06
Apr
15

anyone can teach english

Rebecca Mead describes an actual English landscape which Goerge Eliot once wrote about, today tranformed by the addition of trees, which have newly risen due to the absence of shepherd boys and sheep. She writes that it is  now “a landscape changed by books, reshaped by reading, transfigured by the slow green growth.” (My Life in Middlemarch, “Finale”)

I love the language of transfiguration Mead uses here, and also Eliot’s repeated usage of related terms of conversion throughout Middlemarch. I enthuse over such things, even to the point of making it the topic of a round table session on close reading of Chesterton and Eliot this fall. Besides liking the words themselves, though, I like Mead’s use of this particular term to describe the complete change – a glorification, if you will – of the landscape of reading after the Education Reform Act of 1882. More children than ever before were given an education, were taught to read and write. Such a fundamental and democratic alteration of the fabric of life was necessary and beneficial. It didn’t require English teachers as we know them today. 

What if every word that came out of an English teacher’s mouth was exclusively at the behest of a learner? 

For all the good we literacy specialists (for that’s what English teachers and reading & writing teachers are) do, I wonder if we wouldn’t be doing the world a service by just turning kids loose in a big public library and hanging out with them there as accessories to their curiosity. 

We experts would spend our entire day at the library, familiarizing ourselves with branches of knowledge, and with new and older titles in the catalogue, from YA to Wittgenstein. We would become resource specialists who could channel our expertise into guiding each child to join The Literacy Club (as Frank Smith calls it) and then to discover the more challenging and interesting books, articles, art and music that standardized classrooms haven’t {usually!} time nor individuality to offer. 



Every student would be required to leave school and go to a library for 2 and a half to three hours daily, which would be staffed by a host of language arts educators. No longer would we have to face the sometimes embarrasing act of grading young readers and writers, nor of manufacturing “evidence” of their progress toward problematic standards. 

I see learning materials still being advertised to English teachers today which diminish a poem by asking pedantic questions about it, labeling it, putrefying it before it has a chance to be lived through, savored, digested, and felt. I would hope that by taking the English teacher out of the school system, the true enjoyment of learning and reading could be coupled with the good that language arts experts want desperately to give to all young people. 

The title of today’s blog occurred to me as I strolled along the Pacific coast on a clear Easter morning, watching waves, cormorants, and harbor seals. There is an immediacy which classroom teaching cannot replace: a learner of any age must only be caught up, surrounded by events (natural phenomena, books, art, music), stimulated to enjoy and learn. I know full well such statements are naive, yet on this first Monday of spring break, after celebrating resurrection and rebirth, and following a week of experiential learning with a group of 21 students and adults on nature walks, in a theater, & making meals at hostels, I envision celebratory learning. 

I really think that with coaching, all content area teachers can help students read and write for school. What we English teachers truly offer is something meta-school. Transfigurations. We want to actually see kids change because of their enjoymemt of STUFF! We know that reading and writing both contribute to such change and also grow as results of it. 

YES, the humanities are crucial for the development of young minds and hearts — of “souls”, as George Eliot might put it, though her complex shades of meaning for this term deserve more space — but when I watch the harbor seal pup following close beside its mother, it learns to swim, feed, climb without a specialized teacher. She is specialized: who better to show her young exactly what it needs to survive in the wild? She provides about a month of such imposed closeness, then he is on his own to continue the learning process. 

I don’t propose to reduce all instruction to 30 days per lifetime. But I do think much of what I do in the classroom is common sense. Seriously, I didn’t need a college degree to help someone read a poem, tell a story, or write a letter. 



But I do use every bit of my classroom teaching experience and pedagogical reading when I have a writing conference; I summon my knowledge of books and people when I discuss books with students. I listen as well as I can. Putting me where I belong, in a library, would ideally pair the thought of luxury (a treasure trove of books!) in a learner’s mind with the adventure of self-improvement, of choice.

I suppose I end up as always, seeing that as long as I am called classroom teacher I will always have a type of authority which be inauthentic. My authentic authority is as an experienced reader and writer. But when I choose to share authority with my students for their learning decisions, it is I who share with them. If I were not associated with a school, but were instead a fixture at the library, readers would see me as a resource at their service, an authority like a text, to be used, questioned, resisted, or enjoyed rather than a teacher who exists to grade them and assign homework.

What if every word that came out of an English teacher’s mouth was exclusively at the behest of a learner? I think of the way I check out music, books, DVDs from my library. I check out only what I want to. 

Of course I am half playful here, knowing that such a system would be dependent on county taxes, and a host of HR (human resources) issues. But when we step back for a minute and ask how we can actually contribute to new life in young people or adults ready to catch the fire of literacy, such invention and playfulness are needed.

Maybe it could be treated like Driver’s Ed: everybody wants to learn how to drive, right? If literature reading and writing were seen by kids as the class you go OFF CAMPUS for, that demands a road test in the real world, that’s worth paying extra for, and signifies a rite of passage, who knows? Instead of a set of keys at graduation a student gets the key to the executive washroom at the public library, or the unlimited items at checkout; kids would, instead of a parking space, get their own study carrel! They could help select the books displayed in the “new arrivals” shelf, and receive an allowance to apply toward new acquisitions. 

Think how they would transform the landscape of their library, their learning, their lives.

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