Trashing the High School English Classroom

In the traditional High School English classroom, there two ways that essays come to be assigned and written. First, the class is reading of a novel, and at the end of the unit of study, it’s time to write an essay. Second, there is a unit of study–Argument Unit, Persuasive Unit, Research Unit, Personal Narrative Unit, Comparison Contrast Unit–and the students work to produce a product towards one of these modes.

I’m going to suggest 2 different approaches to writing and re-imaginings of these traditional approaches, one I’ve tried, and the other, not.

Re-Imagining #1

My first re-imagining, and one that’s probably not a re-imagining, but just a spin on writing workshop models, is the idea that students generate their own topics and ideas for writing. However, I’m going to go much simpler. Student need just one idea or topic to write about. From there, the teacher asks the student to use that idea again and again in different genres, modes, and media forms.

While I didn’t consciously take such an approach, it happened naturally for many of my students in the second half of my English 101 class in the past semester. We started by writing information-based essays on closely related topics such as industrialized process of food production, what makes food organic, the barriers to local food economies. From there, students revised and re-purposed essays into arguments, blog posts, podcasts, infographics. They moved from information-based essays to persuasive pieces, academic research to personal letters. They took eight-page essays and cut them into 30 second Public Service announcements. They created reflective essays on their processes and used their own work as models and templates for others, students in my future classes, to follow.

A student’s struggle, often with writing, is two-fold. The first struggle is to read and to master the content of what he or she is writing about. A second struggle is then to write about it coherently.

The single topic approach may cut away with the first struggle. After a while, there comes to be an intimacy with a topic, the conversations around it, a fluency with the conversations in progress, a knowledge of the details. They develop familiarity and comfort.

Thus, they can focus on the moves of the coherent communication.

Re-Imagining #2

In this idea, the English teacher has no responsibility to create writing assignments, to figure out what students should write about, or to do any of the other traditional approaches to writing instruction as I’ve described in the introduction above.

Instead, the other High School subject area teachers are required to assign reading, and set writing tasks associated with the reading.

In the English classroom, then, the teacher works with students on these assignments. Time is provided, perhaps, to write these assignments, to process, to conference, to revise and to rewrite and to edit. As a person trained in the writing instruction, something that High School teachers in other subject areas are not and a significant stumbling block to cross-curricular writing instruction and the idea with the Common Core that “All teachers are teachers of writing,”these teachers now provide instruction on writing in particular disciplines, towards different purposes, focuses lessons targeted to student needs.

At the same time, it also solves the “All teachers are teacher of writing” conundrum in High School, because it forces math, science, history, business and art teacher to think of assessment in terms of written products.


I am pleased to see the educational union’s efforts in many places across the country, including here in New York, working to stop testing as the major educational movement. Finally, we are seeing them engage in a political debate and mobilize its members around a common cause. While this is a movement, perhaps, come too late, their leadership could really help to set education on the right track. However, the fight against testing should come paired with concrete suggestions for improving the system that recognize the needs of our children, and ultimately, our society.

The national media is just beginning to look at a school such as Garfield high school in Seattle, Washington. There, the teachers are refusing to administer state tests and as a result face suspensions for their decisions. I would like to see our local media pick up this story up and place it into context of local examinations. Near to a million people live in the upstate, Rochester, New York area. How many students does that make? How many tests given?

There is a great deal of testing going on in our schools. Yet, I might think that the perception that we’ve adopted is one where classrooms are test filled and that students toil daily bubbling in scantrons and scratching out formulaic essays in archaic blue books. As an example of how I’ve adopted testing into my professional practice in my composition class, I assess students, and they may not be aware that they are part of an APPR assessment. The assessments are based in the real world content we’re immersed in. They don’t know that they are being evaluated, that their performance is part of my evaluation. They are engaged in the normal flow of assessment I’ve established.

The union should not simply move forward with its efforts to stem the tide of the culture of examination, it should offer the public, and the representatives of our government alternatives that will continue to push educational quality, teacher classroom readiness and student performance forward.

  1. Change the culture of examination with the culture of assessment. By this I mean we stop thinking about measures of student achievement that are simple test driven. We need to as teachers live in assessment. What do kids know before we begin to teach them, what are they learning as we teach them day to day, and what do they learn, have learned as we move through key bench marks. Assessment favors the learning and the progress of the students. An anti-test platform is incomplete without offering up a way that we’ll move forward, and this is paired with educating the public about what happens in the classrooms of the best teachers. Unions could smartly build a campaign to have the public understand how this change in philosophy could help our students.
  2. We cannot get rid of examinations, but we could build better ones. The union should name appropriate assessment tools that could track student progress. As one example, these could be portfolio assessments that reflect a body of the student’s learning in a particular subject.
  3. Unions should call for a moratorium, of a two-year time period, of value added assessment models. There should be a national panel set that completes the research and arrives at an evaluation model that is founded in sound research.
  4. Wait, Keith, a national effort, schools are a states-rights issue. Yes, but unions should advocate for a national system to evaluate teachers and students. Nationally, anyone involved in the educational world should be evaluated by the same standards. As a citizenry, we need to know that children in New York, Alabama, Wyoming and Oregon all achieve the same standards. Teachers in each state must be accountable to these children.

While I’m behind what the union is suggesting, I would be more comfortable with them not simply stopping at what is wrong but at what might we do about it. For too long we’ve let politicians, boards of industry, business leaders, and local Boards of Education control the dialogue about solutions for schools and teacher performance, when the real experts are teachers. If the AFT is really the union of professionals of teachers, then they can be far more proactive about the politics that we take on.

Contemporary Reads for Today’s Classrooms–Tenth Of December by George Saunders


The blogosphere runneth full of discussion after the feature New York Times feature article on George Saunders and his new book Tenth of December, which ran in the magazine January 3, 2013 by Joel Lovell. For me, the article was welcome news. I’ve loved Saunders’ fiction for years and the chance to read something new made me gasp, just a little. More of a quiet, internal spasm. Then when I saw the title of Lovell’s article, I again found pause. Really? Can’t be? A book of short stories? I read a lot, so when I preemptively believed that in December I’d find something that would trump everything else in the other eleven months of the year, well, I called bullshit.

But, Tenth of December is really that good. I’ll get into Kafka below, but Saunders maybe the modern day Kafka. His stories remind me of what it is to be alive and fighting in an era where our technologies, jobs, and patterns of existence try to disconnect us from our families, the people we serve in our work, and the actual breathing in and out of the world to have us, instead, micro-focus our energies in surfing for hours on tablets, in iTunes clicking wish list buttons, in swiping debit carelessly through scanners like coke addicts at mirrors, or in clicking the little shopping cart icon at Amazon. Saunders’ collection helps me deal with this disconnection. Reading it was like the axe to the frozen sea.

I’ve been a teacher who’s gone after some big names with my students in class. I’ve loved teaching Cortazar and Borges and Kafka, especially Kafka.

Of course, “The Metamorphosis” finds its way into most upper-level high school classrooms. However, I like teaching some of his other stories, namely “Above the Law,” “A Country Doctor” and most eminently, “In the Penal Colony.” What I love about bringing students to Kafka is their immediate discomfort at the stories, their continued displeasure at meaning’s illusive nature, and that getting Kafka means being satisfied with uncertainty. What is “Penal Colony” about? Is it a story about imperialism, about faith and Kafka’s questioning of Old and New Testament philosophies, about torture, or an ars poetica following a motif through many of Kafka’s stories about the tortured, tortuous nature of writing? Perhaps it’s all and perhaps none. But, that’s what’s so cool about this story for me as a teacher working with students.

In Saunders, we find a companionable neighbor to Kafka. They should live next door to each other and their children should play together on the weekends. Those who are looking to accomplish the kinds of thinking and reading goals for their students may wish to try to pair Saunders with their next reading/unit of Kafka.  And, if I were looking for a place to start, I would begin with the exquisite “Semplica Girl Diaries.”

I don’t want to give anything away about the story, and several good synopses exist—see the above Lovell feature from the Times. However, “Semplica” is a story that works on many levels. It’s a father-daughter story, a story of capitalism, consumerism, and imperialism. It defies, as do Kafka’s stories, easy explanation. But, so do our lives.

I’ll put forth in these blog posts for English teachers about using contemporary classics that our students must be placed face-to-face with the mirror image of our own lives for the reading to feel real and practical to them. The worlds in Saunders’ stories give that mirror, just a slightly warped, fun-house one that makes us look as if our heads are too big and our hearts too small, or perhaps the other way around. That’s the way the make us feel, too.

To my colleagues, take on the challenge of Saunders and Tenth of December. It’s great to work with a text that is new and fresh and weird.  It’s okay try to work with something serious, complicated and that defies the simple explanations of the world. Too often, teachers are tricked into providing writers such Rowling or Sparks or Picoult to create life-long readers, or at least, readers of the moment if at least the kids are reading. We should take Lovell’s best books headline at its word and know that we do disservice to students if we’re not trying to get this book into their hands. They’ll know the choice and thank us for it too.

Listen to me, believe me next week, and hate me later


Before I go on, maybe I should just tell you the rules that I tell my students about college essays. They are pretty simple, and as I said in an earlier post, I will be showing some models to you soon. These are the five key rules. While you may not like what I say, do it, get into college, and hate me anyway.

  1. It is always about you. The focus of the essay should be something you want to show about yourself.
  2. The essay is most easily written in narrative form. Tell a story about a time that shows you doing something that shows you.
  3. Notice the shows—show you doing what you’re passionate about.
  4. Find the unique. See my earlier posts about seeking good topics and try the Lish exercise.
  5. No more than 1 typed, single-spaced, 1 inch margin word document. If you can’t get an idea onto a single page, don’t bother. College admissions officers read 1000s of these essays. If you haven’t gotten out our idea in 300 words, you’re in trouble. And, I don’t care if the application says you can write more or you can write as much as you want. Only the foolish wander down that path.

Trust me!