The purpose of the English major

June 23rd, 2013 | Filed under: Currently Reading

“STUDYING the humanities should be like standing among colleagues and students on the open deck of a ship moving along the endless coastline of human experience. Instead, now it feels as though people have retreated to tiny cabins in the bowels of the ship, from which they peep out on a small fragment of what may be a coastline or a fog bank or the back of a spouting whale.”

I usually groan at articles by college professors lamenting “kids don’t know how to ____!” However, this one gave me pause and has me thinking even more about my job as a teacher of English and, more specifically, a teacher of thinking and communicating.

The Decline and Fall of the English Major – The New York Times

h/t to @bkolani who shared this link via Twitter

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Second language learning in America

November 8th, 2010 | Filed under: Opinion, teaching

On a recent trip to the grocery store I shyly approached a young man (probably a teenage boy) quietly stocking the shelves. I stammered out my best “Pardon, spreekt u Engels?” to which he replied “a little bit.” I let out a sigh of relief even though I knew the answer before asking – everyone speaks at least “a little bit” of English. I’d been in The Netherlands for long enough at that point to recognize a Polish accent when he spoke. I needed help figuring out what to do with my produce since a sign covered up the scale where I normally weighed my fruit and obtained my price. While this young man’s English language skills weren’t perfect, he still understood my question and gave me the answer I needed.

thank you note for every language

I was impressed, as I often am when outside the U.S., by this man’s skill in being a Polish immigrant to The Netherlands speaking enough Dutch to get him a job at a store and also speaking enough English to help me. This man spoke three languages. Maybe not perfectly or academically, but he still spoke three languages. This wasn’t some university professor who had spent time in another country or a young person privelged enough to attend second language lessons at a young age. This was a stock boy in a grocery store. Graphic by woodleywonderworks.

This wasn’t the first time I’ve found myself shocked by the second and third language skills of people in countries other than my own. In France a garbage collector was able to give me directions in a nearly perfect English accent. In my Dutch class there are students with native languages that make learning Dutch much more difficult than it is for me (Thai, for example), yet their tongues form the words and when they can’t get their point across they switch almost effortlessly to English. It’s in these moments that I realize my stereotype of multilingualism as a hobby of the elite is completely unfounded.

These moments shame me and inspire me. I am fluent in only one language – English. I attended a few private (and very low budget) Christian schools and graduated from public school where I was required to study Spanish. I also studied Spanish at university, but I can do little more than understand vocabulary words and simple sentences. Conversing is out of the question. I know very few people in the U.S. who are truly bilingual or even fluent in another language. The few people I know in America who are bilingual are so because they were raised in homes where English was not the first language spoken – not because their schools pushed them toward fluency in another tongue.

Research has shown us, time and time again, that the time in our development most ripe for language learning is at a young age, yet very few schools begin foreign language study at the primary level. On a recent trip back to America, I had a chance to grab a drink with a friend I taught with last year and we both lamented our inability to speak a foreign language and the daunting prospect of attempting to achieve fluency as adults. We felt jipped by our educations – like the people making the decisions didn’t think we were important enough to cultivate into global citizens. Unfortunately, part of the problem with foreign language education in the American public school systems is time. Students often have to take five or six classes each year just to graduate, leaving little time for in-depth study of a second language. And many students can graduate without ever having studied a foreign language.

America has put so much pressure on English and math courses as “most important” in the curriculum. Many of my students struggled with communicating clearly in their native English tongue and they were approaching 18 years old, so one might ask why we should even bother getting those students learning another language on top of English. We should do it because there is no better way to understand your native language than through the lens of a foreign one. I have never been so cognizant of English grammar constructions than when I started studying Dutch. I’m an “English teacher,” yet I’m continually learning about my own language as I learn a second one. To understand how the Dutch construct a sentence one has to understand how it differs from how sentences are constructed in your own language.

The lackluster foreign language education in America is breeding unilingual teachers like myself. The teachers who are bilingual (or multilingual) see the marketability of that fact and may reach beyond the borders of America for more lucritive and exciting careers in international education or opt for private schools that will compensate them for the rarity of fluency in a second language. Or they may skip over the prospect of education as a career since pay scales are set in stone and allow little room to compensate new hires for unique skills.

Dutch students are required to study not just their native language and English in school, but French and German. We put limits on the potential of American students by not pushing them to study two or more languages. Being able to speak a second or third language instills confidence in students and opens up new worlds to them, not to mention it helps to mold them into more global-minded individuals by allowing them to delve into cultures other than their own. While I hate the rhetoric about America “losing” to other countries in certain fields and studies, I would ask the leaders that make that argument as a push for standardized testing how they expect the students that score highly on those bubble tests to help America “win” if they can’t communicate in languages other than English?

I feel like I was done a disservice in my education by seeing foreign language study portrayed as an elective and being told “but don’t worry – everyone speaks English.” That may be comforting to the occasional traveler, but if we want our students to be able to go anywhere and do anything, as we so often tell them they can, then we have to put a heavier pressure on administrators and elected officials to appreciate and fund foreign language education.

Now, who wants to help me with my Spanish?

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Close of school business (and reflections)

June 6th, 2010 | Filed under: personal, teaching

I wouldn’t say the last year has been the ideal experience of a new teacher, but it has certainly shown me a diverse population of students, given me the chance to try different techniques, and taught me more than anything else to roll with the punches.

I started this 2009-2010 school year as a student teacher in Virginia Beach working with ninth graders in a Global Studies and Foreign Languages Academy program at Tallwood High School. They gave me the chance to cut my teeth with them on challenging world literature. We slogged through Tu Fu and Jorge Borges together and came out on the other side feeling pretty damn proud of ourselves. But like all things, my time with them came to an end in December along with my teaching certification program.

It was time for me to move on to something new, but what? It was the middle of the year and school systems were cutting positions not hiring. I decided to fall back on my freelance writing and editing work and hope for substituting gigs. Little did I know that another door was opening just as I was getting into a routine.

Along came the sixth graders at Ruffner Middle School’s Young Scholars program, a gifted education program in Norfolk. It was an amazing, long-term substitute opportunity and I snatched it up. I taught reading, writing, and early American history to 38 children that renewed my optimism and excitement about teaching even as they challenged my remaining threads of patience. They were so curious and opinionated and intelligent and they really had no idea of any of it. I went into the job thinking it would renew my feelings about the age group I wanted to teach, but instead they opened my mind and had me thinking “Sixth grade is pretty great. I wouldn’t mind doing this for a while.” I feared teaching history. I love history and enjoy consuming it on my own, but I’d never considered myself a history teacher until this job. Now I have a history endorsement on that list of goals in the back of my mind along with those other lofty ones (master’s degree, publishing articles, etc.). I’d planed to teach the sixth graders as long as the school would have me, but Virginia Beach called again and wanted to interview me for a full-time, contract position teaching core 11th graders. I got the job and it was time to move on again.

One of my sixth graders warned me “You think we’re crazy, Ms. Worrell? You’re gonna miss us once you get with those 11th graders!” I laughed it off. I wanted to teach high school and this was my chance to work with yet another age group and learn more about my strengths and weaknesses. But in that first week my little sixth grader’s ominous warning echoed in my mind. I felt I’d been thrown into a lion’s den of hormonal teenagers ready to claw their way through me to get out of high school. Gone was the feeling of being a learner alongside them. They saw me as an adversary and I wasn’t sure how to reach them – or if I even could. It was a Herculean struggle, but I’m happy to report that I have come out on the other side learning more than I ever thought I would in a contract only three months long. The eleventh graders (the large majority of them boys) taught me so much about classroom management and patience that I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. I taught The Great Gatsby, a book I myself hated in eleventh grade, and learned to love it. Even more exciting – I watched students learn to love it. I didn’t have my own classroom, so I was forced to drag a cart around between rooms and classes, teaching me the value of obsessive organization. Along with my four blocks of eleventh grade, I also had a block of core ninth graders whom I taught The Odyssey and Romeo and Juliet – stories I knew but had never really given close scrutiny.

And more than anything, my experience with my first contract position gave me a taste of what I really want in an English department – co-workers that are great friends and colleagues depending on what the situation demands. The English department at Green Run High School is a motley crew of large-hearted, loving teachers that want nothing more than to see one another succeed. If there ever was tension among teachers in that department, I never noticed it. I felt I could approach any teacher with advice on lesson plans or for ideas on teaching a certain story or book. It’s a supportive and collaborative department and I’m sad I’m not going to be there next year. I have never laughed so much at work.

I’m starting another chapter in this whirlwind year, but I’m hoping to settle down with a teaching position where I can teach students from beginning to end, on my own. I’m moving to The Netherlands in July to pursue a career abroad and to expand my experiences in an international environment. I’m excited about teaching students from a completely different culture than my own and watching those same light bulbs go on in their minds. I’ve daydreamed about what it would be like to teach The Great Gatsby to a group of non-American teenagers and to make connections about the American Dream to their own dreams – are we that different?

So, I’m off again to search for a teaching job – this time in a country not my own. I’m hopeful and optimistic and just as inspired as when I started.

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The experience of the long-term substitute

March 4th, 2010 | Filed under: teaching

As someone that completed a licensure program mid-year and came out on the other side to a job market like this, the prospect of finding a contract position was slim. I was lucky enough to have great recommendations and found a challenging and interesting long-term sub position with a gifted program in the city of Norfolk. I’ve been teaching 37 sixth graders in reading, writing, and early American history. I have always loved history, but was thrilled at the opportunity to teach it. And I think therein lies the biggest challenge and greatest reward of being a substitute.

You’re thrown into a classroom where the students know one another and you know none of them. A classroom where another teacher has been running things the way he/she finds best, but which may not mesh with your own ideas. A classroom where the students may have been bouncing around from sub to sub, rarely feeling structure, and most often feeling lost. A vacuum, really, where you are tasked with quickly plugging up the hole before all management and structure are sucked out into oblivion.

It’s hard and lonely at times. You get a crash course, if you’re lucky, from the permanent teacher who, hopefully, had time to prepare some plans for you. More often than not you are left with a pacing guide and a classroom far behind where they should be on that district-mandated time line. I was lucky enough to have the teacher I was subbing for available by phone, text and email whenever I needed her. Not everyone is so lucky.

You’re spending so much time planning that the pile of grades continues to mount, yet you, in your new teacher fervor, have helped students create numerous artifacts and homework assignments, all of which you (surprise!) have to grade. At some point. Soon.

But your biggest resource and shoulder to lean on when you’re feeling out of sorts, I’ve found, is the kids. I have a number of “helpers” that are quick to tell me how Mrs. X did things and where they are in a certain class.

I have a license in secondary English education, so I can teach grades six through 12, but I’ve always felt my talents would be best utilized in a high school. I never expected to teach sixth grade, but I am grateful I had the opportunity to do so. It confirmed my feelings that high school, particularly ninth grade, is where I would like to be, but I will probably change this as the years go on and my experience as a teacher grows.

So for those of you feeling lost or frustrated with the job market and bouncing around as a substitute, enjoy it. You have the chance to be placed in another teacher’s room and learn your way around it, finding his/her personality and philosophies in everything you see and touch. It’s like having an ethereal cooperating teacher there, but not there.

I was supposed to be in this long-term sub position for six weeks, but I’m cutting it short thanks to being hired with Virginia Beach City Public Schools to teach ninth and eleventh grade English. My sixth graders are sad and my heart aches a little at not seeing their unmatched enthusiasm and energy every morning, but they were so happy for me. They understood that my role was as a temporary teacher, helping them learn until Mrs. X returned. I’m hoping to carry some of that energy with me to the eleventh and ninth grade classrooms I’ll be entering in March, an experience that will bring a whole new set of challenges with it, of which I’m nervous and thrilled to be facing.

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