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Sunday, April 9, 2017

What Gets Taught in High School English?

I believe firmly that both high school and college education would be better if both sides talked and listened to each other more. As a teacher of both, I am in a special position to see this.

College Professors:
  • Make more materials available online. Hate a 30 year old textbook that's wrong? Work on edited collections, available digitally, for teachers.
  •   Work on building outreach programs with your local high schools. Invite high school teachers to your classes, send grad students (and go yourself) to those high schools. See what is going on.
  •  While no one expects you to reteach K-12, your classroom will only be enhanced if you know what your students are coming in with.

High School Teachers:
  • Join list-servs for your area. Listen to the conversations. Join Twitter, follow cool people in your field. For English, follow accounts like @NCTE for great ideas to implement.
  • Go to conferences, CCCC, NCTE, expand your knowledge, learn what others are doing.
  • Read journals in your field.  What's the latest research say about homework? Reading? Writing? Digital literacy?
I have taught in Brooklyn, rural North Carolina, and Albuquerque. For the most part, English is taught the same across the country. As a primer, here is a general overview of what gets  taught in English 9-12.
  • English 9: Generally presented as an intro to literature course. Sometimes taught thematically (American Dream, Freedom, etc.) but often taught by genre (non-fiction, fiction short stories, fiction novel, drama, poetry). Titles commonly taught:
    • Non-fiction covers censored "I Have a Dream," JFK's speeches, some of FDR's. News articles, informational essays.
    • "Most Dangerous Game," "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," "Two Kinds," "The Scarlet Ibis."
    • To Kill a Mockingbird or Lord of the Flies or Of Mice and Men
    •  Romeo and Juliet
    • In poetry, various, but condensed version of The Odyssey taught, along with Greek mythology background.
    • Occasionally Raisin in the Sun, but again, a lot of this depends on what's in the textbook, what you have copies of.
  • English 10: Usually World Literature, focuses on Western World Lit. Sometimes taught by geography (Asia, Europe, South America, Africa). 
    • Often includes Holocaust unit: The Diary of Anne Frank
    • Sometimes Maus if the school is progressive.
    • Sometimes Night, but this is also a common 9th grade book
    • Students generally taking World History, but not often aligned with it.
    • Animal Farm
    • Things Fall Apart
    • Julius Caesar
    • All Quiet on the Western Front
  • English 11: American Lit. Most often taught chronologically so it aligns with U.S history that students are taking. But just as often taught thematically. Titles commonly taught:
    • The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass
    • The Scarlet Letter
      • Ethan Frome sometimes taught as companion piece
    • The Great Gatsby
    • Into the Wild
    • The Crucible (it's included in most ENGL 11 textbooks)
      • Sometimes Death of a Salesman. Maybe the popularity of the film will add Fences to this.
    • Hamlet Common Core requires one Shakespeare play at each grade level.
    • Twain used to be standard on this- Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn, but recently this seems to have fallen more and more out of favor.
  • English 12: British Lit. The medieval period is taught from excerpts from the textbook that still uses phrases like "Dark Ages." Shakespeare was part of the Renaissance. Titles commonly taught:
    • Macbeth
    • Frankenstein
    • Heart of Darkness
    • Wuthering Heights
    • 1984 or A Brave New World
    • More than other grade levels this is a "novel" course, with novels taught as representative. 
  • AP Language and Composition. Lots of short pieces, focus on rhetoric.
    • The Things They Carried
      Enrique’s Journey
      Angela’s Ashes
      Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
      Fast Food Nation 
      The Tipping Point
  • AP Literature. Literary time periods often a focus. Short works that are taught as representative of whole time periods.
    • 1984
    • How to Read Literature Like a Professor 
  •  AP courses are a crap shoot. A lot of teachers uses something like the Bedford reader to cover as much ground as possible. These classes are no longer aligned to freshman college English, so while College Board has long list of recommended texts, the coverage is all over the place.
  • Electives: Also a complete crap shoot. Some schools offer Yearbook, Creative Writing, Journalism (often all taught by same teacher). Some offer Film, or Bible as Literature. These classes take a while to establish (get numbers to make) and once they do are the sole property of the teacher that made them so totally dependent on what they want to teach.
    • Some schools may offer African-American lit or Chicano lit. Some systems have really fought for these. NM just passed legislation that all schools had to offer Ethnic Studies, but for my school at least, it didn't make.
Most teachers do not get to pick the books they cover. They must choose from books the schools have. This is a racket in and of itself- certain titles are marketed to schools, based on what textbook company you have. For example, Into the Wild is a fine book, I like Krakauer, but it should not have the place of prominence it does in English 11. It does because it's part of Prentice-Hall's packaging. Using the internet, or finding your own stuff is complicate because of cost of copying, copyright law, etc.
  • English classes often look like this:
    • Do Now or bellringer that is often a grammar lesson. Sometimes it's a text to world connection to get students thinking about that day's lessons.
    • Students have an essential question or focus question the lesson revolves around
      • FQ: How is theme seen in these chapters?
    • You read, often to them. Students often lack support to read at home and so don't.
      • Literary analysis focuses on learning to define literary elements and identify them in a work.
    • There's an activity that builds on the reading.
      • Worksheets
      • Organizers
      • Drawing
      • Projects
      • Write an essay.
        • This is often very formulaic: TAG (title, author, genre) as first sentence. Identify the theme and make a statement on it. 5 paragraphs. Essays taught formulaicly because teachers are concerned about students checking required boxes on standardized tests.
        • Writing is also often taught by genre: narrative essay, position essay, informative essay, literary analysis. Sometimes there's a move towards teaching real world writing (resume and cover letter in senior English) but it's a matter of what CCSS says we have to cover versus time.
Common Core State Standards tell teachers to focus on informational and literary works. It's a checklist of terms and concepts, most of which teachers teach anyway. However, they are often taught as a checklist, especially by new teachers who weren't used to teaching before CCSS. This means English teachers often miss the forest for the trees.

Here's what a typical day looks like:
  • Most high schools are on one of two schedules:
    •  Block schedule: 4 classes per semester, 90 minutes, so 8 classes per year.
      • Pros: more time for labs, projects, writing workshops. Also, if students fail, allows them to roll back into class to earn credit. Also more classes allows them to take more electives.
      • Cons: some teachers think this means smoosh two 55 minute classes together, not rethink how to use the time. It should be different use of time and work not more work.
    • 6-7 55-65 minute classes that run year long.
      • Pros: students have same teacher all year.
      • Cons: students have same teacher all year, so if there's a conflict, it almost never gets better. 55 minutes is short, especially in English if you're trying to cover the reading and writing in class.
  • Most school years are 180 days. 90 per semester. Testing can be a week or a month. Then there's the assemblies, pep rallies, early dismissals, time missed by some students for field trips and games. 
    • 90 days divided by 5 day school weeks is 18 weeks. Some schools divide these into 3 6 weeks marking periods, some into 2 9 weeks. Most teachers teach one subject/unit per marking period. So maybe you teach 4 units, sometimes 6.
  • Students eat lunch anywhere from 11a to 1p. Most hate the cafeteria food or the lines are too long, so many don't eat. Most schools don't allow food in classrooms, so they're hungry, all the time.
  • They take PE but may not have access to showers.
  • Teachers assign digital homework, require the Internet, but don't provide lab time.
  • Many schools no longer have lockers.
How students do in school is deeply affected by their situations outside of school. If they don't do the reading, homework, project, there are often very good reasons for this. This is more and more a conversation had in higher ed too.

So, college professor or high school teacher, what information about the other side would you like to know? What would help you in your classes? What would best serve your students?