Thursday, August 2, 2012

The "New" English

I am at James Madison University for two days to continue a course that I began at William & Mary last year. (It is part of the School-University Research Network-SURN, a program involving both institutions.) At the onset, the program was called the Capstone English Academy. Since then it has morphed into the Senior English Academy. The word Capstone indicates an ending, having reached the pinnacle. English teachers can get really caught up in word choices.

The impetus of the course was the Career & College Readiness Initiative spearheaded by our governor in response to the low retention and graduation rates of Virginia Colleges.  The objectives address the misconception that only students enrolled in academic or advanced high school courses are the ones that are college-bound. Those students that fall into the margins of being college-bound but not enrolled in college-prep courses are the easiest prey to those incompletion rates. This is an epidemic close to my heart because my son was one of those students and now he is one of those statistics. He is, of course, neither the first or last student I will see this happen to.

Last year the VDOE joined SURN in creating a course to prepare English teachers for instructing this "last chance" course for those struggling or unengaged readers. My biggest concern last year was that the Senior year of high school was simply too late to completely change the framework of how literature is taught in the classroom. Thankfully this year, most likely due to the realities of a starving education budget statewide making it unlikely new courses will be added to many curriculums, the focus instead is on incorporating these new methods of engagement and assessment across the entire high school English framework. This makes much more sense to me.

There is always a "new" way of teaching being introduced to education. How often have we heard the phrase "New Math." It is a necessity though... because the students sitting in our classrooms are changing. I am not going to create a laundry list here of all the ways in which today's student differs from yesterday, from us as a student, from tomorrow's students. All those comparisons could be a post within themselves. What is most important is understanding the evolution of education.

Society changes. Students changes. Therefore learning methods change and we, as teachers, must change. What this new method of teaching proposes is moving away from the classics, from assigned text sets, and allowing students to chose their own literature to read. The premise of the course is that when there is student choice, the reader will become engaged in literature and the same objectives can be completed. It proposes an organic style of learning where there is an exchange of information between student and teacher versus the traditional information output and input model of communication.

This is not an easy concept to grasp. Most teachers fall into the field of English because of a personal love of literature. It is alien to think of breaking the mold of reading a classic, assigning comprehension questions, quizzing and testing on the literature, and writing an essay response.  How is any high school student that has not read Romeo & Juliet going to become a functioning member of modern day society after graduating high school. Seriously? The horror!

Change is hard. We all have our comfort zones of teaching- lesson plans that we can fall back on without much prep or personal engagement. Incorporating this student-centered style of learning, especially in an educational environment framed by high-stakes standardized testing, is an interesting yet hard concept to adopt. For me, this upcoming school year will be about finding the balance between meeting learning objectives and fostering student engagement.

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