the class. Also, in a school setting we write for an audience of one: the teacher (who only reads our papers because he or she is contractually obligated to). In the real world, we write for larger audiences who may or may not agree with what we have to say---and who will give us feedback whether or not we want them to. This kind of real-world feedback is very important in learning to write because the more perspectives you can get on your writing, the better. The unfortunate disconnect between writing in the real world and writing for school is not always productive to creating good writers and good thinkers.

The final reason why I think our high school students are not learning how to argue/write effectively is because it's perceived as a potential threat to the institutional structure of the school. The current school system rewards students who obediently do their work without making any waves. Students who learn how to argue will ask questions and possibly challenge their teachers. They might begin to question whether what they are being taught is really the truth about the way things work in the real world rather than just accepting what authority figures (teachers, principals, and parents) tell them is true. It could feel to some teachers like opening Pandora's Box. I can empathize with that to a certain extent. I, too, get tired of the student who challenges every single grade I give him/her or every statement I make in class. It can be exhausting and demotivating.

But at the end of the day, I think that having students who can think for themselves is a necessary price to pay for a little loss of control. I'd rather have students who are capable of making an effective argument backed by sound logic and research---even if that means they will turn the tables and use that knowledge against me. I may resent it at first, but if they can make a good argument, it will lead me to make necessary changes to my curriculum that benefit everyone in the end.

Well, that's my two cents on the piece. What was your response?


Christopher Bigelow said...

Yeah, too much emphasis on literature in high school English, not enough on college-prep writing. When I went to college, I think A.P. English allowed me to skip freshman comp, but the two are quite different.

I think high schools should have separate classes for college-prep writing and for literature, with literature not being required every semester, although available as an advanced elective for future English majors.

A lot of my students who arrive in English 1010 think we are going to keep reading novels, plays, and poetry, and I find it takes a fair bit of orientation to help them understand why they need the course. Sometimes it still doesn't sink in: this past semester, I had one student with a really bad attitude who kept saying, in essence, "This class is a total waste of my time because I'm not an English major." Her mind was extremely closed, although I admit part of the problem was that she was already quite a good writer.

And I agree about the one-on-one writing coaching and do that in my English 1010 classes too.

Thanks, Alyssa.

Angie Carter said...

I also found the article "Death to High School English" thought-provoking. I completely understand the reasons why high school English teachers aren't teaching more writing. However, I see the article more as a call to action than an obituary.

Like Alyssa, I also taught public school (junior high, grades 8-9) lo these many years ago. Yet, I did make my students write. I clearly remember teaching them a research paper, and I had conferences with them during class time (the only way I could).

It seems like we college composition teachers could help our high school colleagues come up with some ways to teach writing without unduly adding to their burden. I think all English teachers, regardless of level, would agree that students need some exposure to writing from the time they are in elementary school. They simply can't wait for the class sizes to become smaller for public school teachers to teach them writing.

Having said that, I absolutely do not dismiss the overwhelming feeling of wondering how to teach 120-240 students to write (20-40 students per class times 6 classes. Sadly, this is a common teaching load for middle to high school teachers.) Yet, with some staggering among the classes that spreads the reading load out, teachers could teach one or two writing projects a year.

This staggering combined with Alyssa's idea to teach non-fiction texts that provide good professional models of argumentative writing could form the basis for students to learn how to write and then practice what they learn.

I guess now we need to add some high school teachers to this discussion and see what they think.