Considering canon…

Man, when English teachers see kids excited about a lesson, they get so excited they completely misread the room.

I didn’t realize this until recently. And, of course, I am guilty of this myself. But, our inability as educators to tell the difference between true love of a text or activity and our students excited because we developed then executed a truly engaging lesson plan is truly concerning.

Let me back up a bit.

I’m a member of a wonderful, large group on Facebook of enthusiastic, innovative English teachers led by a delightful, thoughtful educator who provides piles of free resources she’s developed. It’s fantastic. Let me provide with you a typical conversation that occurs in this group.

“Hi, amazing, wonderful, brilliant people! I’m teaching (insert grade level or text here) this year. It’s the (first/thousandth/fourth/haven’t done it in ages) time I’ve taught it and I’m looking for ideas. Help me, please?”

Then the outpouring of ideas flows forth like a mighty river. It can be overwhelming. The ideas move swiftly like the river’s current and can drown almost anyone. Often, the responses include, ‘I’ve done/read (insert activity or text here) with my students and they LOVED IT!!!!!’

OK, I’m exaggerating a bit on the response, but I’ve seen this pattern repeat countless times. Alarm bells started going off in my head when teachers kept saying kids love canon literary texts. Really? Most of your students fooled you into thinking they loved that book? That book that I have zero interest in reading? And I am an English teacher. 

Here’s why I don’t believe it when teachers say their students loved a text that has been in the English curriculum since the mid-20th century: few of my students ever tell me that. I know that when I taught honors 10 English, of the six sections I had over two years, probably three or four of those kids actually read ‘1984’ in its entirety. They faked it. And they were good at it. They told me after graduating they faked it.

Here’s the other reason I know kids don’t love the canon literary texts we drag them through – they tell me they don’t like them. They tell me, ‘Ms. H, don’t try to make us read at home. We won’t do it.’ Or they say, just like the honors students with ‘1984’, that they faked their way through literature in middle school and before they got to me. After five years (plus a semester of student teaching) of this kind of feedback from students, I am skeptical when any teacher says their kids loved whatever classic novel they assigned.

This skepticism also springs from all the reading I have done. Atwell, Kittle, Gallagher, Tovani, Beers, they all see the same thing. We destroy the love of reading with students when it comes to what we ask them to do in school. So, when we come up with brilliant, creative and engaging lesson plans for literature that kids buy into, it is easy to be fooled by that enthusiasm for our lessons and teaching. It is easy to turn and around and tell other teachers seeking advice that the kids loved that book.

The danger here is setting up false expectations for the children in front of those educators we gave that guidance to who will inevitably be disappointed when those texts fall flat or they later discover the kids faked their way through the text. Again. Because we have so thoroughly destroyed the love of reading they cannot see value in academic texts which devalues, in their minds, any other kinds of reading. If it’s not good enough for their English teacher, then why bother? And if it’s good enough for the English teacher, it’s never going to be interesting. ‘Readicide’ by Kelly Gallagher is the place to go for an in-depth exploration of this destruction of the love of reading.

Don’t be fooled, friends. Your teaching is great, but, until you recognize the difference between true love of a text (kid reads it on their own, with a flashlight at night under the covers, well ahead of your schedule) and highly engaging lessons (kids in class with heads down, working hard on whatever assignment you put to them, working collaboratively or alone, demonstrating practice then mastery of skills) please don’t tell your colleagues your students loved it. You’re doing everyone a disservice.

Next time, we should talk about how to truly foster this love of reading, and how I have yet to figure out a way to do this all year long while doing all the things my district, administrators and grade-level colleagues also expect me to do. I want kids to love ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ and ‘Brave New World’ and ‘Macbeth’ as much as I do. But, we have to talk about how to get there and the way we get there is not the way we traditionally do things. It’s a juggling act and, well, I never did learn how to juggle.

But, that’s for another time. Until then, please keep designed engaging lessons for your students. They do love that!

Why I Went Rogue

Every day in the classroom, good or bad, is about the why. The purpose is paramount. And that’s what I want to address today – what is my why, what is my purpose for participating in Rogue Teachers.

This is going to sound cliche, but there is no other way to start the explanation. I’ve always felt a bit different. I’ve always felt like an outsider. Perhaps that’s a result of attending four elementary schools by the end of third grade. (Side note: I skipped kindergarten, but, that’s another story for another time.) Perhaps it’s the result of growing up in a single-parent household in which the lone adult was a practicing addict and recovering alcoholic. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact I sought solace from the chaos in books. I was a voracious reader as a child. Perhaps it is my penchant for repetition in my writing. There are many things about me and how people react to me that makes me feel like I’m just not like most people.

Never has this weirdness felt more acute than since I began my teaching career five years ago. I spent 13 years as a journalist in my first career after completing a bachelor’s degree in communications at the University of Washington in June 2000. I realized after seven months of soul-searching that the stuff I always enjoyed most were the times I got to write about students. I got my first job at a school I covered for a number of years where the department chair was a gentleman who started his education career at my high school alma mater in Bellevue in the early 1990s. It was a warm, welcoming place and I was told that I needed to teach a couple of common texts for each prep, otherwise the rest was up to me.

The texts were classic English canon. For 10th grade honors, it was Macbeth and 1984, while for core 11 it was The Great Gatsby. OK, one common text for juniors. I may have said in an interview at another school I hated Gatsby and wouldn’t want to teach it. Karma, my friends. After teaching it twice, I love it. That there is a movie with Leo DiCaprio as the titular character certainly helps to teach it.

I didn’t really know what the hell I was doing, of course, as a first-year teacher but I did my best with the canon and threw in some of the other stuff that I thought was more modern into my curriculum. The more I teach canon texts, the more I realize that it is problematic, especially as the demographics of my school change. My students struggle to see themselves in the canon, which is mostly dead white guys. Some of my colleagues, whom I deeply respect, have dramatically different viewpoints on texts. 

I definitely lost it last fall when we were planning a brand new unit the district wanted us to teach. I lost it because my colleagues wanted to teach a text by a dead white guy in the middle of a social justice unit. They were all familiar with it. Given some personal circumstances at that point, I wasn’t in a position to take on a new text while also teaching a new unit. I had a meltdown. This is how important it is to me to push the boundaries of what texts we teach, especially because I believe deeply that the skills we teach kids are far more critical than the texts we use to teach them with.

For my students’ sakes, I stuck to my principles: I refused to teach the text. I used a bunch of other modern texts to drive academic discussion, which was the focal skill for the unit, and it went OK. Later on, my colleagues admitted attempting to teach even a short novel in that unit wasn’t ideal. The unit needs work. The way I taught it needs work. But, I stand by my refusal to add the novel, particularly a novel by a dead white guy.

Later on in the year, I taught Catcher in the Rye with my other prep. Looking at the kids as we started reading together, I knew this wasn’t going to work. So, I supplemented and cut a lot of stuff I did the year before when I was collaborating with colleagues who had the whole unit planned out while I was teaching senior English for the first time. I had zero issues with dumping a Socratic seminar on the symbolism of Holden’s hunting hat.

Why do we even teach this novel anymore? I love it, by the way, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right choice for the kids in front of me. When I asked a colleague that question, he didn’t know, which means we teach it because that’s the way we’ve always done it at my school. That is not a solid rationale.

We’ve collectively dumped 1984 as a sacred, whole-class text in 10th grade. We all present it in some form or another but, again, it’s not right for the kids in front of us. A colleague told me once that my enthusiasm for a text is what gets kids into it. I don’t think that’s true at all. Sophomores simply aren’t cognitively or developmentally ready for the text. We can tackle all the same skills and issues with myriad other dystopian texts. I love Brave New World but that doesn’t mean it’s the right text for the kids in front of me, either.

I chafe against the way my colleagues teach. I chafe against the way the district wants us to teach. It causes conflict. Administrators have to intervene. I have become difficult to work with because I challenge all of this.

I need a space to tackle all of the issues I have with how English has traditionally been taught. It bored the hell out of me in the 1990s and it bores the hell out of students now. Yet, we’re still doing it basically the same way in 2019, nearly a quarter-century since I graduated.

I want to teach quite differently than I have or feel I have the space to teach, due to expectations by district and building staff, due to the limitations of our six-period, 55-minute class schedule allows not to mention the woeful underfunding of our department budget for books. I hope that we can use this site and the companion Facebook group to question those practices in a productive manner. I want to work through these issues with like-minded individuals rather than constantly fighting pushback from colleagues who don’t question why we teach the texts we teach. I want to be subversive and disruptive because it’s what’s best for kids.

That’s why I am here.