On joy and depression in the teaching of English

 Sometimes, Sylvia thinks as she sits in the Las Vegas airport lounge waiting for her flight home, 140 characters aren’t enough. Like right now. One tweet is definitely not enough to say all she wants to say about the week she has just spent at her first English teachers conference.  For twenty minutes she posts to Twitter, or re-tweets as she comes across other posts from members of her rapidly expanding PLN:

 OMG! Just finished #ncte12 #alan12 English teachers conference. I’ve found my Tribe [Seth Godin]

Met authors. Bought books. Talked all night about writing. This is why I wanted to be an English teacher!

Listened to Penny Kittle, Jim Burke, Kelly Gallagher, Tom Newkirk. Inspired. And Ken Robinson. Wow!!

RT Great graphic novels from 2012 http://www.salon.com/2012/11/26/great_graphic_novels_from_2012/ … via @Salon

RT @pennykittle: @KellyGToGo What should children read? MORE. Amen to that!

RT Jim Burke@englishcomp   NYTimes: What Should Children Read? (Meditation on nonfiction & teaching CCore by teacher/friend of Malcolm Gladwell) http://nyti.ms/UVNJXL

I love Tom Newkirk’s book “The Art of Slow Reading.” This is so re-assuring! #titletalk

RT I would love to spend a week with #titletalk folks. Everyone brings 20 books and the week is spent rdg, talking writing rdg and so on.

RT@pennykittle Hope you don’t mind. We just started a book club for your book Book Love. Already nearly 30 people signed on!

RT Carol Jago@CarolJago  Teaching Frankenstein? Here’s the preface to 1831 edition http://bit.ly/SosKhu  #edchat

RT Donalyn Miller@donalynbooks  Shout your favorite book of the year– any age range. #titletalk

Her flight is being called, so Sylvia turns off her iPhone. She can’t wait to get back, to sleep in her own bed for starters, and then to return to school, to her English classes, with all this energetic joy she’s feeling. The imagination. The consolations and inspirations of literature. The joys of writing and talking, deeply, about words that move us, shock us, make us laugh. The sense that she’s been given this privileged opportunity to set up, in her own classroom, mini-versions of the conference she’s just attended, places where her students will explore, through what they read and what they write, the worlds within and without.


 Three days after attending the conference, Sylvia sits at her desk at home in the small hours of the night, all the post-conference elation drained from her body. She’s spent the past hour writing about the English Departmental meeting earlier in the day, and is wondering whether she should risk posting it on her blog. Probably not.

This is what she has written.

 I am lost for words. In fact I’m lost full stop.

For most of last week I loved being an English teacher. Feeling myself a member of the tribe. Amongst my own. I bought books and sat in corners with colleagues sharing excited thoughts about what we’d been reading. I rubbed shoulders with authors whose words take me into other worlds, worlds which become my own world. I was part of a virtual and live community made up of those who love language and the imagination and stories. I felt alive in a way that I did when I was studying English at college, a part of a community of readers and writers, a member of a tribe who had access to a unique way of knowing that helps us see more of what is around and within us. I couldn’t wait to get back to my classroom, invigorated, inspired, renewed, clarified.

Today I feel immersed in hopelessness.

We spent our lunchtime today – me, the Head of our faculty, and another colleague –  arguing about Enrico’s grade on the essay he wrote. Enrico is one of my students. He’s 15. I’ve been working with Enrico for months, now, trying to get him to see that writing can be a way of exploring things that matter. At first he was resistant, but then we talked one day while I was on lunchtime playground duty about the worried look on his face, and he told me that his younger brother had left home overnight and the family didn’t know where he was. We had a writing lesson straight afterwards, and I encouraged him to write, privately, about what was on his mind. Over the next weeks we developed it into a longer story, partly fictionalized, and he told me how he enjoyed the writing, how it felt good think, in a slow way, about some of the stuff that he and his family have been experiencing.

So, before the conference, when it came time to work on the essay task that was going to be graded, I encouraged him to write an essay about loss. His brother had returned, but there was a time when Enrico didn’t know what had happened to him. He’d talked, too, about the loss of a family dog that had wandered off and never returned. So there seemed to be lots of material there for Enrico to draw on.

He’d written the essay while I’d been away.

It was full of heart-felt material, it was a piece of writing that mattered to him, but my colleagues insisted that it be given a fail. It wasn’t smoothly written, he didn’t support his argument by quoting from the text we’ve been studying, and he didn’t discuss the writer’s techniques. Furthermore, it took a different tack from the rather glib and restrictive stimulus quote that the students had been asked to respond to. The essay didn’t fulfill the requirements of the rubric, and my colleagues, or one of them at least whose opinions matter, had insisted that his essay be given a FAIL.

My colleagues argue that we’re assessing his writing and not his character, but that’s not the way Enrico is going to experience it. And I can’t help thinking back to the English teacher’s conference, and to the talks given by all those authors who talked about the vulnerable parts of themselves which they explored and articulated in their books. They, or most of them, had the consolation of knowing that their writing had been published before, had the support of the editor and the publisher and probably lots of other folk. They’d been invited to our conference! Enrico, of course, has none of this.

I was reminded at the conference that reading and writing are at the heart of our discipline, that English is core because, through it, we learn about our own and others’ world. I so want this insight to determine what happens in my own English classroom.

It doesn’t, though. It can’t.

I end up feeling guilty that I’m not preparing students like Enrico for the hurdles he’ll have to jump. Is this just my inexperience? Is this just because I’ve only been teaching a short time? Will I ever find a way of helping him ‘play the game’ while at the same time getting some deeper pleasure out of reading and writing?

I don’t know how to do this.

I feel empty and defeated.


A Note on the story

The above story is entirely fictional (though the tweets were inspired, and sometimes copied, from tweets I read following the NCTE English Teachers conference in Las Vegas earlier this month). It’s a story I’ve written quickly in order to help me think about a link I’m becoming increasingly interested in: the possibility that some of the external demands on English teachers are distracting us from our core disciplinary business, and are unnecessarily depressing for teachers (especially young ones like Sylvia) and students (like Enrico).

3 thoughts on “On joy and depression in the teaching of English

  1. Steve, your story certainly resonates with me. Sometimes, creatively interpreting marking rubrics is as much of a challenge as actually writing the wretched things. How often did this happen to both of us across the marking from Winter Term?

    A story for you: my Year 12 Accredited English classroom a number of years ago, and my mainly male class is writing. The task, write an alternate ending for the movie ‘Samson and Delilah’. This is the first assessment item these students have ever produced for me.

    One of my students produces a piece of powerful writing about despair, about isolation, about desperation. His writing, like Enrico’s, is not polished. Even though it is full of spelling and grammatical errors, he has a powerful message to share, and his voice demands to be heard.

    When I share with my student how very impressed I am with his work, and how it can easily be polished and turned into something for the Year Book, he looks at me with tears welling up and says “But I can’t write.” Later his mother contacts me, also in tears. She shares with me her years of frustration with an education system that cannot value her child and his experiences. This is a young man with passion, fire, imagination. We (the education system), have stunted him by not providing him with opportunities to succeed.

    How do we change this?

  2. Pingback: Sylvia’s distress « degrees of fiction

  3. Pingback: Means and ends in English teaching « degrees of fiction

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