Teaching High School English

The image I used above this column is wonderful.  But I had to search the entire internet to find any hint of who may have drawn it.  Finally found it with the artist’s name “Warren” in Green, an Australian mag.  I can’t believe it’s been used by so many educators without the signature on it.  Warren, whoever you may be, this is brilliant.

To start with a simple declarative:

We are English teachers.

And what, exactly, does that mean?  French teachers teach French – that is, they teach the structure, vocabulary and idiom used by French speakers in the common course of verbal communication—n’est-ce pas?  I took French all the way through junior high (excluding seventh grade – schools in Parkville, MO did not offer French in those days—too far, I guess, from both Canada and the Louisiana Purchase) and high school.  In those classes I learned your basic nouns, verbs, adjectives – how to organize them, how to place them in time—and as time went on, how to place them in the throes and subtleties of circumstance.  I suppose what I am getting to here is that the first concern of the French class was the nuts and bolts of the actual language.

In English classes, I diagrammed sentences.  I never did it right once.  I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing, and I didn’t care about doing it.  I still don’t care.  And I still cannot diagram a sentence.  What’s more, all that diagramming didn’t teach me anything at all about using language in order to facilitate communication.  But it was gradable.  Sort of.  And that, I suppose, was the essential beauty of it.

The difference between teaching French to English speakers and English to English speakers is, of course, rooted in the fact that familiarity breeds contempt.  And blindness.  And bad habits.  I say “bad habits” simply because aberrant forms of language, while they might be very eloquently used within a given cultural context, are not all that useful outside of that context.  Thus, the word “ain’t” is not actually bad – it’s simply of limited, and sometimes negative, social and communicative value.  What I’m saying is that people who are already using English to get what they want every day of their lives will probably not be easily convinced that they need to know what an adjective actually is.

Our job then, as English teachers, is to inspire in our human, and so, essentially self-serving students the understanding that language is actually a sport.

Walking, running, throwing—all fairly common skills.  But not everybody makes a million bucks doing them.  And why not?  Because the pay-offs go to people who are good enough at these things to score.  Same with language: if you want to score (read: if you want to get what you want out of other people), you have to learn the game.

That is the real job: teaching the game.  Creating a hunger.  Generating some excitement: “I will teach you the moves you need—“

The basic stuff is the easy stuff – spelling, vocabulary, punctuation, economy in grammatical structures.  These are work-sheetable, testable, gradable and thus measurable sorts of things—perfect for the rigors of the classroom.  A caveat: grammar gets a little sticky once you sally forth from the exercise books and enter the dynamic stream of actual usage.  Not many teachers are that brave.

And I believe that not that many teachers are actually capable of making that journey.  Beyond the mechanics, there be art.  I imagine that there are plenty of coaches who aren’t personally all that good at the sports they lead.  I can’t help but think, the better a coach is at his own game, and the more experience he has had playing it–successfully—the better he will coach.  Assuming he can communicate what his body knows.

Is teaching language any different from this?  How many of us, as teachers, are really in control of our own language?  Can you, for instance, write a Relationship Letter that actually speaks to its audience?  Is your poetry any good?  Come on – is it really?  Are you capable of achieving a personal essay?  Do you write with charm?  With wit?  With power?  Is your own sentence structure so integrated with your meaning that no words are wasted—so that the very structure is essential to the statement you are making?

Obviously then, I see true English teaching as going far beyond correcting vocabulary tests.  It involves nurturing skills with rhythm, nuance, critical thinking, voice, compassion, insight – the million components of artistic and effective communication.

It occurs to me that adding literature into the mix might be, at least in some cases, a side-stepping of responsibility.  I will say this: reading literature (a relative term) – reading almost anything – is an educational exercise.  I’m not so sure I can say the same about classroom analysis of literature.  I think I’d rather see students pulling apart ad copy in the classroom.  Or political speeches.  Finding symbols in books where (often) none were planted is all well and good, but it really is its own reward.  Artistic writing can be very complex; in my not-so-humble opinion, language function can be understood far more clearly in a more prosaic venue.

If we teach literature as a treat – sharing with the students we love the books we love – that is one thing.  A caveat here as well: what moves you as an adult may be too strong, too complex – or too specifically appropriate to your own psyche for your young students.  Even for young adults (by which I mean people from 18-21).  To make someone read something you have found meaningful without considering that it might only be meaningful for you – well, you may find yourself assaulting your students rather than enlightening them.  And holding the grades hostage – is it fair for you to require your students to share your emotional responses?  To mirror your thinking or your taste or your emotional needs?

If we teach literature as if it held the Secret of Life – or the answers to humanity’s conundrums, or even Wisdom, we are stepping out of our true job description.  At that point, we have to ask ourselves: did these authors achieve the Perfect Life?  Did they succeed in relationships?  Were they capable of getting what they wanted from the world while maintaining their moral integrity? Are they, by virtue of the fact they have been published and are being published, then qualified to be our spiritual and behavioral guides?

Here’s a question: what is it humanity wants out of life?  Besides wild, carefree sex, I mean.  Is not the end of all our yearning the very thing that Tolstoy shrugs off as “all the same”?  Do we not want to be loved in a committed relationship – to have people in our lives who are truly our friends, our family?  Safety?  Comfort?  Success?  Freedom?  Do we not wish to draw satisfaction out of our work?  Do we not want peace?

But most of the literature we respect is not written by people who had these things.  Quite often, art really does come out of suffering.  Unhappy, lonely, frustrated, isolated people often produce what the rest of us worship as mature truth.  Writers are very often people without families (read that: people who actually have time to sit down and write something cogent).  Artists have traditionally been people whose lives are nearly the polar opposite of what we want from Wisdom.  So how is it we conclude that they know so much we don’t?  Is not living joy an art?  But we don’t respect people who do that; we think of them as just too cute, too simple.  We want to be happy, but we want happiness that is edgy, deep, mysterious, gland-engaging, exciting and dangerous.

I suppose this point should lead to a discussion of the concept of emotional maturity.


If we teach literature the way a coach shows his team film of the people who really do this thing well – I see that as a legitimate use.  Again, though – remember that medicines are doled out with a mind to the age, the size, the weight and the health history of each patient.  And not every person sitting in your classroom needs the same medication.

That’s another point – when we read, often what we are really doing is self medicating.  Give that one a thought.  Because when we read good writing – or even bad writing – we are asking the author to change our brain chemistry.  That’s what really good writing does.  Depending on your native levels of willing suspension of disbelief, you can allow bad writing to do almost the same thing – just on a more broad brush, straight to the hypothalamus basis.

Another thing that we have to remember is this—when you pierce the mystic aura that protects our designated “classics,” what you find is a commercial product.  Somebody wrote the thing – why?  Why do writers write?  Because they have to?  Well, yeah.  Maybe.  A lot of bad writers “have to” write, too.

Because they want to.  That’s a better answer.  Part of what they want is an audience, and part is commercial success.  If you want to write stories more than  you want to machine pipe fittings, then you have to make enough money to justify doing it – or at least to keep you alive in your cold and lonely garret long enough to write something more.

Notice that the artists do not simply write the books and then burn them.  Or hide them in attics.  No – they send their manuscripts to publishers.  And why would a publisher take on the cost of printing, binding and merchandizing a book?  For art’s sake, are you saying?  Ha.  Because altruism demands that this marvelous, wise book be made available to the world?  Ha again.  Because it’s going to make him some money?

Ah.  Truth.

Every classic (well, maybe excepting Beowulf) began as a commercial product.  Certainly Chauser was going for popular success.  And commercial means that the book has to provide entertainment.  In the end – art may be grand and rarified – but if it doesn’t entertain in some way, nobody will buy it.  Sometimes the entertainment is visceral.  Sometimes it’s intellectual or emotional or spiritual.  Whatever, the art must connect with the audience, create a conversation.  Or again, nobody will buy it.  Unless the purchase is status driven.

Now you may be thinking—not all the books ever published became classics.  And that, too, is true.  Not even all best sellers make it.  Twain survived while most of his Gilded Age contemps are long gone.  Why is this?  Even now, hundreds and hundreds of Young Adult books are published every year.  A fraction of them make the ALA nominations.  This doesn’t mean that only a fraction of them are worthy – just that a fraction fell into the hands of, or pleased, or fit the kind of people who nominate.  More than a fraction of them, however, are just really not that good.  Some of the ones that make the list aren’t even that good.  So we have good books going unrecognized and bad books canonized.

The book business is not hard science.

In the end, most of these books will soon be out of print and forgotten.

Of all the books published in the world, some few have lived long lives.  Sometimes, it’s because they were handled well by their publishers.  Sometimes because their authors were colorful enough to leave history behind them.  Some books happened to appeal to the right people – the professors and critics who really, in the end, decide how long the life of a book will be.

Some books continue to live because they have truth in them, you may whisper.  And I will not argue that.  A really good book is one that has bones of truth – whether the author happened to be in control or not.  But not all books that are popular or stay popular with the world at large are good or true – some of them appeal to the silly romantic audience.  Some to the gamers.  Some to the sex interested.  Some books shock the soul, and that shock is mistaken as some kind of spiritual experience.

In the absence of true meaning, intensity is often mistaken for significance.

Any given book I love, you might read and find stupid.  Or depressing.  Too accessible.  Boring.  Too long.  Too name-burdened.  Too romantic.  Too irresponsible.  Too simple.  It’s glorious when we love the same book – like discovering that we are long-lost cousins.  What you consider deep and classical, I may find arrogant and full of itself.  What the Pulitzer prize people think is wildly significant, I may find obnoxiously quirky and completely disconnected with real life.

Who is right?

Who cares?

I do—if the book comes into the classroom.  You can read the Times best seller lists and decide for yourself what you’re going to read on the train.  But your students have to read what you require them to read.  And I find that grossly unfair, and often, ethically wrong.  What gives you the right to decide that your students “need” to read any given book?

Again, if we are using literature as a demonstration of words well used, we can do that by offering sections of writing.  We can start by studying the sentence structure – comparing the styles and voices of a number of authors and trying to learn what makes them different, and then—what works and what doesn’t.  Or we can choose books that are well put together but still gentle in their view – and make no mistake, power and gentleness can exist easily side by side in the story of a fine writer.

Still, I come back to this.  Our first job in teaching English is learning English.  What is it that makes a “good” sentence?  Perhaps the word “good” needs to be replaced with the phrase “aesthetically appropriate.”  Can you write that kind of sentence?  Can you write a paragraph full of them?  Are you capable of writing a story?  What will your story mean?  What have you done with your life that you have something to offer?  Will your story come out of pain?  And should you write that painful story?  Or should you take the million other stories that have been told out of pain, finally learn something from them, re-examine your life, change some things and see how that feels – and then write?

And really, how can you teach writing unless you actually know something about doing it well?

Perhaps part of the answer to this question has to do with being a good audience.  You may recognize writing that pleases you, and you may, through your critical abilities, be able to explain why it pleases you, or why it does not.  Still, there is no scripture that says your analysis will be “right.”  It will simply either be well stated or not.  Your analysis may speak to one, but not to another.  The safe critics are the ones who know how to draw blood, and so intimidate their audiences out of debate—might making right.

All of this dithering done, in the end, I think we are not really trying to turn out reams of students who will be sending manuscripts to New York (who would do the real work then?).  What I think we want to do is turn out students who are alive, who can express themselves – but who can also question themselves, thinking below the surface of things.  People not too easily satisfied, but willing to be refreshed by good things – truth, solid art.  People who can see through campaign speeches and the acrobatics of Madison Avenue to make intelligent choices.  People who can read contracts and write them and do the business of life.  Perhaps most important of all: people who can communicate with the ones they love, choosing well to begin with and then maintaining their commitments, teaching and nurturing their beloved children—ultimately achieving that boring, consistent sameness of joy that Tolstoy found so un-noteworthy.

I think that may be job enough.


To be continued…


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