Reimagining the Teaching of English

Published in The High School Journal (May 1951) by Dorothy McCuskey, a review of Lou LaBrant‘s most comprehensive work on teaching English, We Teach English, concluded: “In short, this is no ‘how to teach’ book. Rather, it is a book which will cause the reader to re-examine the bases of his [sic] teaching methods and the content of his [sic] courses.”

LaBrant was a demanding teacher and scholar with a career as a teacher of English from 1906 until 1971. And one of the defining features of that career was her persistent challenges to how teachers taught the field labeled, then, as “English.”

The field traditionally called “English” has evolved over the years, often at the K-12 level being envisioned as English/Language Arts (ELA) or simply Language Arts.

Nelson Flores, at The Educational Linguist, recently confronted “Language Arts” as a descriptor or teaching English:

Schools often teaches courses called Language Arts. Yet, little actual art happens in most of these classrooms. Instead, language is often treated as a static set of prescriptivist rules that children are expected to master and mimic back to their teacher. This is not an exploration of the art of language. This is linguistic oppression.

How about we actually bring the art of language into Language Arts?

Concurrent with this post from Flores, I argued that students must unlearn to write in order to write well at the college level and shared on Twitter the baggage students bring to college, what they must unlearn:

Having been a high school English teacher for almost two decades and then a teacher educator focusing on ELA and a first-year composition professor for an additional two decades, I carry on LaBrant’s tradition of mostly swimming against the tide of tradition in terms of what counts as “teaching English.”

Students majoring in the humanities, specifically English, has declined significantly—”History is down about 45 percent from its 2007 peak, while the number of English majors has fallen by nearly half since the late 1990s”—prompting many colleges and universities to reconsider and even cut those majors and departments.

We are well past time, I think, the need to reimagine the teaching and fields of English/ELA for K-16.

At one level, English/ELA includes a complex challenge since teachers and professors in that singular field/discipline are often tasked with addressing a wide range of content included in literature and literacy (reading/writing). Bluntly put, teaching English/ELA is a herculean, nearly impossible task.

If we teachers of English/ELA are to be successful in covering literature and literacy K-16, any success found in our students is necessarily cumulative over many, many years. This is no trivial point, and not mere metaphor, but when teaching or learning literature and literacy, there is no finish line.

While I firmly believe we must distinguish between the teaching of literature and literacy, specifically between teaching literature and composition/writing, I also recognize that the myriad aspects of literacy are inherently recursive, symbiotic: learning to read is learning to write; learning to write is learning to read.

For people learning to teach, for example, high school English/ELA (courses that are designed to address both literature and literacy [reading/writing]), majoring in English often proves to be inadequate since English as a discipline at the university level tends to be literature based, often very narrow in course content (an entire semester on William Butler Yeats, for example).

Yes, English majors tends to write a great deal, but writing literary analysis or even so-called creative writing does not prepare a person to teach writing. In higher education, English (literature) and composition are distinct and separate fields.

To emphasize my point, when I was teaching American literature for high school students and as I teach first-year writing at my university, bringing texts into class has completely different purposes; it isn’t that both sets of students aren’t learning reading and writing in the courses, but that we are interrogating texts for significantly distinct purposes.

Literary analysis and reading like a writer are complex but different behaviors for students with different purposes and outcomes.

In fact, literary analysis is a discipline-based type of writing that demands unique moves and conventions than other discipline-based writing, such as in history, psychology, or the sciences.

I spent 18 years teaching high school English and have spent a bit longer now preparing candidates to teach high school English/ELA. I can attest without hesitation that expectations for K-12 English/ELA are excessive, inherently impossible.

While I don’t want to linger on the problems with teaching math, I do want to note that math tends to acknowledge the unique aspects within the field since students take sequences and more clearly delineated courses (geometry, Algebra I, Algebra II, calculus, etc.) that have mathematical principles in common throughout while maintaining the distinct features of each course.

With math (and the sciences), we recognize that a geometry teacher may be ill equipped to teach algebra (or a chemistry teacher, ill equipped to teach biology), but we tend to see English/ELA teachers as a monolithic monstrosity.

Somehow, with only a bachelors degree and at the tender age of 22, I was deemed capable of teaching American and British literature as well as writing to my high school students, but college professors several years older than that and armed with doctoral degrees are hired in English departments to teach Elizabethan drama (and such candidates often wave off requests that they take on first-year composition as well since, well, they aren’t trained to do that).

Sure, professors at the college level teach outside their specialities, but this is seen as a stretch, and not the norm or ideal. And when professors are tasked to work outside their areas of specialization, outcomes are often disappointing (my university decided years ago any professor could teach first-year writing—until it became abundantly clear that that is certainly not true).

Since a significant percentage of my college teaching load is now first-year and upper-level writing, I witness the harm done to students at the K-12 level and the inadequacies at the university level for writing instruction, historically a shunned cousin of the field of English since, I think, composition is viewed as mere teaching (and we all know the status of the field of education in academia).

Students need and deserve in K-16 schooling courses and teachers/professors properly equipped to teach both literature and literacy (specifically writing), but not simultaneously.

English/ELA must be reimagined as a complex field with symbiotic but distinct elements that require time and patience for both teaching and learning—and a much greater respect for the complexity and difficulty involved in teaching any of those different areas.

Writing in 1939 about the experimental program at the Ohio State University High School, LaBrant posed a similar argument:

That not all teachers are, however, equally skilled in assisting with all phases of language experiences, as, for example with personal or creative writing or with leisure reading; and consequently that students need a so-called “English” teacher who will assume certain specialized responsibilities and who will, in addition, study the general language growth of individual students and classes, and see that, as far as possible, adequate and balanced growth takes place. (p. 269)

An English Program Based on Present Needs

At OSU, the University School recognized that a team of teachers with unique training and strengths needed to work together in order to address that “language growth and study are to be expected in all phases of school experience”—not simply laid at the feet of the English teacher.

It’s 2021, and “we teach English” needs to mean something more complex than it does currently, something similar to a nearly forgotten experiment in the early twentieth century where LaBrant practiced what she preached.