Friday, May 9, 2014

It's time we try something different in English class

On Tuesday and Wednesday of last week, I had the privilege of listening to Will Richardson speak about bold classrooms and what they could look like.  He told over 500 teachers at YCDSB that we need to suspend our nostalgia for what school looked like in the past, because that world no longer exists.  He challenged us to look at the courses we have been teaching for the past 10 years and ask ourselves whether or not they are fundamentally the same now as they were then.

His challenge to our group of 500 teachers and administrators over the two days he spent with us:

Transform your classrooms into places of passion, purpose, and participation, where kids are using technology to do real work for real audiences, solve problems, make things that matter, and change the world.

These ideas are not really new to me.

And yet, I was perplexed and couldn't sleep after that first presentation.  I came to the realization that in the four years that I've been in my role, I hadn't really impacted as great a change as I would have hoped: that nostalgia for what school should look like, very much impedes any real transformation in Education today.

Without adequate time to process my learning, I became immersed in new learning at the Connect 2014 conference in Niagara Falls where I was able to meet and speak with so many like-minded educators.

The presentations and ideas of Michael Fullan, Shelley Wright,  Lori DeMarco, Peter Aguiar, Paul Yip,  Zoe Branigan-Pipe, and Jim Pedrich each with their own rich experiences and stories from the field, swirled together with the ideas that had been already tossing in my head, creating a tsunami.  I spent two days completely impressed by the innovation of teachers and students in pockets around our province.  And again, I felt like I hadn't been enough of an "instigator" in my own professional life.

For me, the easiest and most difficult transformation can happen in high school English class--especially our applied courses.


English teachers are passionate and hard-working and they spend so much time and energy trying to connect stories, novels, plays, and poetry to students' lives.  They change their syllabus regularly to include contemporary texts and include current events.  They spend more of their time providing feedback to students on their papers than any other discipline.

And yet...

"Students are increasingly bored in school and teaching bored students is especially challenging."
                                                    --Michael Fullan, Connect 2014

Students in applied English courses are generally disengaged, unmotivated, and disinterested. They don't feel connected and don't feel that the course is relevant.  Plagarism runs rampant and students spend more time reading summaries of texts on the web than they actually do reading the texts. And generally speaking, technology doesn't help because students are not impressed by technology in and of itself.  And let's face it,  submitting a literary essay electronically is not too different from submitting a word-processed print copy.

When I think about why so little has changed in terms of the way we teach English over the past 20 years, I can only conclude, that as Will Richardson suggests, it is nostalgia.  You see, unlike other Ontario Curriculum documents, no content is prescribed in the Overall Expectations for Language Arts or English.  Students are required to read, write, listen, speak, and create and understand media for a variety of purposes and a variety of audiences.

That's it.  Lots of examples (from 2007 when the document was created), but no "thou shalt" statements.

And yet, across the province (and I know because I ask everyone I meet) English high school courses look like variations of this:  poetry unit, non-fiction unit, short story unit, novel study, Shakespeare. Our texts are still primarily selected by teachers and delivered to a whole class at the same time, and our physical classrooms still look very much the same.  And while that may have been an effective way to organize a course ten years ago, this is not working for many of our students: especially those in applied courses.

Could we find a more modern approach?
What opportunities exist for inquiry-based or project-based learning in an English class?
How might we better equip our students to read and understand the world in which they live and into which they will graduate?

You could say that because I haven't had my own classroom for four years (I am in classrooms co-teaching regularly, but that is not the same), I am idealistic and out-of-touch with the realities of a modern classroom today.  And so, I am going to get into a classroom in September to reimagine English for modern learners. 

Are you with me?  Let's create a "Modern Learning Movement" in English! I'd love to hear your ideas!

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