How teaching was, Part 1

“Make them literate,” was the charge back in the 1980s when I began this job–high school English teaching. Your supervisors gave you mad autonomy, which translated to me as a kind of essential respect: they saw me as a principled professional and trusted me to act accordingly.
They did not get very particular regarding the means you employed. And come to think of it, they weren’t even that particular about the kind(s) of literacy you were having the kids practice. Sure, there was a textbook, or a set of texts, but it was up to you to make them cohere in a curriculum. It was more improvised than scripted. Masterful teachers like Mike Torney, Barbara Sloan-Henderschott and Rich Kamka achieved notoriety for their dramatic styles at our school. And that was by design.

As a teacher, you were supposed to exercise your creativity and personal “style” to get your students practicing the skills and acquiring long-term knowledge. Your own mix of literacy practice, attitudes, and texts defined your unique way of helping a class of English students learn. Your administrators, if they thought about you at all, assumed they were right when they hired you, and trusted you to be a professional–a highly-trained practitioner who would make the right choices to do right by students. At you did. At least I did.

Students were given choices, too. At my school, there was a “Creativity Center” where students were given the media and technology to make their learning audio-visual. And many of them chose to push themselves and their materials to the limit, making some really amazing projects that transcended traditional writing assignments. Some Hollywood and some electronic media careers were launched there, where students were able to choose their media and methods.

My own “style” involved lots of performance–the students’ and mine–getting up and acting out the language, creating relevant poems, songs, plays or posters to share with the class, etc. Laughter and music were common. While I always felt challenged to get their papers back in a timely manner, I never felt overwhelmed by the workload. I also championed the “teachable moment,” the tie-in our curriculum might have to the day’s news. If there were a great idea and it took us off on a tangent, we went with it, so long as there was language learning potential. Of course, these curricular “add-ins” always related to our themes and issues, and were always designed to get students responding with their own authentic language acts.

My students seemed to catch my enthusiasm for the well-wrought sentence, or the beautiful poem, or the killer story structure. And they did numerous papers and rewrites, and were challenged with plenty of difficult texts. For the most part, they did well on standardized English assessments (or so I heard), and a good number of them told me later they appreciated my “style” of teaching. But that was then. You may notice I use the past tense, because this is no longer my, or any proficient English teacher’s style. In fact, you had best not have much “style” except the department’s style, since it alone can reliably be called “guaranteed and viable.”

What I would do by myself is no longer trusted, much less respected. I can no longer have activities in my classes that have not been adopted for every teacher at that level of class. We must all administer the same learning activities, and measure learning by the same assessments, the same gradebooks. No more can one’s professional initiative guide the curriculum, except when it has been sanctioned and co-opted into collaborative teams.

I also regret the collegial things I can no longer do, like send around this excellent link to provocative topics related to International Banned Books Week that appeared in the New York Times. Back in the day, when the department’s culture was less conformist and focused, the link could have organically enriched the curriculum of all or some of my colleagues. It would have gone like compost around the department garden–some making use of it, some not, but all would be enriched by the extra, real-world culture, and students would ultimately have profited from it.

However, as long as learning is measured in standardized tests, any deviation from group norms will be feared for its potential to lower performance, which reflects badly on the department and school as a whole. And, oh, yes, lower test scores also (allegedly) mean the students have received a poorer education, too. There are plenty of studies to back the experts who want to replace the messy human-ness of the old English teaching with “guaranteed, viable” curricula.

But I think that sometimes, when we substitute tools (like assessment instruments and teacher-proof curricula) for human judgement and ingenuity, we take away the very thing we are supposed to be creating more of (like more knowledgeable, capable, and “literate” people).

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