Last week I wrote that some our students perceive reading to be a negligible distraction from the real "work" of English class. This week I meant to write about how our weakest, most vulnerable students, those who most need to improve their literacy skills, may manage to get through the schoolyear without reading even a single book. But just now that seems too depressing and repetitive; so I'll save that interesting topic for another week. Instead, I want to tell a story about one of the best readers and writers I've ever taught.
A few years ago, one of my best students was a a senior I'll call Sarah. Sarah had never before gone to school; her mother had homeschooled her from the very beginning. When her mother died of cancer, her father enrolled Sarah and her younger brother in Leafstrewn High. Sarah was a remarkable student and an excellent writer. For her senior project, she read Anna Karenina and War and Peace, and she wrote a wonderful paper about Tolstoy's prose style. For me, Sarah's success called into question the value of much of our English curriculum, and highlighted the significant differences between English and, say, math.
I was interested in homeschooling (my wife and I were eventually to homeschool our son for a year), and I asked Sarah about what her homeschooling had been like. She said the biggest difference was how amazingly inefficient regular school was. There was SO much class time, and so little of the class time felt useful to any individual person. At home, she had been able to go at her own pace, and because she could accomplish in a few hours what took all day at school, there was a lot of time to sit around drinking tea and reading books.
When I asked her more specifically about her "curriculum", I was interested to learn that what she had done in the way of English was mainly just that: sitting around drinking tea and reading books. There was very little writing of papers, and, as she told it, virtually no "explicit instruction" in reading skills and strategies, in vocabulary, or in paragraphing, structuring an argument, creating a thesis or handling textual evidence. Her mother would read the books with her, and they would talk about them, and every once in a while her mother would have them write something about the books, but there was, again, little to no formal instruction.
This is interesting to me, seeming to call into question many of my daily practices. That Sarah could be one of my two best students that year, that she could mark up a text, make intelligent inferences, create a thesis, structure an argument, and use sophisticated vocabulary, all without ever having been explicitly taught these things, makes me wonder whether my own English classes are using their time as effectively as they could, and makes me wonder, in particular, whether explicit instruction in English is valuable at all. Sometimes I even wonder if, with our higher-skilled students especially, we English teachers are making more withdrawals than deposits from our students' cultural capital. Most of my honors-level students say they read more over the summer than during the year.
Another thing Sarah's story points up is the difference between English and other disciplines. Sarah's experience in math and science was distinctly different from her experience in English class. In math and science, she was in the top classes, but she was not one of the best students in the school. Also, her homeschooling experience in math and science had been different. It's hard to imagine what would be analogous, for math, to just, for English, sitting around drinking tea and reading books. She certainly had not just sat around drinking tea and reading math textbooks, or drinking tea and counting things, or drinking tea and playing with a calculator.
Math and Science are distinctly different from English. I daresay math cannot be learned without explicit instruction, while in English, as Sarah's success showed, explicit instruction can be unnecessary. This is perhaps why, at Leafstrewn High as at other schools, the English curriculum is far less clearly structured, far less clearly sequential from one year to the next, and in some ways perhaps less necessary. My own elementary school kids are being taught many of the same skills that I am trying to teach my high school students. The common core standards in English are often pretty similar from one year to the next. If a student misses a year of English, she can move right into the next year without much trouble.
What particular elements of our English curriculum, cannot potentially be learned from pleasure reading alone, or from reading, friendly discussion, and a modicum of writing? What needs to be taught, or at least consciously learned? I can think of at least four things, none of which make up the bulk of my instructional time:
1. Grammar (Sarah might have had no idea what a preposition was. On the other hand, as Wittgenstein wrote somewhere: --Do they understand the game? --Well, they play it.)
2. The historical progression of, say, American Literature
3. Schools of critical thought
4. Literary and poetic terms
But these parts of our curriculum are not what we spend most of our time on. Instead, we spend time teaching students vocabulary, or teaching them to "weave in" quotations or sandwich them in buns of introduction and explanation. We teach arguable theses, topic sentences, logical arguments. And almost all of it is regarding books that we, not the students, have chosen.
Much of what we do is useful, and certainly much better than having the kids watch TV or hang out on the street. But I wonder whether, as MisterFischer suggested last week, we might get just as much if not more mileage out of just having fun with reading and writing--giving them time to read, letting them read what they want, and having them write what interests them, not us.
Some might say that the picture I've offered of Sarah's homeschooling leaves out certain key elements--most importantly, other people, whether her mother or her fellow homeschoolers, with whom she may have had some interaction. But my point is that Sarah spent most of her time reading, and the rest of the time discussing (with perhaps a very little bit of writing), and virtually no time on what we all spend explicit instruction on nearly every day. It wasn't just Sarah; my son was in a homeschooling reading group, and all they did was read the book aloud together--actually, the teacher, a mom, read it to them--and then, for about ten percent of the time, discuss it. His reading grew more that year than other years, just as it has always developed more over the summers than over the schoolyear.
What do we gain from teaching the way we do? Would our students develop just as quickly, if not more so, if we just read, discussed, and wrote? Is explicit instruction valuable? What do you think?