Teaching English Is Teaching English?: Not Really

In the mid-1980s, I was offered a position teaching high school Advanced Placement English after my first year teaching English in the school where I had graduated only about 6 years earlier.

I called my principal, who had been principal there when I was a student, and explained I was tempted by the offer since I wanted to teach AP but also because my first year had been overwhelming; my load was four different preparations of English and journalism, saddling me with five different curriculums and 13 different textbooks (as well as supervising the student newspaper and literary magazine).

The principal, who always called me by my first name since I had been friends and teammates with his two sons (one a year older and the other a year younger), simply replied: “Paul, English is English.”

No effort to address my early-career struggles, no words suggesting the school wanted me to stay, or even respected my work—just a very bored statement brushing aside my concerns for asking way too much of me as an English teacher charged with teaching both British and American literature as well as writing (my student load was about 125 at that time).

I hung up discouraged, and conflicted about my career. Fortunately, I called my former high school English teacher and mentor, who worked at the district office. He talked me off the ledge, and I stayed at the school, hoping something would change about this misguided understanding of what it means to teach English, and writing.

Almost two decades later, however, I sat as a new faculty member and listened as my university changed its curriculum, including a debate and eventual decision to practice a similar misguided belief—teaching writing is teaching writing, and anyone can teach writing.

Teaching some combination of high school English, writing, and teacher education courses for over three and a half decades now, I faced with a great deal of trepidation Special Report: Literacy in the Workplace (Education Week).

While there is lots here to challenge, I think it is worthwhile to focus on a passage from Is Professional Writing the Missing Link in High School English Classes?:

“The assumption is typically that writing is a single skill, and that’s not really a correct assumption. I might be good at writing scientific articles, but God help me if I had to write a novel or poetry,” said Steve Graham, a writing education expert and an education leadership and innovation professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. “It’s pretty clear there is not a strong match between what businesses are looking for and what schools are doing. [Writing in school] really has more of an emphasis on what might happen in college than in the workplace.”

Exactly—writing itself is not a single skill, and literacy is not that simple either.

What we fail to do often, however, is to pull back and admit that teaching literacy (English) and writing, as the principal I mention above believed, is not monolithic endeavors either.

High school English is too often tasked with being both survey literature courses and writing courses. As the EdWeek article muddles, high school English must prepare all students to read and write in the discipline of literature, in preparation for the workplace (another oversimplified domain), and in preparation for college (yet another oversimplification).

We have overstuffed high school English—especially in this never-ending era of standards and high-stakes testing—and as a result we do way too much way too badly.

Let me note a few alternative reforms that may serve us better than yet more hand wringing about all the failures of teaching literacy:

  • Create robust programs and degrees in education that provide all teachers of literacy with holistic experiences as students developing their own literacy skills. My primary concern is that even today, most teachers of literacy—notably high school English teachers—have very weak grounding as students in the best practices we expect them to somehow cram into their bloated obligations as English teachers. How many teachers of English have come through courses rich in writing workshop and drafting original essays in a wide variety of genres and for a diverse range of purposes?
  • Re-imagine the curriculum so that literature and composition/writing have their own dedicated spaces that can allow us to better prepare and assign teachers. Of course, this new curriculum is not about artificially separating reading and writing since students will continue to write (and learn to write) in literature courses, and read in composition/writing courses. This new way of organizing curriculum allows composition/writing to be better addressed as a nuanced set of skills across different disciplines and for many different purposes in school and beyond.
  • Reject the culture of standards and especially high-stakes testing since both feed into simultaneously overstuffing expectations for English teachers and students as well as reducing literacy to what can be measured efficiently—a key culprit in assuring students will not be prepared for anything, much less college or careers.
  • Rethink teaching students for the Next-Thing by allowing teachers of literacy, including high school English teachers, a more clear and manageable purpose for whatever course is being taught and a more nuanced and accurate perception of exactly what the Next-Thing is. As one example, traditional high school English over-emphasizes literary (fiction, poetry) analysis and discipline-specific content such as MLA citation. As a result, students acquire a warped perception of literacy that impedes their transition into college and careers.
  • Admit and then address the very real need for any teachers tasked with teaching literacy to have reasonable student loads. Currently, best practices in literacy are often not implemented because teachers cannot manage them with so many standards and testing obligations combined with excessive student loads. As a high school English teacher, I was teaching literature and writing to 100-125 students a year for five periods a day all week; as a college professor of writing, I teach only writing to 24 students (two courses) over a semester, meeting 3 days a week. Guess which context better serves my students? Teaching conditions are learning conditions.
  • Place literacy acquisition, and especially writing, in a healthy relationship to technology. First, I offer this as a practical skeptic about technology. Next, however, in 2018, I witness daily college students who have virtually no real skills with word processing. Literacy has a symbiotic relationship with technology that too often is either blurred by a careless pursuit of technology-for-technology’s sake or failed because we make baseless assumptions that contemporary students are somehow tech savvy.

Teaching English is no simple task but there is much we can and should do to remedy that problem.

As I approach 60 and the end of my fourth decade teaching, I still cringe at my principal’s “Paul, English is English,” and shudder at the realization that little has changed for my field, my colleagues, and most students in the intervening years.