Why Don’t They Love English Like We Love English-Part 1?

December 11, 2011 — 6 Comments

A recent post (11/17/11) on the “Granted, but…” blog by the Understanding by Design guru and co-author Grant Wiggins discussed a survey that received 7300 student responses from middle and high school students nationally. “I am a big fan of student surveys,” notes Wiggins, “How can we achieve educational goals without the student’s perspective? We cannot.”

Wiggins organized the survey “to be instructive for readers to see the results from our study of student academic experience, conducted for the past year.” The alarming results should put English teachers everywhere on alert.

While math was both the most favorite and least favorite subject on the list, English Language Arts “fared poorly overall: not near the top of favorite subjects and second to last in least favorite.”

Whaa…?
English was NOT a favorite subject?
English is a LEAST favorite subject?

Wiggins does point out that the results do not reflect a “normal” national sample. “All the responses came from schools with which we either had a past or working relationship; or with schools whose educators heard about the survey in workshops and asked to participate. As a result, the sample skews toward schools doing some amount of reform work, toward suburban rather than urban, and has no schools represented from the Pacific time zone.”

Gender was also a factor. Boys voted English as a least favorite more than girls.
Moreover, the gender gap in English was worse than the gap in math.

However, English teachers should take note.
English is NOT a favorite subject.
Actually, English is a LEAST favorite subject…further down on the survey than math.

Thankfully, Wiggins notes that the survey indicates that teachers are not the problem. For example, one comment is indicative of student opinion, “I was just never really interested into it. The subject does appeal to me which makes it boring to me. I love the teachers just not the subject.”

Hmmm. So what are we English teachers doing wrong? Wiggins posts many of the survey responses to give teachers a general idea of how students feel. Reading and writing were the targets of student ire. Wiggins posted a plethora of student responses in the survey; I chose a few samples.

Complaints about reading summed up in student responses:
We don’t get to pick the books we read.
It is boring because all we read is boring books.

Complaints about writing summed up in student response:
Way too many essays

And the for the heart-breaking coup de grace:
I find it unnecessary for us to continue to take english (sic) classes all the way through high school because at this point we have learned everything that is required of a non-english (sic) major.

Well, he/she may be right…with the exception of knowing how to capitalize.

English teachers may or may not agree with these statements, but these sentiments do reflect the attitude of many of my students (grades 7-12) in a small rural school in Connecticut.
English is not their favorite subject either.

* sigh *

After reading student responses, Wiggins suggests, ” if you like the topic and are good at it, you like the subject.” In middle school and high school, English classrooms are staffed by those who had been successful readers and writers as students. However, a teacher’s comfort level with a discipline or a even teacher’s passion for a subject may not be enough to engage students, and the survey suggests that students dislike English because of the teaching, not because of the teacher.

So what might be the problem with the teaching?

  • English teachers may teach the way they learned (considered “old school”);
  • English teachers may love the literary canon (maybe too much?);
  • English teachers feel may compelled to correct (and correct and correct…);
  • English teachers feel obligated to quiz/test every book (was it only Sparknotes?);
  • English teachers may have too few “authentic” assessments.

Maybe the pressure of standardized testing is a factor? In Connecticut, our students write to a series of prompts after reading a non-fiction piece in Grade 8, and respond to a short story with four essays in Grade 10; this represents four years of preparation for state testing. We prepare for the test knowing-teacher and students alike-that writing these essays is formulaic. There is little that is authentic about this testing. For example, no business/industry will have employees read a non-fiction or fiction piece and respond with a timed drafted essay, beyond an interview, anyway. Similarly, the SAT has students draft a essay response to a prompt. Unfortunately, many colleges admit they do not consider the written portion of this exam. Students then wonder why they bother?

Wiggins suggests that “English teachers need to face some cold, hard facts as well: the work they assign is not of interest to most students, even good students – and, especially boys.” I do not need a survey in my school to confirm his findings about boys; I have lots of anecdotal information that confirms his results at every grade level, 7-12.

I will be looking more at Wiggins’ survey in my next blog and considering methods I might employ to help English claim a more favorable position in my own school. I know the importance of employing English skills in the real world today, and so do the other English teachers on my faculty. We need to discuss and determine how to get students to understand the vital importance of English without killing the love of English.

6 responses to Why Don’t They Love English Like We Love English-Part 1?

  1. 

    Thanks for the detailed look at the results of my student survey! I would be happy to dig deeper into the results for you and your readers over the holiday. I’ll sort by English as favorite, English as least favorite, gender, grades in school, and a few other variables to see if there is more to be learned. I plan to write on the “boy problem” in my own blog soon.

  2. 

    Great post. I would love to know the breakdown of subjects as well. It would be great to know the other side too as in the number of students who would select English as a favorite subject? I also wonder how much choice plays a factor.

  3. 

    Shocking—simply shocking! You mean to tell me that fifteen year-old boys aren’t pumped up to analyze archetypes in Chopin’s The Awakening? –That juniors of both sexes don’t have loads o’ fun explicating passages from Beowulf?

    Sarcasm aside, thanks for your thoughtful blog.

    I, like most English teachers, really struggle with text selection. None of us wants to dumb down the curriculum, yet we want our students to connect with the literature, read enthusiastically, care about the writing and ideas. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers—I’ve been working on this issue for sixteen years. A few practices improve my success ratio: -giving the students some choice (in perhaps one unit each semester); teaching lit that I myself love (enthusiasm is contagious); using only paperbacks (rather than those dreaded ten-pound textbooks); reading aloud just a bit in class to whet their appetites; beginning discussions with emotion-based questions; responding emotionally myself…. All this said, I still face varying degrees of enthusiasm. (My current success is No Country for Old Men, a text I teach to seniors in an AP Lit elective called American Gothic. I’ve taught it now for three semesters, and just about every student loves it. No need for reading quizzes here—the kids devour this novel.)

    Anyway, all food for thought. The struggle to inspire a love of literature goes on! (I explore this issue in a blog from a couple months ago:
    http://englishteacherconfessions.wordpress.com/2011/07/21/teaching-love/ )

    • 

      We have not tried No Country for Old Men, but we have had incredible success with The Road. I will start collecting some used copies when I see them. Thank you for the suggestion. American Gothic sounds interesting!

  4. 

    I have two teenage boys who used to be HUGE readers. They are both hard working students, but alas, it is difficult to cram in hours of youtube viewing, texting, facebook updating, SAT studying, athletics, and oh, what, the reading of a good book. It breaks my heart that they are missing out on one of life’s great pleasures. Even the assigned books for school seem to come with the Spark notes version. Do you happen to have a list of books that are great reads for a high school English class which are not popular enough to have a Spark notes version? And I think the whole class reading is a great idea, but it only works when the teacher is completely engaged and monitoring the group….even collecting all phones before the reading begins.

    • 

      Actually, I shifted my two boys into non-fiction…there are a great number of these books without support and the boys liked them better! They read The Roman Way by Hamilton, Endurance by Shackleton, The Art of War by Sun Tzu, PT 109 by Kennedy, and lots of biographies of famous people. They liked the fact that the books were real. I am currently organizing a non-fiction independent reading unit, and my 9th graders have about 50 books to choose from. I will be posting this book list in another blog.
      Sadly, everything is in Sparknotes or Schmoop, so I try to outthink the materials online by creating reading check activities that do not recount plot points or theme. Sometimes, I ask students to “assign the blame” for a crime in a story (“What percentage of the blame falls on Romeo or Tybalt or the families for Mercutio’s death?”) or have a character write a postcard to another character (“write a postcard from Paul to his mother; have him explain how he feels about the Western Front of the battle.”) These let me know who really understands the material. I also give a number of collaborative quizzes. That drives students to teach each other rather than go to the website.
      As for the phones, we are a bring your own digital device school…so I am trying to incorporate the phones in polls and response devices for discussions. SSR time, however, is a no cell phone zone.

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