It was the day before our big writing assessment. We’ve been intensely preparing for the exam for the last five weeks. I was giving my students words of encouragement, telling them to keep a positive mind and reinforcing some the skills and tips I’ve taught. The students were chatty, expressing their anxiety, confidence and fear to their classmates. As I instruct them to be quiet, a student’s hand pops up. I get the class to be silent and pick on the student who is patiently raising their hand.
“Yes?” as I call on the student to share his question or thought.
The student made eye contact and asked “So, when are we going to learn Language Arts?”
I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t believe that was the question, so I asked the student to repeat himself. “Excuse me? What do you mean?”
The student’s response was “Like, grammar and stuff.”
At that very moment, the thoughts that manifested my little angry brain were overwhelming.
What do you mean when are we learning language arts? What do you think we’ve been doing the past five months? What is your definition of language arts and how is only learning grammar going to help you become a well-rounded person?
These were the questions that ran through my mind in the 5.7 seconds I paused to gather the right words to address his point.
I’m not sure what limited my student’s scope or why he asked the question he did but I do know that standardized testing constrains our children’s mind so much that they start to believe that reading passages and answering multiple choice questions correctly are the norm and the means of success. I asked my student if he would much rather have me provide him a book with sample questions from our standardized test that fit more of the convention of what an English class is supposed to be, but that didn’t seem to encourage him either.
I paused for a moment and placed myself in his shoes. I started to think about all of the things I disliked in previous Language Arts classes.
One of the things I always had an issue with were teachers who assigned reading and writing activities as a punishment. Have you ever been in a class where students were forced to write a structured five-paragraph essay about a topic that was irrelevant to the content or to the students’ lives, all because the teacher couldn’t manage his or her classroom well? Or have you ever been in a class where the teacher sends you out and forces you to read a book and come back with a one-page summary?
And both did nothing for me.
These kinds of approaches contribute to our students’ apathy towards reading and writing. If we use reading and writing as a punishment, then we shouldn’t be surprised when students groan and moan at the mention of an essay or independent reading time. Why? Because students are being assigned to write a one-page essay explaining the importance of following rules and regulations. Students are being told to grab a dictionary and define words that aren’t taught in context and have no relevance to the specific content. Students are being asked to leave the classroom and read a book they have no interest in and later provide a summary about a chapter that was difficult to get through.
We’re constantly preaching about “the real world” and discussing the importance of doing well in school so that you can be successful in “the real world”. However, some of our methods are not practical. Our boss isn’t going to send us out of the room and ask us to write a one-page essay on why we should never miss a deadline. Neither is she going to tell us to take the day off to read the biography of George Washington and provide a one-page summary.
If we want students to love reading and writing, we have to provide them material that is relevant to their lives and serves a greater purpose to society. We have to give them the opportunity to read and write about experiences that relate to their background, interests, environment, education, etc. We have to increase our access to books with more diversity, particularly those that feature characters of color. Reading a book with a main character that so closely relates to you empowers our students because it sends the message that their lives are worthy of written and shared to the world.
I can’t deny that some of these disciplinary writing assignments may have served a greater purpose, like teaching our students to reflect on their mistakes and renew their purpose and/or focus. I understand that students may sometimes need to communicate their thoughts on paper to further realize the magnitude of their actions. But when we don’t communicate this to students, and merely impose an assignment on them as a consequence for their poor behavior, the meaning of the assignment is no longer there.
My vision before entering the classroom was to instill a love for reading and writing in my students. As I’ve stated before, I am a product of a public school so many of my experiences have shaped my views on education and the classroom. What made me love reading and writing was finding material that was relevant and relatable. I was always obsessed with reading and writing about people like me. Fiction and non-fiction that revolved around women, human rights issues, Latinos, Blacks, and city life always intrigued me. Reading helped me discover who I was while writing helped me express it.
This is what I want my students to experience. From the first day of school, my students were instructed to write as their daily warm-up. Most of the writing prompts asked them to write about themselves and connect them to something larger, society.
My favorite writing prompt was :
“What does your education mean to you? If you could ask the county commissioner to change one thing about your school experience, what would it be? Is your education fully preparing you for the life you want in the future?”
This writing prompt, by far, provoked the most thought and discussion amongst my students. They spoke about current resources, class relevancies, uniforms, etc. I could go on and on about what that would require another post.
After preparing for the writing test for so long, my students are sick of writing. But one thing I am proud of is of the many students that pushed themselves to be better than before. Benchmark after benchmark, they were knocked down and criticized but that only pushed them to want more. When I see the growth in many of my students’ writing, my heart smiles because my students used the constructive criticism to become better. They never saw defeat as the end-result. When I pose a question to my class about race that prompts a deep conversation about stereotypes and identity, my heart smiles because my students are engaging in a level of conversation that was levels above any conversation I had in the eighth grade. My ultimate goal is for students to learn that their microphone is always on and at that any point, they can use their voice to create the change they want to see.
So to my student that asked me when are we learning Language Arts, here is my answer. I want you to break free of the constrains of the standard classroom. I want you to let go of the fear that reading, writing, presentation and discussion skills are just things we do in class but they hold no real value to our education or our life. I want you to remember that a test is just a test, but the ability to connect your life experiences to that of society holds greater value in our world. Your ability to express your ideas and present your arguments will only perfect itself with practice.
Lastly, READING is POWER. POWER is KNOWLEDGE. But KNOWLEDGE is only POWER when you APPLY and SPREAD it. Everything I teach has a purpose. You may not understand it now, but hopefully you will later. Your VOICE is your greatest weapon! I know I still have a ton of work to do as a teacher, so bare with me as we learn and grow together.
the angry public school teacher