Five Big Ideas from “English Education” Article

So many things caught my attention in the articles from the English Education issue featuring the 2006 CEE. I’ll focus on the article I studied in depth, “Real Teaching for Real Diversity: Preparing English Language Arts Teachers for 21st-Century Classrooms” by Boyd, Ariail, Williams, Jocson, Tinker Sachs, & McNeal with Fecho, Fisher, Healy, Meyer, & Morrell. These quotes & ideas still called out to me days after I read the article. Emphasis is mine.

  • “In our preparation of future teachers and citizens, teachers and teacher educators need to be advocates for and models of social justice and equity by functioning as change agents in classrooms, schools, and communities” (333).

Teachers cannot simply come into the classroom and teach. By doing this, we embrace the status quo, where the Minority majority is marginalized. This means that we are not connecting with all of our students; we allow some (most) of them to slip through the cracks. In order to truly “leave no child behind,” we need to strive for social justice and equality in our classrooms, schools, and communities. We must start with ourselves – become “change agents” – and then impress upon our students that they cannot allow themselves to be part of the status quo of injustice and inequality. From there, we must branch out to the greater world.

  • “Part of the curriculum for English educators must involve crossing personal boundaries in order to study, embrace and build understanding of the ‘other.’ The purpose of boundary crossing is not to simply have an experience with the ‘other,’ but to use that experience to advocate for the advancement of all” (336). “In addition, teachers need spaces to learn about the communities in which they teach, including opportunities to explore and expierence the contexts in which students live and form their cultural identities” (338).

I don’t believe this should be part of the curriculum just for English educators, but for ALL teachers. No matter where we end up teaching, or who we end up teaching, we are bound to find ourselves in situations where we are uncomfortable. Thus, we need to be more prepared for this than current programs often allow. We need to cross our boundaries and get to know our ALL of our students. There are those who are most like us, and there are those we immediately mark as “other.” By learning about our students, their communities, and their lives, we become closer to them and better able to serve them. Even when we see ourselves in our students, we must strive to cross boundaries and see them as individuals.

  • “Because schools always maintain educational and political agendas, the rich experiences of children of diverse backgrounds often go unrecognized or undervalued as dominant mainstream discourses suppress their cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1990)” (337).  “…[T]here are codes within the hidden curriculum that all students, regardless of background, must know if they are to succeed in schools and society” (330).

As a former alternative education teacher, I worked with students whose cultural capital was suppressed be their previous teachers, schools, and communities (and sometimes, even, by their current teachers, schools, and communities). It is often difficult for minority students to navigate school and community because they don’t understand the “hidden curriculum” and “dominant mainstream discourses.” As teachers, and ELA teachers specifically, it is imperative that we strive to help students learn these codes so they can succeed in dominant mainstream society. Otherwise, these students often check out of school and life.

  • To empower students who have been traditionally disenfranchised by public education, teachers and teacher educators must learn about and know their students in more complex ways, and they must become learners in their own classrooms” (339).

One of the hardest things I had to do as an alternative education teacher was to learn to give up my agenda and to meet the students where they were. Before I could do that, though, I had to figure out where they were, which required knowing who they were as well. I found that students would often open up to me in letter format during the first week of school in ways that they wouldn’t do otherwise. I simply wrote my students a letter, telling them about myself and asking them to respond with information about themselves. This usually included information on how they learned, what subjects they liked, how often they read, what books they liked, etc. But I always made sure to ask students to give me personal information as well. Over the course of the first month of school, I would read these letters and respond to students in their journals. It was a lot of work, but it helped me get to know my students and for them to get to know me. Using the information I learned that first month, I was able to plan my entire semester. As I got to know the students and their personal histories, I learned so much about who I was, and I began to change and learn from them. Had I not been in survival mode each year I taught (because of staffing changes and the sheer number of students and classes I taught), I would have been able to become more of a teacher-researcher and reflect on my growth. That said, my students did teach me how better to teach them, so that by the end of my time in alternative education, I felt very prepared to work with and empower these “traditionally disenfranchised” students.

  • As we previously noted, far too much of contemporary educational enterprise is about standardizing educational outcomes for all students such that we begin not so much to educate, but to indoctrinate. Expecting learners to meet high standards of achievement should never mean expecting learners to be standardized themselves” (346). “Difficult though this dilemma may appear, English language arts teachers have a further, absolute responsibility to help students master the aforementioned mainstream power codes in order to become truly critical users (and creators) of language, not passive consumers of others’ language. Indeed, too often passive consumption of others’ language is at the heart of raced-based inequality, socio-economic inequity, and oppression and is anathema to authentically supporting linguistically and culturally diverse learners” (344).

While I don’t feel that current Michigan ELA standards indoctrinate, I do think that many standards in other subject areas and states do. A one-size-fits all approach is NOT what is needed in education today, but it is what we have. Unfortunately with current NCLB goals, there is a very hard push from administrators to teach to the test so that schools look good and don’t lose funding. Because the tests are not aligned with standards (and I don’t see how a multiple choice test could be aligned to current ELA standards), we are forced to teach things out of context, things that our students will never need after the test, things that are simply not important. This is the indoctrination that occurs. This is the standardization of learning and of learners that occurs across the country thanks to NCLB. If, as ELA teachers, we “help students master the […] mainstream power codes,” then we can help them succeed on the tests AND outside of our classrooms. By teaching the test as a genre, by helping students become “critical users (and creators) of language,” by working with them to understand and manipulate the “hidden curriculum,” we are breaking the cycle of inequality and injustice that is entrenched in the current system of education in the United States.

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