Reflections on Yagelski

Mr. Yagelski, if you have time to read my post, let me begin by saying that it is an honor to have your thoughts appearing on our class blog.  Thank you for taking the time to share with us, and I certainly wish you a quick recovery from your illness.In response to your essay statement, “Address the question of why students should be required to study English,” I have been reflecting very seriously about my personal answer.  I am particularly struck by your belief that educators are shapers of students as beings-in-the-world, which makes perfect sense and also casts a feeling of extreme importance to the art of teaching.  The more I ponder this, the more I feel that creating status-quo beings-in-the-world is a real failure on our part as educators.  As you say, it is unexpected that we student teachers will graduate and become “change agents” in our school systems.  Yet it seems imperative that we do just that.  As teachers, we should create change in conventional English classrooms so that our students will also become “beings” who actively change their world.  So, if I were taking your class and was asked to create a statement of purpose on why students should be required to study English, I might include a few of these ideas:

  • Students should study English because language is the key to understanding ourselves and those around us, as we are all beings-in-the-world.  More than this, the development of a student’s reading and writing skills extends far beyond standardized testing. 
  • Outside of Regents examinations, students use reading and writing skills to communicate with their peers across our flat world through email, wikis, blogs, internet surfing, text messaging and more.  These modes of communication demand that we are able to share our ideas and emotions not only clearly, but creatively
  • Students should be required to study English in order to foster this creative knowledge sharing through their communication skills outside of school exams.  While examinations are mandatory inside the classroom, language arts skills are also mandatory outside of the classroom in this era of technology.  Students have a greater venue of sharing thoughts, expressing ideas, and conversing with peers than ever before.  This platform, propelled by the internet, is where their reading and writing can change the world
  • Students should be required to study English so that they can realize their reading and writing potential in a creative setting, and so that they can reach this potential and simultaneously change the world. 

-Posted by Sofia Penna



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4 responses to “Reflections on Yagelski

  1. Bob Yagelski

    Sofia, you offer a thoughtful and compelling start to answering the question of why you (or we) teach English. For me, your first bullet is the most important, because it seems to me that everything flows from the idea that “language is the key to understanding ourselves and those around us, as we are all beings-in-the-world,” as you so aptly put it. Once we begin to understand this idea, we can, I think, make appropriate decisions about what should happen in English classes if our goal is to foster in our students the literate abilities and sensibilities that might enable them to work toward a more just and sustainable future. In this sense, our pedagogy flows directly from our beliefs and assumptions–about language, about ourselves, about knowledge, about how we wish to live together. That’s what education should be about, in my view.

    Your other bullets emphasize the role that language–especially written language–plays in students’ lives. That emphasis makes great sense to me, but unfortunately I think it’s one we make all too rarely in our conventional English curricula and pedagogies. Let me offer one quick example of what I mean.

    The study of literature is a mainstay of secondary English education (I’d argue that it’s actually the main content of most secondary English instruction, which I see as a problem), and teachers offer many time-honored justifications for this emphasis: the study of literature provides insight into human life; literary study can foster certain kinds of sensibilities and critical thinking skills; etc. But it seems to me that the way we present literature in conventional English classes emphasizes the study of literary texts as special artifacts–that is, we place literary texts in a special category, which is usually defined as “higher” or “better” or more sophisticated than other kinds of texts, including texts created by students. Or to put it more bluntly, we teach literature as if we are training little literary critics, not as if literature could be one kind of textual experience that gives us insight into literacy and life. My question is this: How many of your students will become professional students of literature? The answer is, probably none–or maybe one or two. So why should we require all of them to learn how to read literary texts like literary critics? Shouldn’t we use literature to help students develop the kinds of literacy, communication, and thinking skills that you allude to in your bullets? And should we be exposing students to all kinds of texts, rather than valorizing one kind of text? Obviously, I believe the answer is yes.

    This is another example of how addressing the question of *why* we teach leads eventually to *what* and *how* we teach.

    Thanks for your comments, Sofia.


  2. sunyprof

    Sofia, you make very good points here about the potential impact of language learning on our students.

    How DO we teachers take responsibility for building curriculum and liberating pedagogies that affirm students as change agents–now–not when they “graduate,” and to do what Prof. Yagelski says, “influence our culture for the better.” KES

  3. ll123

    Professor Yagelski, I absolutely agree with you here when you said,” we teach literature as if we are training little literary critics, not as if literature could be one kind of textual experience that gives us insight into literacy and life.” Let me do such a comparison here: Now I am watching my favorite movie—Wuthering Heights and I am completely lost in the world of emotions with the main characters H. and C. with tears in my eyes, and deep sadness in my heart…. Imagine every two minutes, somebody turns on the lights and asks me to analyze the scene with “why” questions or evaluate the dialect, I probably would be very upset. Yet, unfortunately, such disturbance of kids’ reading pleasure is the common practice in current secondary English classroom both in America and China based on my observation in American classes and my own experience in China. No wonder kids don’t like reading if they have to constantly do the critics’ work. When we read, we naturally connect ourselves with the world beyond us. This connection enables us to feel that we are not alone, and it also enables us to understand the world within us…..As far as I know, the “ training little literary critics” teaching pattern is universal, not just in America. My question is: What can we do about it? (Please forgive me for my language problem since English is my second language.) By L. L.

  4. Bob Yagelski

    L.L., available evidence (from large-scale studies like Applebee’s as well as from many small-scale studies and from ongoing surveys of teachers, such as those associated with NAEP) suggests that the approach to teaching literature that you describe (and that I was critiquing) is indeed widespread, if not universal, in secondary schools. There’s a lot to say about this matter beyond the obvious fact that this approach (which has its roots in the New Criticism of the 1950s and 1960s) turns so many students away from reading widely and seriously as well as for pleasure. I also worry a great deal that our conventional approaches literature instruction also teach problematic ways of reading and convey dubious assumptions about the nature of texts and literacy, as I suggested in my earlier posts. I’m not interested only in encouraging students to like reading (and writing); I also want them to have wide and substantive experiences with a wide range of texts for a variety of purposes. I want them to develop sophisticated ways of engaging texts in different contexts. To some extent, conventional approaches to literature do encourage sopshisticated readings strategies and foster critical awareness of certain textual features. But ultimately what we value in these approaches is a very narrow slice of the world of literacy. And valorizing as we do inevitably means that students miss other crucial experiences with varied texts.

    I noticed the discussion about Atwell on this blog, and her arguments underscore some of the concerns I am raising. But I’d go beyond Atwell in a sense. She’s right that when it comes to reading, there’s something for every student. And she’s right to encourage students to find texts that engage them, interest them, and foster in them a sense of enjoyment. But I also want to challenge our ways of thinking about what counts as an appropriate text in an English class, and I want to acknowledge that reading isn’t always fun yet can be deeply satisfying even when it isn’t terribly enjoyable. I think it’s imperative that teachers build on Atwell’s more student-centered approach in ways that take students beyond sanctioned texts and into the wider world of literacy, which is changing before our eyes.


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