Okay, yes, I’m an outlier.
Whenever I meet new folks in the ed tech world, these new connections almost always offer some sort of incredulous retort when they learn that I actually teach Language Arts using technology to enhance my students’ learning. Apparently, English teachers are viewed as the die-hard, cranky, and resistant curmudgeons set against using anything more innovative than the pencil or the book. Some of my oldest, dearest teaching colleagues even come to me begging for advice about how to move their English departments past the revolution caused by Gutenberg.
I am empathetic with these teachers. I am one of them, and at the same time I am someone apart. So I feel I need to determine why so many teachers of what we commonly call English voice objections to or opt out of the shifts in education today.
How Did I Get Here?
I suppose I made made other leaps first, which primed me for the recent changes in education that have come about as a result of technology. In the seventies, when I was in college, I embraced the Women’s Studies movement along with my study of Yeats and Shakespeare, making me predisposed to inclusion as I freely accepted the diverse voices that would ultimately spark the Great Canon Wars. There were so many great works to go around, I thought, what did it matter if you dropped one writer and substituted another?
A decade later, in graduate school, I took the creative writing route rather than the literary criticism path, so it’s possible I felt a more grassroots kinship with the developing writers who populated my first classes. I cut my pedagogical teeth as a freshman comp teacher, low on the totem pole of university professors, by focusing on skills (reading, writing, and critical thinking) and tools (words and sentences) rather seeing my field through the prism of Great Books, Esteemed Authors, and Self-important Critics.
We ♥ Books
Let’s face it, English teachers are stuck on books. Even feeling this myself, I felt mystified, as I moved into administrative roles, that it took a good five years of conversations to get my English Department to talk about something other than the book lists that, in their view, defined the high school English curriculum.
Compared to librarians (also bibliophiles in the extreme), who have adapted amazingly well in a profession that has turned completely upside-down in the two decades, English and Language Arts teachers, as a group, steadfastly turn their backs on the changes that have altered the way students learn as well as how we all communicate, read, and write. Never mind the radical adjustments in the ways we now think about books or print themselves.
These teachers sometimes even dismiss the radical shifts in “21st-Century Literacies” espoused by the National Council of Teachers of English — in diehards’ minds, it’s their own standards about which books matter that counts most.
What’s All the Fuss About?
Here are some objections as I have heard and experienced them:
* English teachers must tend the vestal flame of Literature, guaranteeing a steady dose of certain Great Works to younger generations;
* As a result, they don’t have room in the curriculum for the bells and whistles of gadgets and interactive materials or fluff of online writing;
* Language Arts educators must be the gatekeepers for “effective” writing and “correct” grammar;
* So they must grade those endless compositions and formally structured essays, leaving no time for learning new teaching tools and strategies, much less keep pace with them;
* Literary aesthetes eschew transparency — rather, they are duty-bound to spare students the embarrassment of publishing writing in any state less than perfection that would serve as a poor reflection on their teachers or their schools;
* Technology only tempts students to sidestep “real” critical thinking by promoting easy answers at best, plagiarism at worst;
* English teachers cannot put their seal of literary approval on the body of work that constitutes the Internet because they do not understand it, they question its value, and they consider it beneath their professional consideration;
* English and Language Arts teachers love the look and feel and smell of books as lifelong companions, and they absolutely cannot find it in themselves to abandon them.
To some degree, I find myself nodding and agreeing with all of their objections. I’ve been there grading those papers; I’ve also felt ecstatic at sharing the magic of Shakespeare to the unannointed. Yet I have never found myself in the position of seeing books and literature on one side and technology and the Internet on the other — as mutually exclusive things. I have never minded the messiness of learning that sometimes comes with using technology. I have never believed in a right answer to interpreting a poem or a right way to write an essay, so I’ve never really been frightened by the vastness of interpretation that populates the Internet. Instead, I’m excited by the expanding universe of literature, reading, writing, and language.
I want to meet my students in this world of endless possibilities that go beyond the printed page.
Yet, I also believe I owe it to my fellow English and Language Arts teachers to meet them where they are, just as I do my students. So I hope to address each of these topics in turn as I write future posts. I know many teachers are out there on the fringes, dabbling in technology even as they feel the powerful and imposing force of Englishteacherdom at their backs. These are the teachers, those who are grappling with these issues as I have, I hope to reach as future co-conspirators in learning.