When I tell people that I am an English teacher, they immediately suppose I enjoy busting people for improper grammatical constructions. They see red ink dripping from my fingers as if I were a linguistic Dracula. Once, at a different school, a parent generously gave me a kitschy sign for my classroom that said “I am silently correcting your grammar.” On occasion, friends and acquaintances tell me that they hesitate to text or email because they fear I will correct their grammar. Reality could not be farther from the truth! In fact, I do not especially like teaching grammar (although I do), and when I am correcting students’ writing, I use a green pen, not a red one.
This familiar tendency to equate English teacher with grammar teacher stems primarily from people’s lived school experiences. When you were in school, your teachers most likely taught form, structure, genre, and rules. These experiences led most of us to believe that academic writing—the writing we do in school—is for school purposes only. That is, many of our school experiences leave us with the impression that we read and write in school in order to learn and practice the rules of English composition and nothing more. I call this the closed-circuit model of writing instruction. I am willing to bet that every English teacher at CA, upon encountering a student outside of school, has been met with utter dismay by the student. Our identities as English teachers are so firmly attached to the school—this closed circuit—that students are awe-struck when they learn that not only do we live off campus, but that we also buy groceries. And here they imagined we survived on compound sentences alone!
A second explanation for this impression of a rule-bound, critical English teacher is the notion that we train students for an unspecified future for which they had better be prepared (or else the red pen-wielding English teachers will find you and correct you in front of your colleagues!). I call this the time-warp model of writing instruction. After teaching middle school for five years, I can claim confidently that, at least for an eleven- or twelve-year-old, there is zero motivation in learning something today that they might use twenty years from now. Most students live in the present. Developmentally, the majority of my students still think very concretely. It is not unusual, therefore, that they have difficulty imagining themselves as ninth graders, much less as a thirty-nine-year-old whose profession or personal passion may require a particular kind of writing. This disconnect further contributes to the English teacher as anachronistic: students believe she’s teaching old “stuff” for a future whose necessary skills have yet to be defined.
Against the backdrop of the traditional, closed-circuit and time-warp models of writing instruction I described above, I would like to propose two alternative aims for English teachers like me (including many others at CA and beyond) who would like to think of themselves as doing much more than teaching students to follow rules and adhere to genres found only in school. These two aims are not necessarily new ideas, but they may help teachers, students, and parents alike rearrange the priorities they assign to Pre-K – 12 writing instruction.
Writing Is a Crucial Opportunity for Students to Make Sense of the World
My first aim asks students and teachers to see academic writing as a means of making sense of the world and communicating that understanding to others. To do so, one must stop separating the world of school from the “real world.” They are one and the same. In fact, I would argue that school is often the most important part of a child’s real world. Thus, everything we ask students to do here, the relationships we build, and the ideas we generate, have the potential to shape (and be shaped by) Colorado Academy.
This making-sense-of-the-world model works against developmental models of writing instruction that suppose that a child must learn discrete skills in a particular order. Instead, effective writing teachers know that most children acquire different skills at different times and what “sticks” often depends on how attached a child feels to the scene of writing. The making-sense-of-the-world model also works against the kinds of writing the majority of standardized tests ask students to produce: prompts with no context and subjects with very little meaning to students. (“An alien has just landed in Denver. Describe what a typical day in the life of an 8th grader is at your school!”) Effective writing teachers also know that students begin to care about rules—where to put a comma, for example, or which words should be capitalized—and apply them when we give them important topics to write about, or, even better, when teachers involve students in formulating important questions to answer and choosing which topics to explore. In these ways, children learn not to write about the world, but rather to write the world itself.
Writing in School is a Crucial Opportunity for Students to Practice Dominant and Non-Dominant Forms of English
My second aim is more complicated. It asks teachers to both teach and work against the very rules that make up the most valued forms of academic writing. In order to take on this task, the English teacher must be willing to delve into the politics of pedagogy and broaden her intentions beyond the daily shuffle of papers and digital files between teacher and student. She must ask: How ought we best teach students to respond to texts in schools, particularly when the varieties of English they bring to the classroom may be at odds with the Standard (and standardizing) English we often suppose is our endgame? This is a particularly interesting question at a school like CA where the majority of students can claim the most powerful forms of English as “theirs.” At the same time, CA can claim an increasingly diverse student body, and as such, the varieties of English in the classroom are also more diverse. So, the project for some students is to learn the more dominant forms of English to use as they see fit, and for other students, the project is to learn to value less dominant forms of English. By offering students the opportunity to study a diverse body of literature, exposing them to the beauties of English in its many forms, and teaching them about its many histories, students and teachers can achieve this aim. And as a result, English teachers can be more than grammarians.