Alternately titled either, “So, You’re the History Teacher?” or “What Exactly DO You Teach, Anyway?“
I’ve been thinking about this for a few days now, and I’m going to be very interested to see what comes out now that I’ve sat to write about it.
Here’s the background story: I’ve got this kid… let’s call him Marty. Marty is an awesome kid; he’s got a strong streak of dork in him which he fully embraces, he’s both very smart and very aware of how much smarter he could be, and he’s approachable and open-minded and in possession of a really wry sense of humor. In short, I love this kid (in fact, I was excited to find out that he’s a junior, which means I get to have him in my classroom again for senior English next year, but that’s not what this post is about).
Marty came to school about two weeks into the new term, sat down, and made a comment about how his father isn’t sure he likes our English class. I don’t remember exactly what Marty said, but it was something along the lines of the idea that Dad has been listening to Marty talk about our class at the dinner table and has come to the conclusion that I’m not doing my job. It seems that, given what Marty’s said about the kinds of conversations we have in class, Dad thinks I’m teaching more history than English, and Dad’s not at all happy about it.
A little bit of background, just for clarification: we started the semester with Richard Wright’s Native Son. The novel is set in the very early ’30s and addresses issues of racism, poverty, discrimination, Communism, and judicial process. In order to really “get” the novel, the reader should have at least a passing familiarity with the conditions under which the novel is set; to take the story in a modern context is to strip it of everything truly meaningful. In order to give the students that passing familiarity – and to make the experience of the novel more rich and meaningful (and memorable) to the students - I gave them a handout that describes the trials of the Scottsboro Boys (you can see that handout here) we had conversations about social roles and some of the possible origins (and practical outcomes) of racism, and I invited Carson to come to class via Skype (which is the most awesome thing EVER, by the way!) to talk to the kids about the very earliest origins of the Civil Rights movement and its connections to organizations like the Communist party.
March was Women’s History Month and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. More history ensued (along with another visit from Carson!) and our conversation shifted to a consideration of feminism, women’s social and political standing then and now, and how women inform the dialogue in our country today. In order to do that, we needed more… wait for it… history!
It seems that my dear Marty was really excited about all of this extra material (which, I should note here, was far LESS than I wanted to give them; I had all kinds of great ideas for supplemental materials for both units that I never got a chance to use). He was seeing things he’d never seen before, he was making connections, and he was thinking about old things in new ways. Then he did what I want every kid to do; he brought that excitement home with him and shared it with his family.
That, it seems, is where the trouble started.
Clearly, Dad’s still unhappy about his son’s English class because, when I introduced myself at Marty’s parent-teacher-student conference this week, Dad said “SO! I hear you’re the HISTORY teacher” with such aggression and sarcasm that I was literally taken aback.
Here’s my thinking about the work that I do: yes, I am an ENGLISH teacher and, as such, it is my job to make sure that my students have as much of a command of their language as I (and they) can manage. Yes, I teach writing skills and grammar and yes, I cover vocabulary and reading – I even go over the elements of fiction and the nuances of rhetoric and composition.
That’s not ALL I do, though; in fact, it’s really only the framework, the bones of my classes. The real meat of my discipline is teaching kids how to actually USE our language to, you know, communicate. In order to do that, I’ve got to create an environment and give them opportunities that push them to really THINK. What’s the point in asking the kids to express themselves when they’ve got nothing to say?
I’m reminded here of the Sesame Street skit with Grover as the waiter who brings the bald man a bowl of soup but forgets to bring the spoon: I’m betting that Marty’s dad thinks that my job is to give the kids the spoon, not to offer up the soup with which to eat it. I think that Dad’s experience of English classes was “we read the book, we write about the book, we move on” – English class was isolated and insulated and separate from his everyday life and, to be sure, that’s likely the experience of a lot of people (in fact, I received a couple of complaints on end-of-term surveys from students who were thrown off guard by my teaching philosophy; they didn’t see the value in the work they did – and a lot of it was really top-notch work – because it didn’t meet their expectations of a “real” English class).
I don’t teach my classes to be discrete, isolated experiences with little, if any, practical application. My thinking is that the novels that we read (and the poetry, and the films, and the speeches, and all the other materials I use in my classroom) are simply launching-off points to think about what goes on in our world right here, right now. A major complaint many students have about most English classes is that they don’t MEAN anything to them; that unless we’re teaching the students practical, usable things (writing resumes, for example, or business letters), then they’re not interested in the work that we do. What I try to do in my classrooms is to show the kids that ALL of it is connected; that you can use Shakespeare to understand a popular TV show, or that a dystopian novel isn’t so much about predicting the future as it is about critiquing the present, or that the skill of analytical thinking can help them in chemistry class, or that using the past (in the form of a novel and the material we need to understand it) helps us to see where we’ve been and to to think critically about where we are (and where we’re going). I want connections – interdisciplinary connections, pop-culture connections, real-life connections – it doesn’t matter to me; I just want them to THINK.
Let’s be real, here: I’m not kidding myself into thinking that I’m sending forth into the world the next generation of great American novelists. I know it’s highly likely that many of my students won’t write another extended narrative for the rest of their lives. I’m not interested in getting my kids out the door as accomplished writers; I’m interested in getting them out the door as accomplished THINKERS. I want my kids to go forth into the world as capable, informed, participatory, critical, and engaged citizens. I use every tool at my disposal to do that. If that means that I frustrate some parents’ expectation of what their kids’ English class is supposed to be, then so be it.