Why English? How English?

Lately I’ve tried to put myself inside the head of a student — NOT one who wants to grow up and be an English teacher, but one of the many busy, distracted, and bored young men or women who have sat in my class and asked themselves a question that regrettably, I didn’t have an answer for:

What am I supposed to learn?



After 19 years of pretending to teach English, I’m finally starting to figure this one out. Ultimately, my answer is this:


The trick, of course, is to help students to lose that need. And the secret is this: It’s not a trick.

When my students feel this compulsive, borderline psychotic urge to know what they “have to know,” I try to remind myself that this need is ingrained in the student because for most of his or her conscious life the school experience has been similar to that of a goose being prepared for foie gras — a steady force-feeding of literary cliches, platitudes, and other varieties of balderdash — in the hopes that they’ll produce beautifully written restatements of everything I’ve told them.

In these moments (where typically an earnest student ask me what’s on the test) I have to remind myself to do three things:

  1. Tell them clearly what I want them to know.
  2. Give that student a chance to share her own ideas about what’s important in the book — and what she cares about.
  3. Make sure that the students understand that their ideas matter as much or more than their memory of what I want them to know.

None of these ideas is tricky…. But each one requires planning. The first is fairly easy, since all I have to do is pick something. The second and third call for some empathy. How can I plan this activity so that the student finds something to share an authentic idea?

At yesterday’s session from the Folger Library’s Teaching Shakespeare Institute, I got a great lesson from Sue Biondo-Hench. She showed us this poem from Walt Whitman:

A Noiseless Patient Spider

A noiseless, patient spider,
I mark’d, where, on a little promontory, it stood, isolated;
Mark’d how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;
Ever unreeling them—ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you, O my Soul, where you stand,
Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing,—seeking the spheres, to connect them;
Till the bridge you will need, be form’d—till the ductile anchor hold;
Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my Soul.

When I share this poem with students, I can tell them very easily what I want them to know: The speaker compares his soul to a spider (metaphor) to illustrate his need to connect and anchor to something.

With two very simple and exquisitely beautiful questions, though, Sue provided a hook that ensures that students have their own ideas — ideas that are clearly more important and interesting than an analysis of the metaphor:

  1. What connections have you made that anchor you?
  2. What connections are you longing to make?

My guess is that very few of the students will write and/or talk about their anchors to correct answers, or their connections to getting good grades. My hope is that they will be able to talk about how they sometimes feel like that spider. And if they can find themselves in that spider, then class is dismissed.

About englishparsons

A happy English teacher with massive potential for growth. Trying to share the best I have to offer with the teaching world.
This entry was posted in Reflections on Teaching and Learning, What Schools Ought to Teach. Bookmark the permalink.

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