In Walden, Thoreau famously declared, “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” I’ll never forget it, and I think about it every time I lesson plan. A long time ago, I watched “Finnish First” with Dan Rather and remember learning about the incredible simplicity of the curriculum in Finland. It made me think about how important it is to simplify things for our students.
There are so many things to simplify in high school English:
1. Simplify the story.
This is the hardest thing for any teacher. Take a very difficult and complicated topic and make it easy to understand. It’s the heart and soul of excellent teaching. We paraphrase, we break it down into parts, we compare it to similar ideas, or something in the news. We use props. We use stories from our lives or ask students to think about a personal experience that demands a reimagining of the same internal conflict or dilemma of the character. Sometimes a chart or graphic organizer helps. Or a scene from a movie. Sometimes historical context or a concept from psychology or another science helps. Every writer lives in a society with specific social codes, language, and etiquette. They also live outside of that world, a world we call fiction, where everything is imaginary and nothing else exists but the words and the story.
English is a subject that involves everything. It’s both breadth and depth. We hope that the words from a story conjure up a greater understanding that gets at the scheme of things. In the end, our students read the most brilliant minds in history like Jane Austen, Ralph Ellison, Virginia Woolf, and William Shakespeare and ask us to make sense of the pressing questions they asked. They want us to help them zoom in on the important stuff and take a look around.
2. Simplify literary techniques.
We all know that the only way to get to the bottom of complex prose or poetry is by interpreting literary techniques. I start talking about literary techniques by saying that they’re all comparisons. Symbol: this represents that. Metaphor: this is that. Simile: this is like that. Juxtaposition: this is next to that. Irony: this defies that. Rhyme: this word connects to that word. Onomatopoeia: this sounds like that.
Once they know what it is, they can decide why the writer or speaker used the device. If someone calls a person a snake, it’s not important that it’s a metaphor. It’s important that the speaker felt attacked, or that they made an unfair judgement of a person by calling them a snake. You take someone’s humanity away when you call them a snake. But they might deserve it - it’s up to you to decide. When it comes to simplifying the type of narration or identifying the tone, it’s all about who knows what. What does this narrator know, and what do they not know? Are they inside the head of the character or outside?
When we show students how to conduct a close reading of prose or poetry, we’re defining difficult words and clarifying connotations, we’re reading slowly and with the emotions of the speaker, we’re rereading the passage, and we’re modeling exactly what we want them to do when they consume language. If they can simplify and comprehend a complicated poem or passage, they can simplify and comprehend anything.
3. Simplify directions.
Every day, students shuffle from classroom to classroom, expected to learn new sets of academic terms and teaching styles everywhere they go. Every new year brings a new set of expectations and way of doing things. A little bit of this may be good for our students: they need to adapt to different personalities and as they grow, they should experience new, higher standards. But if we create a classroom with too many rules and directions, our students will become puppets on a string, and not free, independent thinkers. They’ll drown in academic etiquette. We aim for a smooth transition from kindergarten to senior year: introduce them to the rules, and then gradually let them decide when to break them. When we ask students to create something, we ask them to go in their own direction, to be a creator, not a critic. I’ll never get over the way my students react when I ask them to write a poem. A poem about what? they ask. It’s a poem, you can write about anything. Anything? Yes, anything. It’s your poem. Write anything. What a crazy idea.
4. Simplify questions.
At some point in education, there’s no need for a question. When our students first start high school, they desperately want a question to answer, because the question contains the answer. Often times, their response to the question contains a rewording of the question, because that way, they can’t be wrong. Think about it. Why is the sky blue? The sky is blue. The answer is not incorrect, but it doesn’t answer this incredibly complex and challenging question. In freshman year, there’s a possibility that students haven’t encountered enough ideas – they need a question to get started. But when I talk to my seniors, the message is different. Tell me, what do you think this book is about? We don’t want them working hard to find support for our ideas about the book; we want them to dig deep into their own thoughts. We want them to take the main idea of the text and do something exciting with it.
In elementary school, my teacher told us to keep a journal with our thoughts and experiences. You can’t get any simpler than that. I filled six journals with my messy, incomplete, and imperfect feelings and life. In middle school, my social studies teacher allowed us to spend all year researching and writing an essay on a topic of choice. For some reason, I picked Bob Dylan. I read five biographies, bought a bunch of his albums, and wrote a twenty-page paper. Sometimes, our students need a little spoon-feeding, but sometimes, they need us to let go.
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