Archives For Understanding by Design

One statement in Grant Wiggins’s review of the survey he gave to 7300 students from middle and high school students nationally was particularly infuriating to me. He had posed the question, “What was the most interesting work/task/project you had last year in school?” In reviewing the student responses, (73 of which were posted on the blog), Wiggins casually noted that  “..almost nothing from English or Math was highlighted.”

How can this be?

English and math classes did not offer interesting tasks or projects? Really? I cannot speak for math, but as an English teacher,  I feel bit defensive. English teachers of the students in this study could not find “interesting” ways to teach grammar or literature or writing skills?

Wiggins does state that the “results do not reflect a ‘normal’ national sample” since the schools that participated were either directly involved with his Understanding by Design workshops or requested to be involved in the survey. Sadly, the evidence from the students posted on the blog does seem to support this point; a class project, a series of responses dedicated to Lord of the Flies, was one of only several English/Language Arts assessments that made the list of the ” most interesting work/task/project you had last year in school?”

Familiarity breeds contempt? Do students enjoy disciplines other than English because these disciplines are more active?

I wonder if this a problem of familiarity. Students are programmed what to expect in English/Language Arts classes, and according to this study, so are the teachers.

Consider that every one of the students responding has had to take an English/Language Arts class for each year he or she is in school. The focus of curriculum in these classes, regardless of grade level, is the improvement of student skills in reading, writing, and speaking. That’s it. Year after year of  reading, writing, and speaking. Yes, the work becomes more complex, but the work in English is fairly routine. Students read. Students write. Students speak.

There are other disciplines that are sequential, a series of prescribed steps that build on knowledge. For example,  a student must understand addition before moving onto multiplication.  The acquisition of reading, writing, and speaking skills, however, is measured differently. A student will encounter the comma long before he or she understands its function in a sentence. A student will decode a metaphor well before he or she knows what the literary term means. A student will decipher the meaning of a word in context in reading without the aid of a dictionary.

English is not really sequential set of knowledge steps but a weave-a continuous layering of warp and woof. Students are initiated in improving the skills of  reading, writing, and speaking in pre-school and continue to develop these skills at each grade level.

Could students simply be tired of the “same old same old”? Do they not appreciate the importance of the skills they learned in the English/Language Arts classroom?

The standards in the Language Arts Common Core follow a sequence of growing complexity, but ultimately is the Kindergarten Standard (K.RL.1) “With prompting and support, ask and answer questions about key details in a text” that much different from the Grade 12 Standard (12.RL.1) ” Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain”?

These standards require that during a student’s 13 years in education, there must be multiple opportunities to cite, analyze, respond, write, and speak. English/Language Arts teachers must develop assessments that move students to meeting these standards. Other disciplines may assess a student’s ability to build, demonstrate, create, or illustrate with a “hands on” approach. Certainly, English/Langauge Arts can have students build (a character), demonstrate (a vocabulary word’s meaning), create (a film), illustrate (a chapter), but ultimately the student skill assessed is aligned with standards that measure continued improvement on the skills of reading, writing, and speaking. Ultimately the conundrum English /Language Arts teachers face is the skill used is the skill being tested; including a 3rd dimension- engaging in the physicality of English/Language Arts- is not required by Common Core standards. One could simply meet each standard with pen and paper, with “words, words, words”…

Take for example, some of the student responses to the survey’s prompt “what was the most interesting work/task/project you had last year in school?”:

  • Building a house. This was interesting because I had to make something new everyday and the project always had soemthing[sic] to work on and i never got bored.
  • We are currently dissecting a fetal pig in Biology.  It is interesting because dissections are a very good chance to see how an organism works firsthand.
  • A mock trial in my Business and Personal Law course was the most interesting work I’ve had to do.
  • Made a rocket car for Metal
  • The lemonade game in economics. We got to run a sim of a lemonade company.
  • testing the PH levels of water of the pond at our school.
In reading the responses to the survey, students exude an obvious enjoyment that comes from engaging in assessments in which they worked “hands-on”; many times their engagement was physical and interactive. Of course, the lessons learned in English/Language Arts classrooms, the skills of reading, writing, and speaking, contribute directly to success in all other disciplines. But, students do not consider these important skills when rating “interesting work”.
So what can English/Language Arts teachers do to move up on the scale of the most “interesting work” in high school? Obviously, we need to think about making our assessments meaningful beyond the (hand?) printed word. We need to consider how our students will write, read, and speak after high school, and in this relatively new century, digital mediums offer up a myriad of possibilities. Communication can extend beyond the classroom walls, work can be more collaborative, and speech is not limited to reading from index cards at a podium in class. Reading is now done in the “real world” on multiple platforms and support with diverse technologies (text-to-speech, definitions in context, etc) can level the reading in a classroom. Film and audio resources are plentiful for both viewing, but more importantly, for student production. Research can be accomplished without the limitations (24/7 access to material) that have stymied past generations. Simply put, English/Language Arts teachers have the resources to increase student engagement in new ways and to use the digital platforms that are increasingly used for education and business in the real world. If not, the pen is still mightier than the (_____)-you fill in the blank.
Studies in psychology show that on the vast majority of occasions, the less familiar we are with someone or something, the more we are inclined to like them. The “new” is almost always more exciting than the “routine”. So, students may become biased with “familiarity” against English/Language Arts class because they are continuously acquainted with the objectives of improving reading, writing, and speaking skills. Perhaps it is this familiarity that keeps English off the “most interesting work” list as students jettison literature studies, grammar games, and speeches for new experiences in less familiar disciplines.
Regardless, English teachers everywhere can take some small comfort knowing that  there would not be a list at all if it was not for the English/Language Arts classroom…after all, students had to use “word, words, words” to write their responses. If only the students would spell correctly!

The literary canon is good for you.

So is broccoli.

Anyone who has tried to cajole a floret of broccoli into the mouth of a picky toddler can imagine a similar experience in trying to cajole a (male?) 10th grader to read a chapter of Brave New World on his own. “Read about John the Savage; understanding his alienation is  good for you!” a teacher pleads with conviction in an attempt to fatten students with enough prose, poetry, and drama for a lifetime in the perceived literary wasteland of adulthood.

“Eat your canon!” …literally.

Perhaps English teachers see the canon as a means to provide students with a common language in order to understand cultural comparisons to a “Scrooge”, a “Frankenstein” , or a “Mr. D’Arcy.” English teachers know the value in having students recognize the characterization of the human spirit as seen in the camaraderie in the relentless hunt for the white whale, in traveling west on Route 66 in a 1949 Hudson, or in the imagining the filth of the trenches in Paul Baumer’s no-mans land. English teachers firmly believe that students should know how the characters of Huck Finn, Hester Prynne and Gatsby reflect the tumultuous history of our nation, a nation students will inherit.

But perhaps English teachers need to go on a diet. While there are arguments to stuffing students full of great literature before sending them out into the real world, there is also an argument for allowing students the opportunity to bring their choices to the conversations about literature. The recent survey results from Grant Wiggins , co-author of Understand by Design, of 7300 high school students  indicates that English Language Arts is near the bottom in the ranking of “favorite” classes. Many students complaints were directed at the literary canon:

  • The books chosen have no true connection to my life.
  • I do not like to read the books given
  • Because the books do not interest me and I feel like we never learn anything applicable to the real world
  •  do like reading. I don’t like reading books that I am not interested in and we have to read books and stories that I don’t like.

The literary canon is not fixed nor limited to yellowing copies of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (admittedly, my least favorite) or Drieser’s An American Tragedy. The canon is a living body of writing, continuously  replenished with contemporary stories with unforgettable characters: Lt. Jimmy Cross (The Things They Carried), Sethe (Beloved), Abaline Clark (The Help), and Hazel (Watership Down). Moreover, what spoke to one generation, may not speak to another. A body of great literature is on the increase, and some English teachers need to open the door even wider in order to include student choice. The banquet of traditional literary offerings must be limited as a matter of practicality; we simply cannot teach everything.

One way to combat the complaints about “books I don’t like” while including more texts is to offer satellite texts which are linked thematically to a whole class read. Perhaps a survey of student interest in themes or genre could determine the course of study, for example, a unit on monsters in literature could include a wide range of materials from picture books to JK Rowling’s characterization of  Voldemort to  the more complicated stories of Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or Gardner’s Grendel.

English teachers should not feel the overwhelming responsibility for the selection of all class materials when so much literature is available today in so many different formats. Students should begin to take responsibility for contributing (appropriate) materials for their own interests or to share with others. Even a simple addition of a weekly SSR period to include student selections would counter the arguments that all books read in high school are boring. With ownership in selection, students could be more invested.

Back in 1999, several teachers and I attended a Broadway performance of Death of a Salesman with Brian Dennehy.  During the intermission a man, obviously moved by the production, stood several seats away sloppily wiping his eyes with a handkerchief. “I know this play,” he was repeating to himself trying to grasp at some memory that was buried long ago, “how do I know this play?”

Of course he knew the play, we scoffed!  We envisioned the high school English teacher who years ago had probably forced him to read a part of the drama in class. Maybe the man read the part of Biff or Bernard as the teacher would have had difficulties in providing access to a performance, live or taped. The man may have done well on the final test; he may have relieved when the teacher unit was over. The problems of Willie Loman probably were “boring” or seem distant and trivial to the man, a teenager in high school back in the 1960s.

Years later in the plush seating of the mezzanine on a Friday night performance, the language of Miller’s drama, long ago buried in the man’s brain, suddenly rushed  into the his consciousness. His visceral reaction to the production was enhanced by this recollection, but most likely, the man was finally at the age where Willie’s dilemma made sense to him. By the end of the play, the man was sobbing quietly, a testament to Miller’s ability to produce a catharsis.

This incident reinforced my belief that the literary canon is a lifelong experience, not one stop at the “all-you-should-eat”  high school buffet  and that maybe English teachers should stop panicking that students will never be exposed to great literature in their lives after high school. Quite frankly, the man would have sobbed with or without us.

Most teachers of English recognize the importance of the literary canon as record of experience handed from one generation to the next. But we need to be judicious and select those works that will engage students while meeting our criteria of preparing students for the real world. And in this digital age of multiple media platforms, we also need to let the students share what matters to them. This could be a frightening proposal for some of us as there is risk and uncertainty as to how implementing choice and moving away from the canon could be perceived by stakeholders. For others, however, student selection could be a natural part of the progression in education today. Our standards should be our belief in the stories we teach, our passion for their message, our knowledge of these texts.

In including the students in their education, how will the increase of student choice  be accessed? Along with student selection should come the implementing of meaningful, authentic assessments which Wiggins discusses at length in his survey findings.  I will address these in my next posting,”Why Don’t They Love English Like We Love English?” Part III.

I happen to love both the literary canon AND broccoli, so when I am confronted with someone who does not like either, I do my best to cajole them into trying “just a bite.” Sometimes a taste is convincing; sometimes it is not. However,  I will not stop trying offering because they “don’t like it”.  I know the value of both.  I also know that many an adult broccoli eater started out as a fussy toddler.