Learning to Fish in a Language Arts Classroom

If you are an easily offended instructor of language arts, do not read further! If you are a traditionalist, run, do not walk, away from this blogsite!

I hope this does not come off as a rant, but rather, an explanation of why most language arts courses fall short with unengaged (disengaged?) students. The short answer is, “they’re frickin’ unengaged!” So how to engage those students? Through fishing lessons, of course.

I believe most of us have an impression that language arts is the study of language, primarily, through the written word. (Insert shrill buzzer sound.) That was soooo last millenium. At the risk of insulting every member of the International Council of Teachers of English, with whom I really am in agreement, I will argue, stamping my dainty size elevens for emphasis, that language arts isn’t changing. It has changed. If language arts is a necessary invention of the conventions of written language, which are an invention necessitated by the invention of the Guttenberg press, then what are we doing to keep up with newer inventions in our instruction in the fine art of, er, language arts? If technology is moving at an exponential pace, is language arts reform destined to be forever reactive or will traditional schools become proactive in their approach to language arts and what will that reform look like?

Writing forms have already shifted to reflect a more natural speech pattern. (See above paragraphs.) Conventions of spelling are being upgraded. OMg, IDK, U think? Who decides these conventions? Your students. Who will chronicle them? IDK. U maybe? But current language arts instruction is heavily weighted toward written word – reading and writing, with very little emphasis given to speaking, listening, and visual literacy and expression – yet these are the vehicles for engaging unengaged students. Wait. No. I didn’t mean that! Do NOT get behind the wheel of that car again!

Drat and darn. Now, there are a bunch of language arts teachers reading this and stamping their tiny little size six feet, (well, except for the male teachers of language arts. Okay, maybe a few of you too, but let’s just get over the generalization thing right now. Go with it. It’s an image – delivered in written word.) Back to my generalization. So there are a bunch of language arts teachers out there demanding to be heard, because they don’t put their students in desks in rows for discussions of the Canterbury Tales ad nausea. They do creative things like haiku written on paper cranes suspended from the ceiling, or assignments like “portray, in video format, the significance of the recurrent mention in Tuck Everlasting of wheels, spheres and things circular.” (A bunch of you are looking up spherical references in Tuck Everlasting, aren't you?) Okay, I’ll credit you with a “C” for effort. You’re all good eggs. I love you. Bless the language arts teachers of the world. The problem here, however, is that these are assignments that YOU created in an effort to appeal to your unengaged students.

And THAT is what I mean by my new term, "bottom to top" curriculum design. Students are often unengaged by curriculum designed by someone else. It’s not enough to pass out a questionnaire at the beginning of the year, asking your students what they want to learn, how they learn, with the teacher taking the role of curriculum demigod. There’s no better way to kill creativity than to direct how it should be expressed. But, you say, I’m the teacher and what is my role if not to teach. You see, it’s that word, “teacher” that is so loaded with convention. Okay. Poof. You are no longer teachers. Let’s think of you all as “facilitators”, a là Maria Montessori. You’re going to “follow the child”. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And then all hell breaks loose. These kids are hormonal, you say. Anarchy will ensue, you say. We must maintain a tight ship!, you say.

But what if you don’t? What if you LET your students steer the boat. I mean, you’re there, with your hand near the rudder to grab it if things begin to go haywire, and, you’re the professional. What would this class look like?

(Bwa ha ha ha ha. I thought you’d never ask.) Let me paint a picture for you. (screen goes all wavy as in a TV sit-com dream sequence.)

On the first day of class, you, lookin' all cool in your artsy all black attire, greet your students at the door, meeting each one with the appropriate amount of eye contact and a firm handshake. You speak to each student in a manner that shows your interest in them – as people – before inviting them inside the Spartan, stripped-down, furniture-less classroom. The room is bare. We’re talkin’ nothin’. Well, nothing with the exception of a single ladder in the middle of the room. (More on that later.) You invite your students to sit if they like, (indicating the floor, because remember, there is no furniture with the exception of the ladder.) In a casual yet austere setting… too austere? Okay, bring in a large, comfortable wing chair for you, or a club chair if you prefer. From the comfort of your chair, you ask your students, “what is language arts?” Because you are the facilitator, you can guide this conversation to a deep discussion about language arts – ALL of the language arts. Ask your students if they would be willing to participate in an experiment. Give them the choice of attending a more traditional language arts class or the experimental class. When they all decide to be a part of your class instead, (because who are we kidding. No one would opt for the traditional classroom given the choice,) you compose an assignment – the only assignment YOU will give the entire year. Ask your students when they leave the Experimental Classroom to go out and ask a figure of authority – parent, teacher, administrator, boss, etc. – for an impossible request - twice. This request must not be rude, must be attainable, but must also carry the probability of being rejected. For example, "ask your French teacher to give up her desk to you." Then inform your students of the goal of the assignment: the goal of the assignment is to be rejected… and to accept the rejection gracefully. The conversation with the French teacher may go something like this:

Student: Bonjour, Mr. Voila, may I sit at your desk for the entire class period?
Mr. Voila: Non.
Student: I would really prefer the vantage point you have from the front of the class.
Mr. Voila: Non and sit down, (in French.)
Student: Well, thank you for considering my request, Mr. Voila. My request was part of a language arts assignment on rejection. It was kind of you to consider it all the same.

That student just learned an invaluable language arts lesson. They communicated with words in a manner that was polite and they accepted rejection gracefully.

The next day they can all share their experiences.

The remainder of the year would be filled with students learning this lesson repeatedly. First, every stick of furniture acquired for the class, will have to be acquired by the students in some manner. If students “own” their classroom, they can decide how it will be filled. A democratic group can be formed (with your invaluable facilitation,) to decide upon the use of the classroom. A musical student may decide to bring music into the classroom. Will it disturb other students? If so, how might they acquire the materials necessary for creating a sound booth? A recording studio? A radio station? A stage? A set for video recordings? And what of the written word? Will one student decide to write a novel? Will other more artistic students create a corner for the making of paper and homemade journals? Will they gift every student in the class with a homemade journal? And what of different classes that use the same space during different periods. Oooh, this demands a whole different set of communication skills. Will separate class groups communicate with one another through some means to reach consensus regarding the use of the space? Will another student take on the role of graphic designer to artfully communicate use of the space and future goals to those not simultaneously in the room?

And what of that ladder in the middle of the room?

Ahhh, that’s for you, the language arts “teacher”. In addition to being a facilitator, you are also a documentarian. Tests are a creation for showing, empirically, a student’s progress, that you might share that information with others who will question your effectiveness as a “teacher”. Most people will agree that tests are not a true measure of learning or ability to problem solve, yet we still use them. However, from the vantage point of the ladder, the teacher can document, (in whatever form they choose,) the four corners of the classroom as it changes over the course of a year. Students can be documented, (visually or by other means,) as they come and go freely in pursuit of their own interests, first, acquiring and bringing in the props necessary to engage in their chosen interest, then later, implementing the props to create, mastering important skills as they formally greet and engage their facilitator at the beginning of EVERY CLASS, making requests outside of class, meeting with rejection and reward, expressing themselves… through the art of language… in all its forms.

Well, that’s my rendition of my dream dream language arts classroom. Your language arts class would look different, and your next year’s class would be different from the previous year’s language arts class. The main difference, however, is that everyone is engaged, because they hold the reins in designing their own language arts curriculum. You, language arts teacher, get to enjoy their hard work, and their life-long thanks for gifting them with the fishing lesson, rather than the fish.


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