We encourage students to find patterns and parallels between texts and our modern world. We tell them to use persuasive language when crafting their essays. We try our best, but when we are tethered to a curriculum that is based solely on books and not themes, skills, or any other relevant platform, it often fails to engage students in useful learning.
I am an English teacher. No one understands the desire to teach the classics more than I do. I want students to feel the teardrops on their cheeks when Sydney Carton makes his sacrifice, or to laugh when Holden can’t quite do it with a prostitute. These are important texts; these books are timeless. As a sixteen year old, however, so many things need to be in place in order to really understand and appreciate these stories. In high school, it wasn’t until my senior year that I really started reading and understanding the themes and motifs with which I was interacting. It wasn’t until college and grad school that I truly engaged with a text and pressed back against both my own beliefs and what the text implied. And ultimately, it wasn’t until I was a teacher that I read between the lines, gained new insights, made the truly rich connections that literature makes possible. That is not to say that all students cannot take these significant steps much earlier, many can, and do. It does mean, however, that we should be utilizing relevant subject matter. We should incorporate modern day politics, pop culture, historical parallels, argumentative writing, and critical thinking.
We should not be basing lesson plans and units of study on books. It sounds slightly insane to even speak about it in that way. Imagine being asked, “What did you do in English today?” “We covered chapters 9-11 in The Grapes of Wrath.” The book should be the vehicle through with thousands of other items become relevant. It should not be the prime attraction. Still, it’s hard to even imagine how to structure a language arts classroom that doesn’t work this way. It’s been the code of conduct for so long. I am guilty of it.