What I believe…

I believe that literacy is the central, dominant issue in a liberal education.  The ability to access a broad range of texts in a deeply sophisticated, critical method is essential in every academic discipline.  More importantly, it is necessary for the individual and social responsibilities that confront every member of a democratic society.  Paraphrasing Jefferson, an informed citizenry is the life blood of a democracy.  As the sources of information proliferate, the need for the knowledge and critical skill required by individuals to negotiate texts increases exponentially.  Popular forms of journalism, such as blogs, and pooled knowledge projects like wikipedia have created new spaces and increased opportunity for discourse.  These are spaces where new possibilities for the transaction of ideas occur every day.  They are also spaces where propoganda, hate speech, and defamation can occur, almost unchecked.  Should our goal as ELA teachers not be to create a citizenry that can inform themselves?  In the face of such a deluge of information, I would argue that our greatest responsibility to our students is to engage the critical skills necessary to perform these kinds of transactions (between the individual and text, between texts, etc.)

Dr. Stearns spoke of the importance of relationships during our last class.  Think about how you access new knowledge.  Do you just file away new information?  I would contend that knowledge acquisition occurs as part of a more organic process.  In A Thousand Plateaus, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari distinguish between a single root, which can progress in only one direction, adding on to its ends, and the rhizome, which spreads in multiple directions, expanding into new spaces as they become available.  I believe we think rhizomatically, therfore we should teach rhizomatically.  One often hears the saying that writers do not write in a vacuum.  Nor do readers read in one, nor should we teach in one.  Texts are best understood in relation to their readers and to other texts.  Why do we teach Shakespeare as if he is an historical figure?  His texts are very much alive, but they are treated as if they are pieces in a museum.  Yet, we are still struggling with the enormity of the themes of his greatest works.  Is Hamlet really about anything more than whether a person could do some evil to do a greater good?  Can we read Shylock’s famous speech in The Merchant of Venice without reflecting on the continuing inequality enforced against humans everywhere because of mere difference?  Is that not also the most troubling aspects of Othello?  Instead of reading The Merchant of Venice in terms of what students can learn about difference and an ethical negotiation of difference (which never occurs in the play), we focus on the personification of ducats and daughters (which is interesting in relation to the larger topic I suggested, but less so in-and-of itself).

When I was writing my MA thesis, the most important question my advisor asked me was “why is this study important?”  I struggled with that question.  I struggle with it now as I consider why teaching ELA is important.  Why do students require the sophisticated literacy I have been describing?  Thomas Friedman seems to suggest that they need it so that they can perform the kind of conceptually driven tasks that will be required of them in the careers that will be available to them in a “flat world.”  Perhaps, but I think there is an even more essential quality that this kind of literacy can, and should, promote.  Mark Edmundsson suggests that we read in order to question and further develop our most deeply held values, which he calls “final narratives.”  I agree.  Texts question other texts, and no text is more important to each of us as these narritives are.  We should be teaching students to interrogate texts using other texts, including self-created texts.  The greatest wisdom comes to us from the temple at Delphi: gnothi seauton (know thyself).  We should be teaching textual sophistication.  That is, we need to make our students aware of how they make meaning of all the texts around them.  Students need to be empowered to enter into a discourse with texts, not merely experience them.

 J. Degan



Filed under Class Notes

5 responses to “What I believe…

  1. allison76

    Very well written! I think you have captured the essence of teaching ELA.
    I especially liked these thoughts:

    “One often hears the saying that writers do not write in a vacuum. Nor do readers read in one, nor should we teach in one. ”
    Very true. Writing should comment on the world and lead the reader to futher commentary.

    “We should be teaching students to interrogate texts using other texts, including self-created texts. ”
    I thought this was a very practical. It’s a simple way of looking at a difficult task. The difficulty lies in getting students engaged in this process!

    Beautiful post.

  2. What I Believe

    I strongly and passionately believe that English is the most fundamental subject that students encounter in their academic careers and it disappoints me that so many students I know are stagnant in the subject that I love, and that many teachers allow this to continue. I have serious concerns about the very basic skills that students are suppose to be learning in the English classroom, namely reading and writing. Many poor readers are poor writers, and if you can’t do either with some skill and craft, your powers of communication throughout your life will be severely hindered, especially in this every increasingly “Flat world”, as Thomas Friedman writes about. I have reached this conclusion through my own experiences, two of which I will share with you.

    I am acquainted with a high school student, who can’t read, and nobody within the district with any authority has addressed this issue, rather, administrators enroll him in the “easy classes”, and continue to dishonorably let him pass through high school without any academic help or support. This individual is a senior, which I find very interesting because he has hardly any credits completed on his transcript, and has failed each Regent attempted to date. However, school administrators claim that he can read, have labeled him as lazy, and go about their business. Through observing this individual’s experience, it is clear that without a very basic foundation in English, such as knowing how to read and write, he has and will continue to fail many other subject areas, which all require these skills. (For example, how can he pass the History regents, which consists of multiple choice questions and an essay, if he can’t read and write?! Quite simply, he cannot.) I believe that this is a travesty, and negligent on behalf of the school, and the collective behaviors of the administration and staff has forced me to consider my own values and personal philosophies regarding education. I believe that this is criminal and that every student deserves more help than anyone has been willing to give to this point. I don’t think you have to be an idealist to find something truly disturbing about this situation. Observing this has also taught me that schools are yet another example of a societal institution that is ruled by politics! This student is an African American in a very reputable suburban high school, where a large portion of students come from wealthy and extremely well educated, white families, yet neither characteristic is true of this individual. Sadly, I have to wonder if he was from a wealthy, well-educated, white family, with parents who could understand and advocate for his cause, would he be getting the help he deserves? Unfortunately, I think the answer is absolutely.

    I have also encountered far too many individuals who graduate from high school and don’t have any idea how to write a simple paper with thesis, body, and conclusion. I have shared this concern with others, many of whom dismissed me. Their argument is that many of these students won’t ever be writing papers in the real world or when they have a job in their related field, another idea I firmly disagree with. A good friend of mine just graduated with a business degree and took a job at Price Water House Cooper in Manhattan. Curious, I asked about his the details of his position. Interestingly, this business major is writing proposals, and his first client is Coca-Cola. Obviously, having a strong foundation of reading and writing skills is professionally critical for my friend while working with this multi-billion dollar corporation.

    When considering what I believe about the teaching of ELA, the first thing that came to mind were these personal examples, both of which are related to cultivating a strong foundation in reading and writing skills. However, I believe many other things beyond this idea, yet I do not believe that they cannot be addressed appropriately without first addressing this primary issue.

  3. jmdegan

    Allison’s question is pertinant. How do we do these things we’re talking about. I think it might be easier than we realize. You make a novel, or play, or poem relevant by showing students that these works are addressing questions that are contemporary, and important for them to address in their own lives.
    To continue using Shakespeare as an example (because I am as passionately committed to Shakespeare’s centrality in the humanities as some are to the deconstruction of that centrality), the goal of teaching Othello might be to interrogate the issue of difference and prejudice in the play. So you would draw on contemporary texts that discuss those issues, and discuss those texts in relation to Shakespeare’s play. You would utilize a wide range of texts, from articles drawn from reputable sources like the NYT, the New Yorker, or Time, as well as popular sources that students are more likely to be familiar with. You would also acknowledge and support the relation between student-created texts and a given work. By student-created texts I mean individual responses, whether written, oral, or otherwise expressed. It is important to empower students to engage all kinds of texts in a dialogue.
    I think where we are failing our students is in our inability to engage that dialogue. We treat the “great works” as if they are a thing apart from the world, academic rites of passage where the goal is to demonstrate how clever we are in interpreting this or that symbol so we might understand the works meaning. Rather say that we should look to our relationship to the text to find meaning. A poem, or any other work of art, is not a singular, discrete thing. It is a conglomeration of communal and individual meanings, a site of convergent and divergent ideas engaged in dialogue. Our goal shouldn’t be to get students to find all of Hawthorne’s use of red imagery in The Scarlet Letter, but to ask whether a society of strict morality is a good or equitable society (one could draw on Taliban Afghanistan as a text to relate to these issues, for example).
    We need to teach students to be socially and ethically engaged. What makes me sad about the flat world we are rushing into is that I see a decay of social responsibility in its capitalist assumptions. If students are to be on the cutting edge of innovation for the flat world, then they also need to hold an ethical vision of social responsibility. That is one reason why I continue to be committed to Shakespeare. At his best, Shakespeare was defining what the human is (see especially Bloom’s book on Shakespeare), and he did so with a range that is almost unparalleled in our language. Teaching Shakespeare is about teaching what great art has to tell us about ourselves and our world, and we need more, not less, of it.
    As we plow through the new millenium, I think the greatest failing of our generation may be that we are committed to the wrong projects. Literacy isn’t just about being able to read, it’s about being able to acquire, evaluate, and deploy knowledge. I wonder why we think that reading a lot of books is a demonstration of literate behavior? Is a student that has read every book by one author or in one series literate? They clearly love to read, and that’s great. But what have they to say about experience beyond that one author or series. A person can only raise so many questions from one source. We need to become (and teach our students to become) the authors of our own content by reading broadly, reading deeply, and reading critically.

    J. Degan

  4. allison76

    In response to Mandy’s post, I would like to bring up an article which was recently featured on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. The title of the article is “When Special Education Goes too Easy on Students.” Here is a link to the article for those who are interested. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB118763976794303235.html
    Appearantly, there has been an onslaught of lawsuits brought to schools for failing to properly educate special ed. students. The accusation is that schools are lowering standards for students with learning disabilities and passing them through school without properly educating them. The article claims that teachers give students excessive accomidations to pass tests. The examples were shocking. Also, this seems to be a growing problem. Accodring to the article, “In 2005, 70% of fourth-grade special education students received some sort of accommodation while taking the math portion, up from 44% five years earlier. In reading, 63% used accommodations in 2005, up from 29% in 2000.”

    Mandy wrote about teachers failing to help students in her post. “I have also encountered far too many individuals who graduate from high school and don’t have any idea how to write a simple paper with thesis, body, and conclusion.”

    I agree that there is a problem. I believe that it is important to put in the extra effort to help all students. We cannot simply send them through school on a conveyor belt and deny them a quality education. I think it is important to hold students to high standards. We must find a way to reach them, because it is possible to teach these kids. Its all a matter of holding them up, and not letting them slip by.

    When I was volunteering at an after-school program in the city of Syracuse, a young boy showed me how kids can be neglected. Every day the boy had to do his reading homework. He could pick any book. He simply had to fill out a response worksheet and have an adult sign it for him. He was in sixth or seventh grade, but every day he would pick out a picture book. One day we read “Froggy Plays Soccer.” I wondered how the teacher could allow her students to read books that were so far below the reading level. I wondered why this boy wasn’t more challenged. He liked to read, but never read anything more profound. If I were the teacher, I would have gotten personally involved, directing the boy to short stories, or even a novel to work on. A sixth-grade student will not be engaged if he only reads picture books. He will never discover a passion for ELA unless he is challenged. I think every teacher owes their students a challenge and a chance for passion.

  5. Mandy McKenney

    Alison, thank you for the link to that article. Sadly, it definitely resonates with this particular experience that I have had to witness. I appreciate your metaphor of “the conveyor belt” and I to believe that it is unethical as a teacher to give up on students and not to address their weaknesses, especially when it hinders their academic abilities so much. Speaking of articles, for those of us from the Syracuse area, there was an interesting article in the opinion section of the paper regarding standardized tests. Did anyone see it? I am trying to locate it online, but am having difficulty. However, in my search, I found this cartoon. Which, in a sense, says much of the same thing that the article did and also relates to Alison’s metaphor. Check it out:


    In relation to my complaints regarding students I have met who can’t write an average paper, I was talking with a college freshman English professor today and I shared my concerns with her. She agreed, and also enlightened me to the fact that many of her students have as much, if not more trouble with MLA, due to the fact that many have never been properly and consistently taught it. (I know I wasn’t familiar with MLA until I was a sophomore in college. Does anyone know if MLA is currently being taught in the intro English classes here at Cortland? It must be.) This particular professor gives the students the chance to opt out of her introductory writing course, if they present her with three above average papers from their senior year of high school. Few, if any students are able to benefit from this opportunity. Even worse, this teacher found that the papers that had been graded average or above average by high school teachers, would not have been graded similarly by her, but significantly lower. She actually had students who plagiarized, and when she confronted them, they sincerely did not understand the concept of plagiarism, or the implications of this on their academic careers, reputations, etc.

    I am shocked, but at the same time not surprised. I vaguely remember being introduced to bibliographies in high school, but I didn’t actually understand MLA and the process of creating a works cited page until I was in college. This made me wonder, did I ever, in my entire high school career, even write something that required a works cited page? It scares me to realize, probably not. It scares me more to think that some administrator or board member considers this too advanced for high school students. Seriously, MLA?? How can teachers not be teaching this? How can students not be learning this? I am disturbed.

    Alison, it bothers me as well that that particular 6th or 7th grader was being neglected. How bored he must be with ELA. Unfortunately, his view of this subject area as pointless, boring, easy, etc., is continually reinforced each time he completes those assignments. I wonder if he was choosing the pictures for stimulation, since he must be bored by the low level reading. I hope someone will introduce him to Harry Potter, or something more exciting, along those lines. Although the physical pictures are absent in a lot of young adult literature, the images he could potentially create in his mind would be far more stimulating, while simultaneously challenging him as a reader, and building much better reading skills.


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