Most of us teachers became teachers because we loved being students. Maybe we didn’t love being students in every class, but we definitely looked forward to talking about literature. I remember losing interest in some classes like geometry or in college, meteorology, not because I didn’t get it, but because I didn’t look forward to it. I took some interest in education courses, but only when they were about teaching literature.
After some years teaching, I realized that my love of learning about literature turned into a love of learning about how to teach literature, how to light a fire under a student. Early in my career, I loved watching the strategies and techniques of other teachers in action. When we talk about effective strategies in education, some of the conversation applies to any classroom, but most of the good stuff, the useful stuff, applies to the English classroom. When we mull over questions concerning technology, diversification, equity, or project-based learning, we learn the most from teachers in our content area who face similar challenges and share similar academic vocabularies.
English, like other subjects, evolves and changes with every year that goes by. Teachers must reconsider their curriculum and rethink how students grasp ideas and use new technologies. There is no shortage of great speaking and writing that comes in the form of essays, podcasts, video poems, movies, songs, news articles, or speeches.
I also think there is value in exchanging ideas with teachers in other content areas, but it’s most fun to hear from the English teachers in our building, and now that so many are online, from other parts of the country. A few years ago, at a restaurant, I overheard two English teachers at the next table talking about teaching Romeo and Juliet. I thought about how much we probably had in common, and I thought about all the questions I could ask about their favorite poems or novels to teach. I’ve encountered so many ideas online and in person about how to get students interested in literature – paintings, photographs, graphic organizers, one pagers, sketch notes, posters, mind maps, pop music, movies, podcasts, history, book clubs, lit circles, current events, creative writing, projects, even science.
There is a lot of value in this kind of content-specific and job-embedded professional development, where teachers explain in detail the logic and philosophy of their approach, and the real-life consequences of their techniques. So much of what we do is trial and error, and sometimes it takes the story of another teacher to try something new. I became the teacher I am by revising my lessons and activities, by listening to my students and what works best for them, but also through good conversations with other English teachers about what works and what doesn’t.
In Experience and Education, John Dewey explained the true process of education:
“Every experience both takes up something from those which have gone before and modifies in some way the quality of those which come after.”
It is no easy task to guide students toward finding personal and political meaning hidden deep inside the words of literature. A single mind should never be tasked with mastering all of the responsibilities that come with teaching the most important and powerful literature in the history of the world. It should be a given that when teachers find a free second to reflect on their job, they get to participate in practical professional development that allows teachers to learn what exciting things are happening in other classrooms around the country, an easy thing to do now that we have the internet.
We can listen to stories that will answer all our questions: What novels do children love year after year? What contemporary novels belong in the canon? How can we get students to love poetry and prosody? How can we make symbolism relevant, and not just an exercise in literary futility? How is old literature still relevant in today’s world? What does project-based learning look like in an ELA classroom? What is the literary value of movies, songs, speeches, and essays? What kinds of visual art or graphic organizers actually help students to analyze language and think critically? What makes students willing to open up and be honest about how they feel and what they think about themselves and the world? What makes them willing to share stories and engage in deep conversation? How do we avoid motivating students with grades and encourage them to love reading and writing? What kinds of writing assignments get students excited to express their perspective and understanding of reality? How can literature help students rethink the world they live in and demand a better one?
English language arts teacher
Teacher's Workshop, professional development for secondary ELA teachers