Saturday, May 14, 2011

Don't kill off high school English!

As an English major in college and a fan of great reading and writing, I read Kim Brooks' essay "Death to high school English" in Salon with more than just casual interest.  Brooks' descriptions of her students' high school English classes sound similar to my own experience with the same curriculum twenty years ago.  And I could see the roots of the English education that students receive now.

My parents claim that I would read the TV Guide to them before I was two years old.  I was a "gifted" student in elementary and middle school.  In my school district, the "gifted" class was mostly a double period of English, with some special projects in other areas (never math and science, though) thrown in.  I was probably atypical even then; I would read longer books than my classmates, like novels by Asimov and Clarke, and even George Orwell's 1984 in 1984 when I was 10.  (I admit that I was too young to understand much of that book, but I wanted to read it anyway.) 

When I got to high school, the students in the "gifted" program merged into the rest of the class year, and while we had a more advanced English class, we read much of the same material as everyone else in our freshman year.  I remember reading Romeo and Juliet, then watching Zeffirelli's movie of the play.  Then we watched West Side Story, because why not?  It's the same story, or so our teacher told us.  In my sophomore English class, the material became more challenging, and our teacher assigned a few of us Faulkner's Light In August as a small group project.  We had to give a presentation to the class, and after our bumbling effort she acknowledged that the book had probably been too difficult for us.  (It definitely turned me off to Faulkner -- I haven't read any of his other books yet.)  We wrote papers and took exams as well, but there were always group projects.

I took AP English my junior and senior years, and these classes were the reason I became an English major in college.  We read some of the same books and plays as our non-AP classmates, in particular Richard III, Macbeth, and King Lear in 11th grade and Hamlet in 12th grade.   And we had group projects.  But we also had surprise essay tests in junior year, which I realized too late were meant to prepare us for the AP English test.  (I never took the AP English test.)  Our 11th grade teacher taught us the MLA style manual and worked with our AP History teacher on grammar and spelling, since many of us took history as well.  She was tough but fair, never fun and seldom funny, but we learned a lot. 

My senior year English teacher took matters a step further.  We kept a journal four or five days a week, in which we had to fill two pages.  At first, she would give us a topic every day, but as the year went on and our ability to fill those two pages (and sometimes more) increased, she would give us a "free topic."  My friends and I used those free topics to write about our lives, comment on the news, and even dabble in fiction.  I researched and wrote a long paper on humor in literature and a senior theme on science fiction.  She was also tough but fair, and she encouraged us to be creative and find our own voices. 

I think I enjoyed my music and history classes a little more, but when I think about high school I remember reading Beckett's Waiting For Godot aloud as a class and writing an almost passionate explanation of Godot as God.  I think about writing that science fiction paper and editing it until it was perfect.  I think about those English classes and how they prepared me for college-level writing.  I left for Georgetown thinking that I would major in history, but my experiences in high school English and a few classes with excellent professors showed me that English was the better path.  But I was in high school English classes with other bright, creative thinkers.  I don't know what the rest of my classmates were doing, but I have a feeling it was more along the lines of what Brooks describes.

Brooks points out all the deficiencies of the modern high school English curriculum but doesn't offer any suggestions on how to improve it. Problems like class size, teacher workload, and classroom time aren't going away and are likely to get worse.  She talks about the need for greater emphasis on teaching how to research and on teaching style and grammar.  But the bottom line is here, from a discussion with her friend Amelia Shapiro, a writing tutor in Hawaii:

When I ask her why she thinks there's such resistance to prioritizing and teaching writing, given its numerous applications, given its overlap with critical thinking skills, analytical skills, basic communication skills, she hesitates for a moment, then answers in three words: "It's not fun."
My experience in high school was that writing was something fun.  I looked forward to writing in that journal senior year.  I still look forward to writing, even if it's just emails at work.  Despite all the obstacles, I hope that more students can see the value of good writing skills, and that those skills are the most important thing they can take away from their twelve years in the school system.  Any animal can eventually pound out a barely coherent email or text message.  Writing is what makes us human.   

2 comments:

mph said...

We kept a journal four or five days a week, in which we had to fill two pages. At first, she would give us a topic every day, but as the year went on and our ability to fill those two pages (and sometimes more) increased, she would give us a "free topic." My friends and I used those free topics to write about our lives, comment on the news, and even dabble in fiction

We were blogging and didn't even know it.

Thoreauisking said...

Yes! I agree, being only a sophomore, I am already seeing the decline in all English related activities and classes in my school, yet we are committed (my friends and I) to making the arts more relevant, arguing a point of aesthetics and intellectual challenges. I am happy to see that others have succeeded with the English route, and it is highly motivating. Thank you!

-T