Each semester for the last four years I have taught Writing Lab, a course for students who score below proficient in writing on standardized tests. There are a lot of reasons students are placed into the course: maybe they didn’t try on the test (most claim this, but pretesting shows they are wrong), they have not been taught well in the past, they have family issues where writing is not on the top of their priorities, they have learning disabilities, or most of the time they have been told so many times they are bad at writing that they have simply given up.
To say that most of my students begin our semester together with a bad attitude is an understatement. The first thing I do in class is give them a pretest to double check that the students who are in the class are meant to be there. I would feel terrible if a student didn’t really need the class and we were simply jumping through hoops. Students work hard to get out of the class, but this rarely happens. We look at test scores and set goals to make sure students understand the outcomes they need to have upon finishing the course. This gives them a sense of purpose.
My other colleagues who also teach the course and I joke that Writing Lab goes through its own 12-step process. First, students must accept their need for the course, that they have no control over being in the course. Then they begin to understand that someone is there to help, their teacher. After this point in their process, they mellow out their behaviors and begin to do the work in class. Then they begin goal setting each piece of writing, writing their little hearts out, and begin asking for help.
By then end of the semester, most of my students don’t want to leave. They realize they have a safe place to write, to ask questions, and to be themselves through their writing. Each semester it puts me in awe at the process my colleagues and I have created. It is truly magical.
There are two categories of English teachers: those who believe in traditional means of teaching students and those who I would categorize as progressive. Traditional English teachers typically believe in the teaching of the canon of literature that has traditionally been taught in schools and also hold the belief that grammar must be taught by any means necessary, along the line of the idea that the dangling participle is the worst a student could do in a piece of writing.
Progressive teachers believe in teaching grammar in the context to the types of writing students are doing and that if we can get students genuinely reading, who are we to make judgements? After all, what’s the goal, to get students to read or to fake-read some works typically written by white guys from another century?
By this point in time, I know you, dear reader, can tell where I stand on this issue. I teach both AP Lang and a course for struggling writers, Writing Lab. The moments when I have taught the traditional canon, my students have not actually read the works. How do I know this? They have told me…after the course, of course. I really don’t believe that teaching something just because we “should” teach it is helpful to anyone in education. I believe that if I choose to teach a text in the canon it needs to be in the context of whatever it is I’m teaching, the relevant ideas and notions in a course.
My school right now is facing a crisis of nonreaders. At a recent department meeting all of our teachers agreed that the culture in our school does not value reading. Why aren’t our students reading? Because we, the teachers, have done a terrible job leading them to books they might actually like. If we are complaining that our students don’t read and we insist they keep reading the same books we read in school, doesn’t it make sense that maybe we should try to find texts they can relate to so that they read. Do the books have to be part of the canon? If so, why?
Wait, I haven’t even started talking about grammar or writing…I’m just getting warmed up.