Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Invigorating Instruction: Finding Relevancy in English!

From: wagner-gr.wikispace
In rereading "The Decline of the English Department"(http://www.theamericanscholar.org/the-decline-of-the-english-department/) (2009) by William M. Chace (Professor of English and President Emeritus of Emory University), its tone and relevancy jumped out at me.  More and more schools and universities are dropping 'core' requirements and liberal arts influence and focusing on 'specialty' courses.  I think it's a mistake.  Our kids should be receiving well-rounded instruction and education.  We need to make the liberal arts more relevant.

Chace begins with statistics:
...from 1970/71 to 2003/04 (the last academic year with available figures)... In one generation... the numbers of those majoring in the humanities dropped from a total of 30 percent to ...less than 16 percent...
...during that same generation, business majors climbed from 14 percent to 22 percent. Despite last year’s debacle on Wall Street... students are still wagering that business jobs will be there when the economy recovers.
The Problem: While many might argue that this is no big deal, students want more 'useful' majors. Chace laments that English is not perceived as useful, when in fact, critical reading enhances critical thinking, and English courses should be vehicles for writing instruction and improvement.

The Cause?  He continues:
There are several, but at the root is the failure of departments of English... to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case... that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself. What departments have done instead is dismember the curriculum, drift away from the notion that historical chronology... and substitute for the books themselves a scattered array of secondary considerations... In so doing, they have distanced themselves from the young people interested in good books.
History of English instruction: Chase then describes the course of English study and the humanities:
...In this country and in England, the study of English literature began in the latter part of the 19th century as an exercise in the scientific pursuit of philological research, and... that literature was best understood as a product of language...  a way of understanding the world...
...Studying English taught us how to write and think better, and to make articulate many of the inchoate impulses and confusions of our post-adolescent minds. We began to see, as we had not before, how such books could shape and refine our thinking.
Where is English instruction going?   Chace concludes with a somewhat depressing view of the future of the study of literature:
...The study of literature will then take on the profile now held, with moderate dignity, by the study of the classics, Greek and Latin. For those of us who care about literature and teaching, this is a depressing prospect, but not everyone will share the sense of loss...

This 'down-grading' in the perceived value of English Lit education is both depressing and unfortunate. It reminds me of Leo Lionni's Frederick:

Frederick is about a field mouse who unlike the others, does not collect acorns in the fall as they prepare for winter.  Instead, Frederick writes poetry as he observes and appreciates the beauty of the world around him.  Come winter, as the community sits eating their store of acorns and nuts, Frederick turns their long, boring, gray days into days of sunshine, warmth and beauty.

We need to infuse this love and appreciation of words as 'art' and 'communication' in our kids.

The problem as I see it is that whether in college, high school, middle school, grade school, or even preschool:
  1. English and language arts instruction must be meaningful while reinforcing communication skills.  It should show where we come from and where we might and/or might not want to head with exposure to the classics and contemporary works - reflecting how time and culture have affected our thoughts. 
  2. As our current world is showing us, majoring in economics is no longer enough to insure economic stability after college.  Whether you appreciate 'literature' or not, a liberal arts education insures students of a well-rounded education - one that can be used to jump start careers integrating affinities and interests.  We need to teach kids how to communicate through print, through text, and maybe even how to program / navigate computers yet another form of communication.
For Lower, Middle and High School English Education - We have to show our kids WHY's of reading and writing:
  • to entertain;
  • to model different ways to effectively and efficiently express ideas; 
  • to build vocabulary;
  • to teach and reinforce grammar;
  • reading and writing reflect cultural nuances and beliefs - reading books of different eras teaches us about those times and places;
  • different writing styles, formats, and genres emphasize different strengths, messages, and perspectives.

From: www.alumni.libraries.psu.edu
In addition to kids understanding these WHY's of reading and writing, teachers are instructed to achieve certain annual classroom goals. The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and the International Reading Association (IRA) have generated 'standards' for the teaching of Enlgish (http://www.ncte.org/standards).  These standards include:
  • Students read a wide range of print and non-print texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world...
  • Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
  • Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts.  They [should] draw upon... prior experience... knowledge of word meaning and of other texts... word identification strategies, and ... understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language ... to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
  • Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
There are just a few of the standards. Please visit the link above for more details.  
The problem though, is that while these standards detail educational goals, they do not identify HOW the goals should be met.  That is left to the individual teachers (which, as a teacher, I appreciate) but some do it better than others and there is often no continuity from one grade/year to another.  This is one area where parents can easily get involved: supporting, enriching and reinforcing reading, writing, communicating - i.e. language use..and making sure kids GET WHAT'S IN IT FOR THEM!
  • Expose your kids to diverse types of literature.  
  • Expose your kids to 'classics' from different time eras and authors from different cultures.
  • Visit libraries, book stores, surf TOGETHER to find video versions or spoofs on favorite books and poems. EXPLORE the wide world of story together.  Communicate!  Share!
  • Read books together.  Talk about them:
  • Talk about what is relevant to your lives.  
  • Talk about the author's choice of words, tone, and perspective.
  • Talk about how believable the characters/settings are (or are not). 
  • Talk about what a sequel might look like. 
  • Talk about the author's use of prose and/or illustration to communicate a point. 
  • Compare and contrast one work to another of the same or different genre or time period.
  • Evaluate how current events may have shaped an author's story and use of language.
  • Write together:
  • Make lists for each other.
  • Leave notes on beds, refrigerators for each other.
  • Make cards for all occasions (from letters to the Santa and the Tooth Fairy, to birthday cards and invitations)
  • Write letters to magazine editors
  • Blog together - write reviews of current events or favorite books; write two-voice poems; write about creative projects.
  • Communicate with each other:
  • Try to have dinner together a few times a week (at least) where you talk about current events, how your days went.
  • Visit museums together - talk about the exhibits - what you liked and didn't like, it's design, how effectively (or ineffectively) it relayed information.
  • See movies together and evaluate them.  Talk about how well the characters were (or were not) developed, talk about the plot and story line (was it believable/), talk about the use of image, color and dialogue.  Compare and contrast movies of similar genres/ time periods. Talk!
  • Start or join book clubs (kid book clubs, parent-child book clubs)

What literacy promoting activities do you participate in with your child?  What is available in your community?  Let's keep this discussion going!

Here's to making literature come alive:
From http://www.gocomics.com/nonsequitur/2011/09/11 


  1. English (in fact any first language of a student) needs to be studied to its fullest to broaden the mind and enable people to better articulate and comprehend the nuances of thought. And just when people think language is narrowed to short messages and slang out come a series of books (with little to no illustrations) like Harry Potter. Kids can’t stop reading the thousands of carefully chosen and creative words that trigger their imaginations. People are inclined to think that a study of finances will lead to better jobs. But to deeply comprehend ones language can lead to fuller life experiences and better opportunities for writers and readers.

  2. Oh how you are preaching to the choir here! It's incredulous to me that English, writing, literature, etc. is not viewed as relevant in today's electronic world. Really? I didn't know just because you works on a computer that you weren't using language skills. I could go on...and on...and on... :-)

    Stepping down from my soapbox, I noticed we were the first two links today at ABC Wednesday! Yea! Hope you're having a great day.

  3. I was always like the little girl at the end of your post - still am! I read until my eyes blur and I can't see anymore...Now, as a tutor, I'm still being "educated" by my students. They bring their reading lists to me every September and I start in so I am able to direct them accordingly. I can't believe the books on their lists - from theology to philosophy to civilization to postmodernism, etc. I believe they're getting a more rounded literary education than I had even at the university level as it's not rote learning these days, but responding to the ideas within the words and showing how it relates to our world today. It's hard work for me, too, but so gratifying to be able to have such intelligent conversations about ideas and isms with these wonderful kids...well, young people! Wonderful post as usual, Meryl.

    abcw team

  4. I think an awful lot of this falls on the parents. Both of my kids are avid readers and my daughter took honors classes in English in high school and is doing the same in college. Because our home has always been filled with books, they learned at a young age that it was something to be desired. I, too, think it's a mistake to narrow the focus in education to "practical" studies. I have a degree in business, but it was the English education I received that has sustained my day career as a paralegal. I'm afraid that this is part of what appears to be a concerted effort to denigrate education and intellectualism in general and we definitely need to fight back any way we can.

  5. Interesting; my post has to do with the English language too.

  6. UAlbany dropped some foreign languages recently, in a cost-cutting moving. Terrible!

  7. There was a time when I just knew I was headed toward a PhD in English. Life and other factors intervened early, but my work toward that goal has stayed with me. I'm still a voracious reader and often a persnickety grammarian. On the other hand, I can allow myself the luxury of "playing" with the language because I understand it. The English language, is, to me, a never-ending source of fun. My brothers feel the same way. Our sister, however, studied bookkeeping and now works for lawyers. We always feel sorry for her, because we can carry our own entertainment around in our heads, whereas she can't.
    — K

    Kay, Alberta, Canada
    An Unfittie's Guide to Adventurous Travel

  8. Yesterday while visiting our local library, there were 4 boys (juniors in high school) laying in and on the couch and chairs provided for us to enjoy, with their books open, but they were trying to sleep. So I chose a book off the shelf, wriggled my way between them and set down in the middle of the couch. Their teacher came along and told them to at least have their books open and try to look like they were reading, So this old Gramma, started to ask them questions about what they were reading. One said, "reading is boring," I corrected him and said, No reading is not boring, if it is, we ourselves our to blame. Then one boy said, "I read enough of my book I know what it is about." I asked him if it was a Thriller, suspense, mystery or romance book? Well that got a giggle out of all of them. He said it was about a kid in prison. So I begin to ask him questions about why he was in prison, was he be treated OK, if not who was giving him a difficult time? We were having a nice discussion about his book, but then it came time they had to go back to school. The teacher commented that I probably got him to talk about the book, more than anyone else could have. I thought to myself, DUH... she just left them set there and sleep, when they were to be reading, what could she expect? Now I'll climb down off my soapbox...

  9. I am impressed with Gigi Ann's comments and what she did.
    Kids sometimes just need a bit of direction.

  10. I can't help but wonder if the down-grading of the perceived value of English Lit is at least somewhat related to the "teach to the test" mentality that has been forced on so many teachers.

  11. Strangely enough my children never needed any encouragement to read. They love reading, like my husband and I, and now their children. It was not difficult to find them presents. My daughters read Dutch, French and of course English books.
    Great article!

  12. I think you can't always let this fall on the parents as a blame thing. I am a reader - my daughter is a reader - my son is not. No amount of encouragement throughout his life could turn him into one.

  13. Employer surveys always come up with the comment that young people starting work do not seem equipped with literacy to carry out day to day business communication. Proves what you say about a narrow education.

  14. Great post. I'm old fashioned, I guess, but I think a well rounded liberal arts education is important.

  15. I used to love reading, well I still like to read but very little time. I am glad that my kids love to be read with books.

  16. I think English is the basis for all education. If you can't read and write any further education is pretty tough. :-)
    I am a new GFC fan from My 2 Cents
    ** just posted my WW with linky post feel free to participate. <3

  17. I was in university English departments for about 20 years. Literature and writing classes were required, but I always felt like we were working at odds with the other classes they were taking because they never seemed to emphasize the literature of their fields, just the facts. They seemed to think that it was totally our job to how to read, write, and analyze the written word.

  18. Absolutely.

    I have noticed that my younger son who reads a lot is better at writing than my less-of-a-reader older son.

    It takes good teachers though.

  19. Interesting and informative as always. It is tragic (to me too) the direction our language is going. But, I suppose nothing is stati

  20. How very well "said". I am a writer and I can't tell you how many times I have struggled with proper v. improper usage ... not to mention the struggle with using my "literary license" to have sentences come out the way they do sometimes ... anyhow, good post. And I am following from the hop today - hope you can come by today and return the favor. http://www.shaunanosler.blogspot.com/

  21. The percentages might be a startling change, but what are the numbers? In 1970, you didn't need a college degree to get an entry level position... now you do. As more and more people go to college (and accrue choking loans to do so), what "college" means has radically shifted. These business majors are not going to the sort of elite liberal arts colleges that I think you and all of these posters are thinking of where people "learn how to think" and sit around discussing great writers. Those sorts of colleges don't even /offer/ business majors.

    I agree that these figures are concerning, but it's not because people don't appreciate English anymore. It's because people who aren't really interested in a liberal arts education, and who 30 years ago wouldn't have attended a 4 year college, are being forced to pay exorbitant sums of money to attend sub-par degree granting institutions (many of them private) in order to get entry level positions that in no rational way require a liberal arts training. You'd be insane to go for an English major at Kaplan or the University of Phoenix, when you're gunning for an entry level position in HR at a medium sized local company.


  22. Very nice post! But who needs kids anyway;o)
    I'm just kidding! Wonder what I would do as a job if there weren't any;o)
    Thanks for sharing. And thanks for visiting and taking the time to comment even if you seem not to like insects very much;o)

    ¤ Have a great weekend ¤

  23. As an English Lit major educated in England, I'm with you there! I'm now 73 and I find I'm enjoying and understanding English Lit more and more. I'm also finding books and poems I have never read before. Sadly, my spelling skills on which I prided myself are declining. I know when I've spelled a word wrong, but often can't figure out what is the right way. The decline of the English language will, I fear, be the decline of western civilization.