I Sing the English Teacher Electric*

In one week, two articles about the teaching of “English”—the word we speakers of English give, rather incorrectly, to both the reading of literature and the written construction of it—cross my path, so it must be a sign, right?

The first was this article by Nick Ripatrazone at The Millions, an online literary magazine, called, “55 Thoughts for English Teachers.” It’s a lovely narrative list—it flows—and it moved me. I wanted you to see it.

4. Speaking of poetry: they will hate the idea of it, but they already love and live the soul of it. Condensed narratives and emotions tucked in abstractions? Those are their existences. Give them “Scary, No Scary” by Zachary Schomburg, and see what happens.

5. “Mostly I want my poems to generate their own energy through confusion. I want my poems to confuse the reader. Not a confusion in a cognitive or narrative sense, but in an emotional sense.” — Zachary Schomburg

6. Create a space for safe confusion.

7. Teach Sylvia Plath, but help your students understand that she is more than how she passed from this world. Teach “Blackberrying,” teach “Pheasant,” and, most of all, teach “Sow,” that beautiful and strange poem about a mythical pig hidden by her breeder.

8. Show them that poetry is about being surprised.

Ripatrazone talks about confusion, which I really like in reference to literature. I also think confusion is a good thing, as it leads to good old-fashioned thinking.

He also talks about the teaching of writing:

11. Teach them writers who look and sound like them, so that they can believe that their words are the types of words that can be printed and praised.

22. Write. Talk about your writing. Show them your drafts, your edits. Write along with them.

23. Trade robotic peer editing for writing workshops. Follow the undergraduate model but manipulate it for the needs of your students. Establish clear guidelines and model them during a mock workshop of your own work. Show them that you can be vulnerable, that you can accept criticism.

30. Avoid instructing your students to use dialogue tags in fiction other than “said.”

31. Cut their adverbs, but show them how, in the right hands, those words can be powerful.

35. Give students the confidence to believe that they might publish their work, but teach them the humility necessary to withstand rejection.

I believe strongly in literature. I believe it’s as important a signpost about who we are—as human beings and as a culture—as our history is. I believe also, as you know, that it’s important to have (and teach to) cultural literacy (see here, here, and here). “A culture that does not possess this common store of image and allegory,” wrote Christopher Hitchens, “will be a perilously thin one.” Indeed.

But then along came that second article, “Death to high school English,” in Salon. I found an immediate connection: the author, Kim Brooks, was one of those kids turned on by a high school English teacher who loved words, like the one above.

Like so many depressive, creative, extremely lazy high-school students, I was saved by English class. I struggled with math and had no interest in sports. Science I found interesting, but it required studying. … I lived for English, for reading. … Those first discoveries of Joyce, of Keats, of Sylvia Plath and Fitzgerald, were a revelation.

Brooks has gone on to teach at the college level, and she’s dismayed by what she’s seeing.

Only now … after seven years of teaching college composition, have I started to consider the possibility that talking about classics might be a profound waste of time for the average high school student, the student who is college-bound but not particularly gifted in letters or inspired by the literary arts. I’ve begun to wonder if this typical high school English class … might occupy a central place in the creation of a generation of college students who, simply put, cannot write.

I’ve stared at the black markings on the page until my vision blurred, chronicling and triaging the maneuvers I will need to teach them in 14 short weeks: how to make sure their sentences contain a subject and a verb, how to organize their paragraphs around a main idea, how to write a working thesis statement or any kind of thesis statement at all. They don’t know how to outline or how to organize a paper before they begin. They don’t know how to edit or proofread it once they’ve finished. They plagiarize, often inadvertently. (Emphasis mine.)

This is nothing new. Thirty years ago a college English professor at a Southern state university stopped me in the hall before class and asked, “Where did you go to high school school? Because … it wasn’t around here, was it?” We’d turned in our first essay in the previous class.

No, no, actually, I hadn’t gone to high school locally. But I’d been reading since I was three and writing stories and essays since I was five or six. That’s a lot of practice. And I’d been taught about thesis sentences and outlining in my high school English classes in another state. They’re not doing that anymore? How can you write anything without having an idea about where you’re headed?

Still, Brooks has a good point to make.

It’s hard to blame the overworked high-school instructors out in the trenches. It’s hard to blame anyone for not wanting to teach writing, which, while it might not involve manual labor or public floggings, is hard, grueling work. Often it demands maximum effort for minimum payoff, headache-inducing attention to detail, wheelbarrows full of grading, revision after revision, conferences with teary-eyed students. Who wouldn’t prefer to talk about books or stories or poems? (Emphasis mine.)

It is, indeed, hard work. I’ve been writing all my life, and now I edit other writers. I know bad writing when I see it … but I’m not a trained educator. Sometimes I don’t even know where to start. (And in fact, I try to be very clear that I am an editor, not a writing coach.) Nonetheless, I know this much is true: I learned a lot about writing from reading good writing.

This article is discouraging, honestly. Brooks concludes that the hard work of teaching writing isn’t happening in our schools because it isn’t fun (for student or teacher). But the fact is, people do need to know how to write.

Even students who aren’t going to stay in college need to know how to write. We’ve all gotten emails or cover letters where we’ve judged people based on the writing. It’s not an essay but it’s still communication and people fail at it all the time in profound and meaningful ways.

They sure do. Some months ago I got an inquiry from my website; a fellow had written a book (three, actually) that he couldn’t get traction on. I was able to ascertain that much from the long, rambly message he typed out. But he didn’t state what he wanted from me; he didn’t ask me what my fee might be or when I might start. In my reply, I thanked him for getting in touch, suggested he read one of my blog posts pertinent to his topic, and asked him what I could do for him. This infuriated him. I got back a pretty nasty reply in which he also critiqued my blog post (it failed to meet his approval). I’m pretty sure this guy was exactly the sort of writer Brooks refers to, incapable even of writing a coherent business message. (One wonders, then, about those novels.)

But was that his English teacher’s fault? I wonder what Ripatrazone thinks about it. I wonder what you think.

*With apologies to Walt Whitman.


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  1. By Short Saturday: On the Gestation of Ideas on 31 January, 2015 at 4:47 pm

    […] of Ideas: On Vertical Writing and Living.” It’s by Nick Ripatrazone; I’ve quoted him here […]