The media is full of heartfelt discussion on numerous educational issues such as graduation rates, government oversight, the Common Core, testing and funding. These discussions are fueled by the fact that the corporate, professional and academic worlds, as well as parents, churches and the military, all have different visions of what schools should accomplish. All of the stakeholders in society scrutinize the educational system and demand results that will serve their own visions. So, what’s a public school system to do? Can we fill all of these societal orders?
I am a high school English teacher, and English is one of the subjects that is at the forefront of educational scrutiny. Many teachers live in fear of reprimand or dismissal because of assessment results that might indicate that their students are deficient in reading and writing. Although the legitimacy of the assessments is often questionable, the scrutiny of the subject is justified because language skills permeate every other academic subject, and practically every aspect of nonacademic life.
English is all about communication; everyone needs the ability to communicate their thoughts in an understandable way and to understand the ideas of others. Clear communication requires clarity of thought, and clarity of thought requires organizational skills. The visions and demands of all stakeholders can be fulfilled, not by catering to the specialized needs of each, but by teaching students how to read, write and think in an organized and logical manner. These skills can then be applied to whatever specialized field the student chooses to pursue.
An educational initiative that recognizes the need for organization of thought and action is the Common Core State Standards. One of the intentions of the Common Core is to create a master framework so that teachers at any grade level will know that incoming students have already been taught particular concepts.
A complaint against the Common Core is that the organization it imposes is too restrictive and does not allow for enough teacher discretion. The complaint is baseless because, while the Common Core does designates the grades in which particular skills are taught, teachers are still free to teach in their own style, using their own professional judgment. Rather than causing lockstep conformity, the Common Core creates an atmosphere that sets the stage for organized planning and thinking, both for teachers and students.
Although there are obvious advantages to formal structure in education, there is still much debate about how much structure is useful or appropriate. An example of this controversy is demonstrated in how a teacher chooses to teach writing. Some teachers believe that free-writing — in which a student writes continuously for a period without regard to structure, spelling and grammar — is best, and other teachers believe that students should learn to write formally.
One advantage of free-writing is that it provides students with the opportunity to express their thoughts free from the restrictions of form and convention, but this requires little instruction and does not teach students to organize their thinking. Formal writing, on the other hand, requires students to organize their thinking so that they can then organize their mode of expression.
The Common Core specifies three types of writing to be taught: narrative, informational and argument. These three types of writing can give students the basis for all types of writing tasks, including creative ones, because even creative writing requires knowledge of method and form. To be an effective communicative or creative tool, writing must be organized and deliberate, as do the thoughts behind the writing.
Learning how to think and act in a deliberate, organized way is what teachers and students should be engaged in. This is the tool that can lead to further learning and development of skills, whether a student plans to go into medicine, auto mechanics, child care or some other field. The interests of all the stakeholders will benefit, and teachers can feel that they have fulfilled their obligation to society.
As an English teacher, I cannot resist quoting Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden”: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately.”
Our students should learn to think deliberately, and we should teach deliberately.
Karla DeMaris teaches English at Penquis Valley High School in Milo.