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A New Spin On English

A new philosophy of teaching holds that what young people read may matter less than how they read it

By Jonathan Sapers

It’s funny how Odysseus says things that don’t really happen. Should he man up and tell what really hap¬pens? No way, because he is the hero Odysseus… I am a hero that never backs down from anything. Why tell the truth and get all my credentials washed away cause I wimped out one time? My image will be erased from society and people will stop chanting my name. Do you know how it feels when the crowd stops chanting your name? It’s depressing, man.

For Adele Bruni (M.A. ’07), the above brief “commentary” by a ninth-grader who had previously declared he hated English represented a major victory.

“Anything they perceive to be hard to read, they’ll discard,” Bruni, a TC doctoral student teaching at New York City’s Lab School for Collaborative Studies, says of her students. “It’s difficult for them to sustain attention on a text because they’re so used to scrolling through screens.”

Engaging hearts as well as minds is the central enterprise of English teachers. Students, who nowadays reflect an ever-wider range of cultures, backgrounds and orientations, must care deeply about reading or the battle is lost before it has begun — particularly when the choice is between long-dead, white male authors or entertainment available at the tap of a screen.

This challenge is prompting a reexamination of the field’s basic assumptions.

“Why do we insist on teaching the novels, poems and plays of people who have long since perished and who may have held world views that implicitly demeaned the students now asked to read and cherish them?” asked Ernest Morrell, Professor of English Education and Director of TC’s Institute for Urban and Minority Education (IUME), in his 2012 inaugural speech as President-Elect of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). “Should English teaching change as the population of stu¬dents changes and as communications technologies make life utterly unrecognizable to the worlds of many canonized authors? What in English is sacred and untouchable?”

Morrell, who extols his favorite novel, Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, even as he counsels encouraging economically disadvantaged students of color to write what they know, urged his colleagues to “simultaneously champion and transform the discipline.”

“I once received a reprimand during a job interview that continues to inform my thinking and practice,” he says. “The interviewer kindly reminded me, ‘You don’t teach English, you teach students English.’”

Fulfilling that dictum means recognizing that what students read may be less important than how they read it.

“Whether they’re reading the weather, a friend’s gestures or a novel, part of the work of my classes is to create knowledge, sensitivities and a repertoire of strategies to read and write the world,” says Ruth Vinz, TC’s Enid and Lester Morse Professor in Teacher Education.

In her award-winning book Composing a Teaching Life, Vinz confesses that in her first year of teaching she “talked about literature in classrooms” while “students mostly watched.” Unhappy with the results, she recalled her own childhood initiation into literature after her father’s death in World War II: “My grandmother, attempting to fill the space, shared with me the literature that she loved” — Mark Twain, the Brothers Grimm, The Arabian Nights, Basho, Lao Tzu — “and I constructed a world of experience and imagining far beyond, where I lived and located myself within the spirit of the grandmother who led me into a life with literature.”

Vinz has since sought to tap the power of young people’s “literacies,” which she defines as the meanings they make of “any text in dialogue with others, based on their prior experiences and developing understandings of spatial, temporal, societal and cultural contexts.” Over the past 20 years, she has mainstreamed this approach into the preparation of thousands of TC pre-service teachers and the New York City schools where they hone their craft, become full-time teachers and mentor subsequent pre-service students and graduates.

Other faculty members in English Education similarly prod their pre-service students to draw on young people’s experiences and backgrounds.

“If I’m teaching Arthur Miller and the theme is the American Dream, why not also look at the American Dream through the eyes of Sandra Cisneros, who’s Mexican American?” says Assistant Professor for English Education Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz, a former New York City high school teacher.

Sealey-Ruiz has taught pairings that range from James Baldwin (If Beale Street Could Talk) with Gertrude Stein (Three Sisters) — both gay expatriates who lived in Paris — to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 54, with its discussion of the “perfumed tinctures of roses,” and Tupac Shakur’s “The Rose that Grew from Concrete.”

“Books with a variety of characters and viewpoints open up a different conversation about the beauty of human complexity,” Sealey-Ruiz says. “If students see themselves in a book — if their experiences are offered in a classroom — they engage very differently.”

To say something meaningful about what they’ve read, students need to view writing as a medium suited to their own voices. Traditional “lit-crit” forms, such as the five-paragraph essay, may turn them off.

“It’s the students who are already most alienated from academic life who are hurt the most,” says TC Distinguished Senior Lecturer Sheridan Blau. “They already think their voices and way of thinking have nothing to do with school, and now because we say ‘Fill this formula,’ writing becomes a meaningless activity.”

Blau, a past president of NCTE who is Coordinator of TC’s English Education/Teaching of English Program, devised the commentary format that Adele Bruni uses with her students. These written responses may initially be as simple as “I hate this poem” or “I don’t understand,” but can become the basis for an ongoing discussion of texts being studied. Less sophisticated writers will read the contributions of more sophisticated writers and begin to participate more extensively in what becomes truly academic writing.

“Writing about their reading in order to contribute to classroom discussion of literature makes the literature and the writing more socially real and engaging for students,” Blau says.

“If you’re going to share your work, you take it a little more seriously because you are speaking not only for yourself but also to, and with, others,” agrees Vinz, who with former student Erick Gordon founded TC’s Student Press Initiative. The program has worked in New York City classrooms to produce printed anthologies of student work, including a compendium of memoir pieces by students in New York’s six schools for recent immigrants, oral histories by Muslim youth and personal histories by incarcerated young men. “You learn more about your work as you and others talk about it. And when we talk about it the way we talk about Macbeth, you start to see yourself as a writer.”

As students write, they also become motivated to learn what they need to know — a self-directed approach dating back to the Renaissance essayist Montaigne that arguably is now finding its apotheosis in the Internet.

“Adults used to be the guardians of access to information,” Ernest Morrell says. “Now young people can choose what they’re edified by.”

Technology enables teachers and students alike to change traditional English classes from within, Morrell says. “A lot of English is what you produce. Multi-modality is also becoming part of the class¬room, so we’re looking at images mixed with text, cultural studies, magazine covers and film.”

For example, IUME recently served as the Harlem site for Beyond the Bricks, a project funded by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation through which African-American male high school students videotaped images of black men that counter stereotypical portrayals in film, television and the media.

“And with technology, work doesn’t have to remain in the classroom,” Morrell adds. “Now students share briefs based on research papers with City Council members and the mayor.”
The lesson learned: writing — and communication of any kind — can have an impact in the real world.

“We all know the power of being an educator, whether in breaking down racism or encouraging students to come out in class,” master’s student Miriam Goldberg said one wintry evening in Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz’s course, Teaching English in Diverse Social-Cultural Contexts.

Nearby, another master’s student, David Baksh, nodded in agreement and quoted Tupac Shakur:
“‘I’m not saying I’m going to change the world. But I guarantee I will spark the brain that will change the world.’”


The Rose that Grew from Concrete
Did u hear about the rose that grew
from a crack
in the concrete
Proving nature’s laws wrong
it learned 2 walk
without having feet
Funny it seems but by keeping
its dreams
it learned 2 breathe fresh air
Long live the rose that
grew from concrete
when no one else even cared!
— Tupac Shakur

Published Tuesday, Jun. 3, 2014