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There is a tendency in the field of education to gravitate to the idea of “standardization.” It is determined by those in a position of power, earned or otherwise, that all things must meet an established standard. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. A baseline or a goal must be implemented in order to measure mastery, however the means in which we ascertain that mastery should never be reduced to something as rudimentary as a pre-determined standard. If a classroom is to be dynamic, that is to be fluid and adaptive to the needs of the students therein, then the means of implementing instruction on a day to day basis must be malleable to whatever degree the instructor’s specific population necessitates.
I teach senior level English Language Arts. My student population is diverse when taken as a whole and even more so when examined on a sectional basis with regard to individual class rosters. In years past I have had students coded as special ed, though this year that population group includes only a single child in a single instruction period. As such, examining the different populations, learning styles, and personality types present in a given period, it is functionally impossible to classify a “typical” day in my classroom because each individual population presents itself as an independent and wholly identifiable “type.” For example, comparing block 1A to block 2A is largely a futile venture, as instructing them in the same material necessitates entirely different teaching styles. Block 1A, coming in so early in the instructional day, requires more rigorous warm-up activity to incite their young minds to engage in what will follow. That extra time needs to be built into the lesson plan. Conversely, block 2A, having already endured a morning period arrives largely ready to engage in activity with little patience for anything they might perceive as extraneous or a diversion to the central points of the day. I have referred to them at times as “all business,” and do not use this term in a derogatory manner, simply a statement of my understanding with regard to their mindset in the classroom.
While each individual class may be hard to categorize or typify, all English classrooms essentially boil down to the same central idea; instruction in the utilization of the English language to comprehend, analyze, and communicate information. Whether a student is looking at informational text, classic literature, poetry or unclassifiable genre writing, they should be focused on understanding the central message of the text, finding the importance behind the words written, and concentrating on communicating their understanding through a written composition of their own. At any given point in a day in an English classroom, irrespective of the individual assignment at hand, the students should be engaged in an aspect of that process. Every assignment is a link in the aforementioned chain of understanding, analysis and communication. If a student is reading a text, they should be seeking understanding of said text. If they are working on a graphic organizer, seeking to structure their ideas generated while reading a given text, it should reflect the analysis they have engaged in. A submitted draft of an essay should signify mastery of a concept, showcasing their ability to communicate the learning they have processed throughout several days of learning.
As such, technology should serve as an essential tool in facilitating this process. According to experts at Edutopia, “effective tech integration must happen across the curriculum in ways that research shows deepen and enhance the learning process. In particular, it must support four key components of learning: active engagement, participation in groups, frequent interaction and feedback, and connection to real-world experts.” When used effectively, technology allows students to begin a self-sufficient journey of knowledge discovery. When a student is unsure about a concept, it is not enough for an instructor to supply a response that fulfills the query. Instead, the teacher can provide an opportunity for further learning opportunities by initiating a process that allows the student to research the solution to their problems for themselves. Technology should not be a crutch for students, instead it should be a valuable resource that enhances the learning experience itself. For example, if a student has an issue with the definition of a particular term, an instructor could utilize a resource such as Vocabulary.Com to teach not only the meaning of the word in the context that the student is requesting, but alternative uses that could be of value to the student at a later date. Essentially, technology helps to turn learning into a true process for the student. Studies show that “mastery of learning is also important. Children need an opportunity to redo assignments until they learn the material. Some people take longer than others to learn, but that does not mean that they are inferior or cannot learn” (Wadhwa). At the end of the day, technology should be utilized to build bridges over gaps for students, not serve as a detour from the expectations set forth by the instructor.
A typical classroom should not be able to be categorized. When appraising a classroom, observers should be quick to understand that no two classrooms are the same; not within a single school, nor a single department or even a single instructor. Instructors in modern education understand that flexibility is key and that the utilization of available resources allows for a vibrant, diverse teaching environment across multiple class periods and populations. All instructors should know the truth, only the strong survive; nise forte vivere.
Edutopia. “Why Integrate Technology into the Curriculum?: The Reasons Are Many.” Edutopia. N.p., 17 Mar. 2008. Web. 20 Feb. 2017.
Wadhwa, Vivek. “Here’s How We Can Reinvent the Classroom for the Digital Age.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 09 Apr. 2015. Web. 20 Feb. 2017.
The education world is rife with conflict and disagreement; one need only look at the furor generated by the ideas of our new secretary of education if they need an affirmation of that idea. A debate that seems to rage within the halls of the institutions that I find myself frequenting is whether high school students on their way to a higher education should be required to read classic literature. Some advocates for moving away from literature argue that the relevance of such works is long gone and that it does little to prepare them for whatever challenges university life will bring them. Such arguments find no purchase with one such as I. To the contrary, I believe that lessening the focus on literature does a terrible disservice to young students.Studying literature at the high school level engenders growth in students by pushing the limits of comprehension that otherwise lie idle in complacency and providing cultural context that cannot be gleaned through other means.
The most practical virtue of the study of literature comes from the principle that resistance builds character. High school students will struggle with literature, if well taught. A high school senior will find some difficulty in unpacking the themes and deciphering the meaning of Shakespeare and Chaucer. College students studying in the English discipline struggle with such material. By introducing students to the concept of studying long-form literature at the high school level, educators build skills in much the manner that weight-lifters make gains; by pushing limits.
The central argument that seems to be presented against the teaching of literature is that a majority of students will not continue to study literature at the university level. The belief is that most will not take many English courses beyond the initial requirement of Composition and Rhetoric and therefore there is no impetus to focus on the established canon of literature that has been the backbone of English classrooms since what seems like time immemorial. District experts, at least where I have been an educator, are moving away from literature and focusing on attempting to teach the skill of analysis through excerpts, usually under a page in length. While it is possible to analyze an excerpt, and while there is nothing wrong with this practice on the whole, it also does not address skills that are lost be removing the study of established literature over a prolonged period of time. The time spent poring over the text is, in and of itself, a skill. Remembering the chronology of events, being able to map character relation, comprehension of the progression of the narrative, etc.; these are all skills that are left underdeveloped if replaced by short-form analysis.
If the only argument against the reading of literature were simply that a majority of students will not engage in in-depth study of English at the college level, that would be well and good. The skills necessary for the students who do in fact choose a liberal arts major could, in theory, be honed and perfected through practice at the college level. That flies in the face of the mission statement of high school educators to produce college ready graduates, but if we accept the idea that the study of long-form literature is the purview of upperclassmen in the back half of their undergraduate career, then allowances can be made.
However, that argument does nothing to address the fact that literature is a whetstone on which the sword of the mind can be sharpened. Did you understand that last sentence? It is a metaphor. You likely understood it because an English teacher drilled it into your head. Probably during high school. Page long excerpts can teach the concept of literary devices and, yes, one can analyze them. But it is unlikely, in my humble opinion, that any educator worth their salt would call a one-page excerpt challenging or rigorous to the degree that a developing mind requires. The prolonged study of literature is a study skill that builds academic endurance. Attempting to replicate that skill with truncated excerpts is the same as trying to attain the build of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson using one pound barbells. It just does not work.
Another element of studying established, classic literature over a substantial period of time that cannot be discounted is the concept of cultural relevance. Advocates for moving away from the study of literature say that the window of relevance for the established canon is passed and our focus going forward should largely be repetition of basic skills utilizing shorter, targeted texts. By doing this, we do a disservice to the students by robbing them of cultural touchstones. When you feed excerpts and short-form literature to high school students what you do is devalue the content of the writing. How can a student reasonably be expected to retain the information and the meaning behind the myriad excerpts they’ve been force-fed over thirty six instructional weeks? Contrast that to teaching four major works each year, wherein they are expected to make connections between them over the course of the instructional year; teaching in this way teaches that what we engage in has value beyond the idea of simply learning a simple skill. Show a student that literature is applicable and they will reap the rewards.
Perhaps I am just a bitter high school teacher, but the arguments for literature far outweigh the arguments against. Those seeking to replace it from the curriculum appear to be reactionary, recoiling in fear from the rising tide of low test scores and declining graduation rates. The solution is not to cut corners. The solution is to stand firm.