Publication Date: 2002-10-10
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A recent op-ed by Donna Harrington-Lueker in USA Today exposes the shocking secrets of high school English classes. The scandal is now revealed. English teachers are using creative ways to engage their students and make learning effective. Specifically, they are frequently allowing students to respond to literature by making maps of settings, designing games to illustrate themes, and creating art projects to detail character analysis. Goodness, high school English teachers are even occasionally using children's books as part of what the USA Today headline calls the new "crayola curriculum."
My heavenly days: pass me the smelling salts.
As a former high school English teacher and the president of the 77,000-member National Council of Teachers of English, I fully recognize what these crazy teachers are doing. I confess: I've done it myself. I'll even go further than that: I still do it and have no intention of changing.
Despite what the press may choose to report, high school English teaching in America is not headed for disaster. These teachers are, simply put, being good teachers and using a variety of approaches and strategies to reach their students and to stretch their students' capabilities. And I'm not worried a bit about that traditional curriculum: I can assure you that every single day America's English teachers correct comma splices, instruct students on how to put together a research bibliography, and assign essays which are due on Tuesday. Ask your teenagers, and I'll bet you'll find out that their English teachers are asking them to read scenes and acts from Shakespearian plays and to be prepared for chapter quizzes on novels by Hemingway and Fitzgerald.
But the point is that along with these traditional and important activities, good English teachers also bring other strategies into their classrooms. Make no mistake about it: crafting a map of Pip's travels in Dickens' Great Expectations is a complex and intellectually challenging assignment which requires that the student know and understand the text as well as use spatial skills. Creating a credible, playable game based on the characters and themes in Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter involves interpretation, knowledge, and creativity. Children's literature can illustrate succinctly and expertly narrative line and literary devices. For instance, the children's book Alley Cat, which I use to introduce literary devices, skillfully incorporates simile, metaphor, personification, assonance, alliteration, rhyme, foreshadowing, and reversal of expectations. Its brief scope and concentrated form work well with students.
This is no crayola curriculum -- this is an intelligent use of a variety of approaches and a variety of materials for an important intellectual end. English teachers are not abandoning the central components of traditional English curriculum and content knowledge. To the contrary, they are continuing to teach literature and composition and to reinforce skill acquisition. But here in the twenty-first century, good English teachers are also trying to enrich, open, and make more inventive their approaches to reading and writing and language analysis. I applaud them for that approach, and think their shocking secrets should be broadcast loudly and widely.
Leila Christenbury is president of the National Council of Teachers of English, a nonprofit association of 75,000 members dedicated to improving the teaching and learning of the English language arts. She is professor of English education at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond