Like Mike Rose, I’m feeling a little bit hopeful because of the turn of the new year, the end of one semester and the beginning of another, and the fact that I have cleaned out my financial files from the last decade and created three enormous bags of shredded trash to put out at the curb. I want to propose that, if I were to visit some middle and high schools next week, I might see some promising practices like those below. English teachers could resolve to try them; administrators could be aware of them; and college professors, at the very least, might apprise future English educators of their value.
1) Let students talk. Direct it, guide it, structure it (some), yes, but be a listener more yourself. There is so little in language arts that can actually be taught directly or lectured about. Indeed, the “facts” of most fields of knowledge, even the “hard” sciences, change constantly and need to be updated daily, so most teachers should lecture less and let students explore more.
2) Ask students to write about ideas or experiences they’ve just encountered, no matter what the subject. Ask them to write quickly, off the top of their heads. Write with them, off the top of your head, every time you ask them to do this, even if the ideas they’ve just encountered are very familiar to you, and especially if they are not. Don’t grade these pieces of writing. Use them (see number four below) for discussion; first, between two students sitting near each other, then for small groups or the whole class. Students who need additional time to warm up to free-writing can be encouraged to draw responses to ideas or experiences (or texts) which can be used in the same ways as free-writing. You can justify it to yourself if you connect drawing, in your mind, to 21st century literacy, which often involves graphics.
3) In fact, until the end of a marking period (six to ten weeks or so), simply read and respond to students’ content, organization, and style. Don’t grade any writing until students have gathered a bunch of more formal pieces they are proud of – a portfolio. And give them lots of help, as an editor would when a writer is preparing for publication, with mechanics and convention. Foster an attitude in which students will notice their own weaknesses and ask for instruction. Knowledge which is eagerly and consciously sought is that which is learned.
4) Use student writing as text for consideration in class. Students learn – about writing, about content, about form – in discussions centered on some text that they have invested in. Investment can be from production or from locating a text (see number seven below).
5) If there are literary or rhetorical terms you want students to be able to use, introduce them as you participate in discussions, so they will see them modeled and explained in a natural situation, the kind of situation where you want them to use such terms. Putting them on a test will turn them into the kind of knowledge students know they can just memorize and forget (or more often, just reject). Instead, make them the currency that flows through each day of class, necessary, non-threatening, natural as breathing. Students will learn them as they become ready (remember the zone of proximal development), although it may take some students longer than the benchmark tests allow.
6) Don’t ask students to write (by which I mean grapple with difficult thoughts and ideas) or read difficult material for homework. It won’t happen, or else it will happen, for students who always follow orders, in a mechanistic way, void of understanding, thus contributing to a corpus of exasperating experience that leads students to learn that reading and writing are impossible and useless. Instead, ask them to read novels or nonfiction books they choose outside of class, and engage them in discussion about their reading once a week (short letters in a journal kept in the classroom would work, or small groups discussions by students who are reading similar or identical material). Again, don’t be afraid to accept drawing or maybe even some other media as a response (see number two above).
7) Bring to students literary pieces and current nonfiction gems with which you are unfamiliar so they can watch you tackle new prose, wrestle with difficult ideas, stretch your way to new understandings…right alongside them. You have the perfect source – the internet is lousy with good (and bad) writing. Students can help you look for material, thereby increasing their investment in ensuing discussions, and you can ask them to sort good, better, best, and discuss the characteristics that lead them to such sorting. This is the same sort of norming that we do when we are scoring for a state test, and we learn a lot when we meet in this way. Let’s bring this process to our students. We will probably learn a lot, too, from the samples they bring us. It will be good for them to see us learning, as mentioned above.
8) Bring to students some gems of the canon that are available in class sets, if necessary – but make sure you plan for making the text accessible to all students, allow them to make connections to their lives, and give opportunities for discussion and reflection that will weave such literature into their experiences, making learning unavoidable. As some students have told their teachers, “I didn’t like that book [think, Lord of the Flies, The Crucible, or The Scarlet Letter], but I’ll never forget the discussions we had about ********/the projects we did about ******” [fill in the blanks with whatever theme or concept you have connected to their lives].
9) When you bring texts from outside the classroom, don’t be afraid to read aloud large portions of them. Everyone enjoys hearing stories, even poems, especially when read well, as you will do, after you rehearse just a little. Such readings increase the likelihood that students will develop that inner voice that helps mature readers get more meaning from their silent reading.
9) Take time to teach classroom skills at the beginning of each school year, even if the students seem too old for it, especially if you will be asking them to do something that might be unfamiliar to them…like free writing, discussion, reflection, collaborative choice and/or creation of texts. This definitely includes ways to show tolerance for contested ideas and respect for individual thinkers, even when one might not be feeling such tolerance.
10) If you organize your teaching thematically, make sure your themes come from common teen concerns that touch on real world situations in their world right now. Use Google News or something to keep in touch. FaceBook or YouTube will do in a pinch, since that’s where teens often hear about events.
11) Parents of teens want to talk to their children about their learning. Think of ways to facilitate such dialogue, with you, the teacher, as the heavy who is requiring it. Perhaps a ten-week portfolio will need parents to sign off or to write a short response letter. Don’t let such a response be a deal-breaker, though. Some students may have to ask a guidance counselor, another teacher, or some other significant adult to react to their work and provide such a response letter. That’s good, too. Dialogue is the human path to meaning, so encourage it in as many ways as possible.
12) If you supervise in your building, get out of the way of learning as much as you can.
Facilitate: make it possible, painless, perhaps even fun for teachers to shepherd authentic projects that foster learning.
Fund: divert budget money from expensive, obsolete textbooks and shiny technology (unless a teacher has an immediate use for it) to helping teachers accomplish plans they have been bankrolling with their own meager salaries.
Celebrate: when students are active, engaged, showing growth, say something to their teacher. Ceremonies are unnecessary, but acknowledgement goes a long way to making teachers’ days easier and smoother. You of all people know how difficult teaching is.
13) Also, supervisors, do not transfer the pressure you are feeling to raise test scores to the teachers and students in your building. Scores can be obtained and data can be added to the golden coffers of “whatever it takes” without making learning and testing and going to school onerous. Do what you can to make the tests that have to happen seem like small blips on the radar. Limit the amount of class time displaced by them, so they won’t interfere with the real learning of living, talking, writing, and sharing. Do what you can to protect the students in your building from emotionally abusive pressure that detract from learning. For example, don’t let the volume of your voice rise when addressing faculty or students just before annual tests. Don’t treat the analysis of benchmarks like the Manhattan Project.
14) I return to number one: Let them talk. “Them” refers to teens, adults, teachers, administrators, human beings. Talking is how we hear new ideas, solidify what we know, change to accommodate new directions. It happens early (when toddlers learn to be part of the human race) and often. Make sure we are not silencing people who need to be in dialogue to progress, nay, even to simply proceed and survive from day to day.
“If I have seen a little further,
it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
The inspiration for the advice above comes from many sources I have read in the course of my studies at Binghamton University, written by people like Richard Allington, Michael Apple, Nancie Atwell, Mikhail Bakhtin, Ann Berthoff, Joe Bower, James Britton, John Dewey, Peter Elbow, Don Fader, Paulo Freire, Penny Kittle, Alfie Kohn, Ellen Langer, Donald Murray, Richard Nesbitt, Susan Ohanian, Walter Ong, Sir Ken Robinson, Mike Rose, Clay Shirkey, John Spencer, Lev Vygotsky, and a host of others in classrooms far and near.