Reflections on Balancing the Ideal and Practical in Language Arts Classrooms

  • High School
Sean Riley

Oh, sweet, expansive summer! On top of soaking in the sun and hiking in the hills and biking on the boulevards, we get to read. Me, I read baseball blogs and sweeping novels, Chinese poetry and Stoics’ reflections on life. Right now I imagine teachers across the land on Sunday couches, on Monday benches, in Tuesday coffeeshops entering rich, fragrant, imaginative and private realms.

I hear hear Wallace Stevens: “The house was quiet and world was calm. / The reader became the book; and the summer night / Was like a conscious being of the book.”

I also enter this summer wondering if I have set the groundwork for my students to view and do reading as so many of teachers do: with relief, with anticipation, with a twinge of thrill.

Two sources have induced this wondering.

At the end of this school year, I had students do a survey about their experiences in my class. (I used the great Evin Shinn’s great survey.) Student feedback was largely positive, particularly on my ability to build relationships and make clear what they were learning, why, and what excellence looked like. But I got a cold splash of water when I asked students to identify their stance on the following statement: “This class has increased my interest in reading and writing.” Twenty-four percent of my juniors disagreed with that statement. Twenty-one percent of my freshmen disagreed.

That was source one.

Source two: AP test results were just released. I was satisfied with my students’ scores (improving them significantly was one of my teaching goals this year, and my students passing the test with a 3 or higher improved by 15% from the previous year.) The College Board analyzed this year’s nationwide results. This year 57.4 of test-takers earned a 3 or above on the English Language test (rhetoric and non-fiction). On the AP English Literature test (plays, novels, poetry), 47.4% earned a 3 or above. In contrast, in 2012 57% passed that test with a 3 or above. College Board is noticing a pattern: student comprehension and analysis of non-fiction is improving and of fiction and poetry declining. In their analysis, they wrote their own wondering:

  • What’s the reason for the continued drop in AP English Lit scores? Exam difficulty = constant; teaching ability has not declined; participation did not grow. A hypothesis: has increased focus on non-fiction texts in earlier years reduced student readiness for literary analysis?

These two measurements move me from hunch to inference: At the secondary level, we are pivoting towards a more practical use of reading and writing and less of an imaginative one.

This trend--which I predict will continue for a few years and swing back towards creativity--does not alarm me (though imaginative writing is the very reason I became a teacher), but it does make me want to do better. By doing better, in this case, I mean returning a bit to my younger teaching self.

I am a teaching centrist. Being a teaching centrist means that I believe teachers have the pedagogy to synthesize the ideal and the pragmatic. This is a requirement of public education. The Common Core has helped teachers get unified on what kids should know. It has created more consistent experiences for students, and it has set reasonably high and relevant expectations at the secondary level. It has also--at times--drained language arts of what it runs on: ideas and imagination. While not always intentional, I have see many lesson in my room and outside of my room center on figurative language in fiction, rather than, say, what the text suggests about stability and progress. 

As a centrist, I know that teachers can do both: teach the discrete skills and ensure the vitality of the text and its ideas. Is it challenging? Yes. And it's my goal next year to crank up that vitality. So, rather than go to books on teaching strategies, I’ve gone back to texts about philosophies of teaching. This summer I have already read Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child, and Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach.

For the past three years--through Teachers College materials and AP seminars, to name a few--I have honed the craft of teaching skill. Like Miller describes, I am ready to also get back to a place where I create a passionate environment about reading and writing, so I help students be imaginative and skilled. 

She writes: “These days, I share with my students what no literacy expert could ever teach me. Reading changes your life. Reading unlocks worlds unknown or forgotten taking travelers around the world and through time. Reading helps you escape the confines of school and pursue your own education. Through characters--the saints and the sinners, real or imagined--reading shows you how to be a better human being. Now, I accept that I may never arrive to my teaching paradise, but as long as I hold onto my love of books and show my students what it really means to live as a reader, I’ll be closer than I once was.”

  • Common Core State Standards
  • English Language Arts
  • Literacy
  • Reading
  • Teacher Tools
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