The Power of Teaching 'Lang' As Well As 'Lit'
I love literature. In college, I majored in English and minored in Spanish, taking as many literature classes as I could in both concentrations. For graduate school, I pursued an MFA in creative writing, attempting to morph myself from consumer to producer of literature. In my first job, I worked as a high school English teacher at an independent school in Connecticut, teaching Homer’s The Odyssey, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and short stories by Nobel Prize recipients Gabriel García Márquez, Nadine Gordimer, and William Faulkner.
There are many things to admire about literature and its lessons on identity, politics, and love. I enjoy nothing more than wading neck-deep in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920s Long Island debauchery, George Orwell’s dystopian political nightmare, or Jesmyn Ward’s complex rural Mississippi. But after 17 years as an independent school educator, I believe it’s time we acknowledge the elephant in the room: Preparing high school students for the real world by teaching them to read and write predominantly about literature is a mistake.
The Old Lessons
I am in no way suggesting that we nix literature entirely from our English curricula But I think we do our graduates a great disservice if we haven’t adapted our teaching to the changes already afoot, apparent in Common Core standards for English, the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP), and The College Board’s SAT Reading section.
Most of the reading and writing that college graduates do has nothing to do with literature. Much like other fields—technology, business, and medicine—we must adapt to the needs of our charges and do what is best for them. How is it with all the advances in technology, media, storytelling, and communication in the past two decades that our English curricula still look largely like they did 30 or 40 years ago? In today’s world, we are acting irresponsibly if we graduate students from our independent schools without teaching them to be savvy readers, interpreters, and producers of the kinds of texts that they will most often encounter or be asked to write themselves. Some of those texts include:
- Persuasive writing, speaking, and rhetoric—how to make a convincing, eloquent argument—both written and oral—for a political, social, or philosophical idea (not only a literary one)
- Humor and satire—how to understand and analyze theories of humor and humor devices such as parody, satire, irony, and litotes, and how to employ them in writing and media to move a particular audience
- Media and advertising—how to interpret ads, understand their purpose, and be aware of the ways companies try to influence consumers
- Interviews—how to listen to/watch, analyze, and carry out effective interviews with others; how to examine the way journalists, documentary filmmakers, and photo essays use interviews to tell stories that make an impact
- Professional communication—how to write succinct, effective, and professional emails, cover letters, texts, and tweets
Some Are Adapting
Many universities and colleges have adapted to the new landscape. A survey my colleague and I conducted of colleges and universities in the United States revealed that many schools offer entire English courses on diverse genres such as rhetoric, graphic novels, television, public speaking, creative nonfiction, “fake news,” and documentary filmmaking.
And this kind of variety isn’t brand-new to K–12 education, either. The Common Core standards for English, introduced in 2010 and adopted by 41 states and Washington, DC, advocate for students being better readers and interpreters of nonfiction and historical texts in addition to literature. The Advancement Placement’s most popular course is Language and Composition, a course that asks students to engage in an in-depth study and comparative analysis of texts that are primarily nonfiction, rhetoric, and multimedia.
My school, The John Cooper School (TX), offers language units in all upper school courses until senior year, when students specialize in seminars or AP Literature. Last year, our sophomores completed a unit called “Community Voices,” which consisted of listening to radio interviews with people who have impacted a community; examining photo essays from around the world; and reading narrative essays written by writers such as a teen migrant farmworker, a Vietnam War veteran, and a young man who had experienced solitary confinement in prison.
The unit culminated with students interviewing someone in their own community and writing a narrative essay from that person’s point of view. Students acquired skills in analyzing various media, considering different modes of storytelling, and interviewing people. Our study of George Orwell’s 20th century novel 1984 was enhanced by prior units that focused on how people communicate in the real world.
Let’s All Get On Board
Here are some suggestions for English department chairs, teachers, and school administrators looking to upgrade and adapt their reading and writing programs:
Dig into the research. Read the Common Core standards for English, especially the “Anchor Standards” and the ones for “Reading: Informational Text” and “Writing.” They aren’t prescriptive—they don’t, for example, say which texts students should read or write about—but they succinctly describe the kinds of skills students of English should have today. They are a good springboard for faculty discussions about which skills, assessments, and text types students should be adept with. Additionally, learn more about the IBDP’s Language A: Language and Literature and the AP English Language and Composition courses to see the variety of text types in which students should be proficient while enrolled in these rigorous, college-prep courses.
Don’t be afraid to be the oddball. Look to national and international trends, research, and data to bolster good, courageous ideas for our classrooms and curricula Let’s make decisions from a place of moving our profession forward rather than from a place of fearing of being the odd one out. Commitment to what works, based on good data and pedagogy, is a lot firmer ground to stand on than “tradition.”
Embrace the unfamiliar. Most of us teachers did not study graphic novels, rhetoric, or multimedia analysis in our high school or university courses, so we are perhaps less comfortable with how to teach these text types. But we cannot fall back on discomfort or inexperience as our reason for not teaching something that could prove relevant or necessary for students. We must embrace the unfamiliar, lean on our colleagues who know more about this kind of teaching and curriculum (often our younger colleagues!), and model what it means to be a lifelong learner by approaching new ways of teaching and learning with curiosity and openness.
I think the study of literature is one of the best ways to learn about our world, other people, and ourselves. But I no longer believe schools should offer an English program that is exclusively based on literature because it is a disservice to our students. Storytelling has become an interactive, vibrant, multimedia, multigenre experience, and our independent school English curricula should reflect that.