Why are we still talking about race in 2012?

Discussing issues of race, from my experience as a teacher, has always been a touchy subject since my classes have predominantly been Caucasian with very few minority students. Yet despite this, I had made it an objective of mine to address such issues—especially if these students were to enter the greater world and interact with people in a less-homogenous environment. Like many of the discussions I have lead concerning such issues, I tried to use literature as kind of an introduction to the issue. While I try to keep my classroom open to discussion, I always found that I ended up having to play the role of “Devil’s Advocate” depending on the predominant perspective of the class—I have had to play both sides of the race topic. The hardest part of this had to have been working against the misconceptions my students had about race, given that many of them had little interaction with people of different racial and cultural backgrounds and most of their views were based on what they saw in the media. Even those minority students I did have felt uncomfortable having to be the lone voice for their race…most of whom by the time they reached high school had assimilated into the dominant culture to the point where any distinct racial qualities had been suppressed.

As educators, especially in high school, it is our responsibility to prepare our students for the greater world…and for those of us who are teaching in highly homogeneous communities that does mean addressing issues of race/gender/sexuality/ability. English class always seems to be the class where these issues are addressed the most…with the social sciences usually playing them off from a historic/sociological/psychological perspective. When teachers allow students to write about these issues, or read about them through the texts presented in class, they are exposed to new ideas that they may not have experienced before.  Now I will admit it could be construed as disingenuous for a Caucasian-appearing teacher (like myself) teaching the Harlem Renaissance to a class of students as white as the driven snow, and I will also admit that I have had my share of dealing with overtly racist attitudes in my classroom similar to the ones described by Logan—but these discussions need to happen.

The world is getting smaller and more inter-connected than ever before, and students need to realize that they need to be aware of what the rest of the world is like. Yet I feel that even when schools make a note to address such issues, they tend to be shallow at best unless there is an active effort on the part of the faculty…or at the least a representation of ANY minority group in the faculty or student body. Sadly, when there are cases like these, it just shows the worst of human nature. They do not want to acknowledge that there are people who are different from themselves in such minor ways as their skin color, and that makes them afraid. Throw in a minority teacher and you have parents creating a fecal tornado because their students may learn something they are sheltering them against. It’s the second decade of the 2000s, we need to get past this already.

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Technology in the Classroom

Digital technology does have a place in the composition classroom, but I feel that sometimes we start to get too dependent on it. There may not be students who have the same level of access to the required technology as others, but those students are entitled to the same education as the rest. This was an issue I had to deal with during my first year of teaching, especially with my composition lessons. The high school had only one shared computer lab, in which on any given time there were only about fifteen working computers, and for one period the lab was used for the computer literacy class the seventh and eighth graders took. Even with the small collection of computers I had in my classroom, it made things difficult for those students who needed the extra time with the computers since they did not have access to them otherwise. Granted, I had some students bring in their own personal laptops to help ease the burden, but the inequality of access was still present.

In terms of what responsibilities the composition teacher has in terms of teaching technological skills to student, I’m afraid that outside of learning proficiencies with the basic programs—which they hopefully will have learned by the time they completed high school, or middle school at the earliest—that duty falls upon the composition instructor. In most schools, except for those that embrace the concept of writing across the curriculum, students learn the bulk of their researching skills in the composition classroom. While it would be nice if the burden could be shared with other departments, the composition teacher is the one to teach the fundamentals of identifying credible sources online, how to formulate a research argument, etc.

But these skills are almost always involved preparing students for college. Now unlike many of my classmates, I have had to prepare students for life outside of college as well. In cases like those, I can definitely see the role of the composition teacher growing to include more of the technical communication skills students would need in the non-academic world. That is not to say that the two are mutually exclusive; a composition teacher could use podcasts in class to reinforce discussions about audience that could benefit all students.

Then again, I have seen composition classes that are very technology-oriented, so much to the point where the teacher has to double as an IT consultant in addition to their teaching responsibilities. In that case, are students really getting the best education they can get through the integration of technology when they have to wait for their teacher to get their laptop to work after the three other students ahead of them? This comes back to my original point in that sometimes composition classes can be too dependent on technology to the detriment of the students’ education. It falls upon the instructor to find that balance so that when the technology decides not to cooperate—which it inevitably will—they can continue to give their students what they need.

Ideology in the Comp. Classroom

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “ideology” as : “1) visionary theorizing 2)a: a systematic body of concepts especially about human life or culture/b : a manner or the content of thinking characteristic of an individual, group, or culture/c : the integrated assertions, theories and aims that constitute a sociopolitical program” Anyone who has been through the American public education system from either side of the classroom can rightly say that the purpose of education in this country—sadly and inherently—is to maintain such a body of concepts. While there are the individual teachers who try to buck that trend, the system as a whole strives to maintain that hegemonic stasis. I will admit, during my year of teaching in Bison, SD, I felt the inordinate pressure from the school’s administration to keep my classroom keyed into the local culture: namely that of conservative, Christian, Caucasian rural America. There were numerous times in which I was reprimanded by the superintendent because of the complaints I received from parents about what I was teacher—primarily how I was making an effort to introduce ideas that were not part of the dominant culture of the community. Looking back, maybe I can see that maybe I was trying to put a little bit of my own liberal ideology into the classroom. I had made attempts to introduce more pluralistic pieces into the curriculum, to offer a counterpoint in classroom discussions to facilitate dialogue. I did my best not to have this come off as my own personal ideology, but instead as offering other ways of thinking that may not have otherwise been considered given the immensely insular culture my students were being raised in…but I digress.

As I mentioned earlier in the week on Twitter about the role political ideology should play in the composition classroom, I stated, “Composition classes should not be politically motivated, nor should they be politically neutral. It should foster political discussion.” It is not our place as educators to impress our own values and principles onto our students, which would cause them a disservice in their development as critically thinking young adults who can go out into the world and make those decisions for themselves. Instead, we should make our classrooms a place where there can be a free exchange—within reason, mind you—of ideas.

This issue ties back in with the concepts of collaborative learning advocated by Rebecca Howard, in which students should be allowed to learn from one another. If schools did not want students to be able to formulate their own opinions about political issues, then such high school mainstays as Young Democrats, Young Republicans, and the debate team would not be sanctioned. I see no reason why the same tolerance to ideas cannot be used in the composition classroom. Maxine Hairtson advocates that such discussions are left for other venues, but it becoming plain—at least to me—that she has little-to-no experience teaching composition in a secondary setting. It is hard enough engaging students enough to write about something they care about or have an opinion on, rather than bland and inoffensive prompts…they get enough of those on the standardized tests they are required to take. While some, like Hairston, can look critically at composition from behind the wall of the Academy, some of us have to use whatever we can get to keep our students engaged. At least with the discussion of ideology in the classroom, students are, hopefully, exposed to new ideas and ways of thinking.

Collaborative Writing…it could work…possibly

“Collaborative learning” is one of those nice “buzzwords” that have been bandied about in pedagogy for the past decade or so.  It does come from a good place, I admit; that students should be able to learn from one another while the teacher becomes more of a facilitator than a lecturer. I will admit that I have tried my hand at doing collaborative learning in my own classroom through the usual means of group projects, group presentations, etc. Yet each time I did them, no matter how hard I tried to avoid the usual pitfalls, there is always one or two people that do the bulk of the work while the rest expect to receive the same grade as the rest of the group. This conundrum seems counter to the arguments made by Howard in her article, where she makes a case for grading the entirety of the project instead of simply the individual contributions made by each student.

This got me to thinking about how collaborative writing could be implemented in the classroom, and I came to the conclusion that it would take a massive overhaul of not only how students think about writing, but also how teachers would evaluate said writing. The effort would have to take place at the beginning of a course, as trying to switch models mid-term would just create a massive fecal tornado that nobody wants. Howard repeatedly makes notes of how writing the workplace is almost always collaborative, so that that gave me the idea that one of the best places to possibly try out the practice would be in a business writing course,—such courses do exist at the secondary level since my student teaching experience included working with senior students on the non-college/AP English track having taken it the previous semester—any of the myriad of business-related courses now being offered in high school, or even in any science course—again pointing out that many times people in that field do collaborative writing.

In this hypothetical situation in which collaborative writing is used in the classroom, there need to be standards of conduct and workload set from the onset.  The teacher could provide the set procedure of in every group each person has a set role—much like how group work is still practiced in the classroom today—yet that still places some individual ownership within the collaborative process. It should be made clear from the start that the final grade for the project will be decided on the output of all students involved, not just the finished product. This could be a tricky prospect, since despite the best efforts of the teacher it may end up with one or two students doing all the work while the rest hang back and faff about doing as little as possible. There is one prospective way to deal with this issue, let the students grade the work of their collaborators and offer that to the teacher for final approval. While not perfect, it could help to negotiate the imbalances of power that appear in collaborative work, placing the grading power in their own hands. With this arrangement, students would know that if there was anyone shirking their share of work, their peers would see to it that their grade would reflect that. Just an idea, as it turns the self-interests of the individual students towards working towards the common goal.

Open Season on “Engfish”

Before I start in on this reading response, let me clarify one thing about the topic of “Engfish.” As someone who has taught in a composition classroom, I can stay that I have not had the dubious honor of reading such papers like Ken Macrorie. If anything, I feel that Engfish is less a product of a lack of Expressivist writing in the classroom, but is more a product of giving students word limits and their attempts to pad their papers. This is not to say that I feel teachers of composition should not have minimums and maximum lengths for their assignments, but when they break it down an assignment to a quantitative amount of words without giving students the proper instruction on how to use the best words possible to get their point clearly across, the result is the exceedingly verbose language of “Engfish.”

 Ok, now that that is out of the way, I can start to address the issues at hand. Drawing upon the example presented in Dead Poets Society, as to whether or not writing should allow an individual a chance at self-realization, I agree that being able to effectively communicate one’s ideas is the finest skill any teacher can instill in their student. Yet do students even have that choice? Again drawing from my own teaching experience—teaching writing in a high school where most students would more-than-likely not go on to higher education or leave their family ranches upon graduation—I can say that this lack of self-determinism is not only an upper-middle class –to-upper-class phenomenon. Even as young as the eighth grade I had students outright tell me that they did not need to know how to write research papers or poetry since they were going to be working on their family’s ranch. While not expressed in such a blunt manner as this student, I knew that many of my students felt the same way when it came to their writing.  So while I did not abandon my hopes of fostering the next Hemingway or Woolf, I simply chose to go about teaching writing in a bit more practical a manner. Their writing may not have been stellar in terms of prose, but I could at least feel their voices were clear and their ideas concise.

Expressivism has its uses, do not get me wrong. We, as teachers, should strive to give our students the means to express themselves in any way they can, but in the end we should at least give them the tools they can use to succeed outside the classroom. After reading the examples of “Engfish” presented by Macrorie, I can confidently say that it is not the type of writing employers look for in their employees. Employers who require writing want it short, concise, to the point, using only the words necessary to accomplish the job. Any employer would look at that writing and think, “Who the hell taught you how to write?” That is the issue we have to deal with, so that if the “Engfish” population starts to get out of hand, I propose, we—as a profession—get our hooks ready.