What Do Students Learn in My Class?

For those of you who know me, you’re aware that my grading system is a bit unconventional. I don’t want to go into that right now, but part of that system is student self-reflection and conferences. This is a great opportunity for me to connect to students and for students to have my undivided attention.

I often design these conferences very loosely and ask broad, open-ended questions to start off, allowing the students to take it where they want to. This leads to, in my opinion, honest answers that force students to reflect not only on themselves and our class, but education in general.

One of today’s questions was, “What have you learned this year?” I asked them to be honest and critical. If they hadn’t felt they learned anything, I wanted to hear it.

There were a lot of good answers, but there was one in particular that I’d like to mention above all the others. It came form a normally quiet student and her answer was so slow coming that I became very worried that she hadn’t actually learned anything; then her answer confirmed it.

I’d like to give you an exact transcript for this conversation, but alas, I didn’t record it. Instead, here is a paraphrased summary:

Student: Well… I mean… We didn’t learn much for school. Don’t get me wrong, I love your class because it makes me think and we’re allowed to have our own opinions, but I don’t know what we’ve learned for school.

Me: What do you mean, how did I make you think?

Student: Well, it’s like when I’m talking to my friends now. I defend my opinions with evidence and my points are a lot more insightful. In the past I would just state my opinion.

Me: How did I do this?

Student: Our class discussions. You don’t just want us to give an answer, you want us to use evidence to support our claim.

Me: What do you mean when you say we haven’t “learned for school?”

Student: I mean we didn’t learn grammar or like facts and stuff, so it’s hard to say what we learned.

It took awhile, but eventually she realized that she had been learning the whole time and that learning for my class wasn’t just about information. She was also surprised to realize that everything she had learned would not only make her a more well rounded person, but help her on the PSAT, SAT, ACT, state test, or any other standardized test we can think up. If it wasn’t something she could cram for or use a study guide for, it wasn’t learning to her.

Many other students struggled to tell me what they learned because their understanding of what learning is. They are so used to having to know information for tests (the quadratic equation, when the attack on Pearl Harbor took place, what mitochondria do, what a participial phrase is, who the only character Hamlet can trust is…) that they miss out on the “why,” or as I ask in my class, the “so what?”. We break learning down into such small chunks that students lose the big picture.


Because the big picture is hard if not impossible to formally assess. And if we can’t formally assess it, we can’t grade it. And if we don’t grade it, students don’t see the value in it. And if students don’t see the value of true learning, they are simply depositories for information in the factory system we call school.

Are our students a clockwork orange?

As I was rereading A Clockwork Orange the other day I was reminded of one of my first visits to my daughters’ open house. The students were going to perform something for us and the teacher needed them to be quiet and then performed a clapping routine that was followed by a automatic, mechanical response from the kids. It was as if the teacher flipped a switch that turned all of the students into quiet, still beings awaiting orders. All of the other parents looked in amazement at this magic trick. I stood appalled.

I was upset that my, normally well behaved, children were zapped into action, or rather inaction, by this simple clap response game. I wanted to call out, “That’s my daughter, not a disciplined machine!” My wife and I have always worked hard to explain to our kids the “why-s” of the world, not just the “do-s.” We want our children to not just react to certain situations, but to know why they should act a certain way. I don’t appreciate how robotic they become while at school.

As we move away from the factory model of education, so should our methods of discipline and how we expect our students to act. We should want our students to not only ask questions about our content, but about our methods as well. I always tell my students that if they don’t understand why we’re doing something, then I haven’t done my job.

Although Alex, from A Clockwork Orange, is a nasty, violent hooligan, the point of the book is that when you take away a man’s ability to choose to be good, he ceases to be a man. If we expect our students to be good for the sake of being good, to learn because we tell them to, they cease to be independently thinking students.

I find that when students are allowed inside the circle of understanding (why we do what we do the way we do it), they are not only more willing to do what I want them to do; they choose to do what is asked of them because they made their own minds up that it’s the right thing to do. I don’t want to send workers out into the world who do what they’re told; I want to create thinkers who question what they do and, in turn, improve the field they’re in.

Required Reading

There has been a big push for student choice of books in ELA courses across the country in the past few years. While I agree that student choice creates more buy-in from students and helps them own their education more, ultimately, I feel that student choice alone fails to create high academic achievement.

The other day a few of my colleagues and I were discussing the BBC’s list of 100 books people need to read. I typically don’t like top #’s lists, because I feel they can be superficial and very subjective, but it sparked an interesting discussion about reading in general. Two math teachers concluded that most of the books they’ve read on the list were read because they forced to do so in high school. They appreciated the fact that they were exposed to that kind of literature (academic/canonized literature) and admitted that they never would have read them if they weren’t made to. Most of the texts that I use in class were on that list, and I feel confident in saying that most of my students, much like my colleagues, wouldn’t read those texts if I didn’t “make them.”

Why make them?

You can Google ” importance of student choice in reading” and find many compelling arguments for its use. Most of the arguments center around data that proves student choice increases reading in general and, therefore, vocabulary, writing skills and the like. I agree that teaching students these skills is absolutely needed and I absolutely want my students to read for the rest of their lives, but I have to ask, “ultimately, what kind of readers will they be?” I argue that we will simply create passive readers; readers that mouth the words, enjoy the characters and plot, but fail to go any further.

I want my students to leave my class with a life-long desire not just to read, but to think analytically about the world; to think about what makes themselves and others tick. This is not to say that you can’t think deeply about student choice literature because I know that in many universities across the nation you can take whole courses in, for example, Harry Potter and other contemporary, popular literature. However, literature like HP doesn’t naturally lend itself to analysis. What I mean is not that you can’t analyze HP. Rather, readers of HP are too easily caught up in the adventure and story, passing over, all too easily, its depth. It’s our desire to be entertained that prevents HP from giving us the wealth of analysis it has to offer. If we only let students choose books they want to read, they will be far less likely to branch away from their comfort zone and challenge themselves. Therefore, us, their teachers, need to push them.

Now let me stress that I am speaking purely from the perspective of an high school English teacher. I believe strongly that students needs differ greatly from K-12. I recently had a conversation with a colleague that came up from middle school this year to teach at the high school. She feels that in elementary school students need to read goofy, fun books that connect to their vivid imaginations (not to say older students don’t have vivid imaginations); middle schoolers need room to explore literature they can connect to on a deeply personal level; and that high school students need to be challenged by literature that pushes them to think outside of themselves. I think this is an insightful way of looking at the developmental differences of students at different ages. As a high school teacher, I need to show them a world they’ve never seen before.

Students are shocked when I show them the true depth writing has. My sophomores read Fahrenheit 451, well when I say read, I mean 25 percent-ish actually read it over the summer and the others spark note it or don’t bother at all. But it isn’t until we look at the text as a class and we take fifty minutes to analyze the first three paragraphs, that they see the importance of language and literature. Even those who actually read it are surprised at the complexity of what seems like such a straight forward book. The best part is, they like it even more because they’ve been let in on the secret power of literature. They see literary texts not as passive entertainment, but as puzzles that need to be solved. We are doing our students a disservice if we aren’t showing them that books are like clocks with intricate mechanisms that make the simple looking hands go round.

Then why not use student choice books to do this?

Because it is too easy to slip back into our comfort zone of passive entertainment and I can’t teach/guide twenty different texts in an insightful, in-depth way at the same time. I realize that I am the limitation in this scenario, but there needs to be something said for my experience with the literature I have read.

One of my favorite texts to teach my IB students (see my previous post about what I “do” with literature) is Heart of Darkness. Its greatness comes from the fact that you can’t passively read it; you can’t get lost in the plot and characters. No student on earth has ever picked it up and enjoyed the storyline. HoD demands a close reading and the enjoyment for the text can only come from solving the puzzle. It’s a very hard text because every word, every dash even, is important. Students groan when we start working with it, but by the time we’re done, they can’t believe how differently they see not only HoD, but all literature.

Students need to be pushed out of their comfort zone and away from what they know of analysis. They need to be shown what they’re capable of, even if that experience is scary and uncomfortable for them.

What I “Do” With Literature

I was asked by a peer recently what I “do” with Hamlet. I was taken aback by the question because I didn’t know how to answer. I thought to myself, what do I do with Hamlet or any other literature for that matter? I know I teach it, I know what I want them to understand from it, and that my students learn from the text, but how do I do it? I read a blog post recently that answers the question much better than I did.

When I read this post, I felt as if Kath Murdoch (@kjinquiry) was describing my class to a “T.” The more I thought about it, I realized that what I “do” is ask questions. It doesn’t matter if the students are in a large or small group, discussing or working independently; I, like my students, am always asking questions. Students are often frustrated with me early in the year because they’re not used to their questions being met with more questions from their teacher.

Sometimes those questions are leading because I want to get them to a specific idea and sometimes I simply play devil’s advocate because I want them to defend their own, unique perspective/analysis. Asking questions changes the teacher/student dynamic away from me being the professor of knowledge and answers, to students digging within to find their own. The beauty is that I can still (when needed) get them to one definite answer if that is what the situation calls for.

For instance, the other day when we were working with Hamlet, I wanted the students to understand the biblical allusion of the serpent manipulating Eve through words, the same way Claudius attacks King Hamlet through the ear which, in turn, is just what the ghost (if you see him as an evil character) does when he manipulates Hamlet with words (through the ear) and thus causing the fall of the kingdom the same way the serpent causes the fall of man. I could have explained it to them outright, but by asking them questions and leading them to the point, they owned the analysis; I didn’t come up with it, they did.

The same is true if I don’t have a specific point to make. I may not even know what to say about a part of a text, but I still ask questions to challenge their opinions and my own for that matter. In this situation, I’m learning right along with them and the atmosphere in the room is even further removed from me being the keeper of knowledge. Students appreciate seeing their teachers think through problems and even struggle with difficult concepts; it makes us human and, therefore, we are learners working along side them, not knowers constantly checking up on their knowledge.

One of the most frequent complaints from my peers about student driven learning is that we know what they don’t and if we don’t teach, they can’t come to it on their own. I think this is a half truth. Yes, we do know more than they do and we have more experience with the knowledge and skills they’re supposed to develop by the time they leave our class, but that doesn’t mean that we have to profess that information to our students. Instead, we can lead them to where they need to be and empower them to feel like they did it on their own. After all, these are teenagers I’m talking about. Teenagers who want to be independent adults. Why not play that independence to our advantage.

Literary Texts as Math Problems

I had an interesting conversation with a student today. I had just finished grading his timed writing and he admitted to me that he found it frustrating to come up with what he called “unique, original, insightful analysis.” None of his own ideas about literature satisfied him as being good enough. To be honest, he has struggled with deep, insightful literary interpretation all year. He said that he loved discussions and reading other people’s analysis of the literature, but hated the idea of using that analysis for his own because he hadn’t come up with it. He found other’s analysis interesting, and he understood it, but he couldn’t get there on his own. My suggestion that there were no true original ideas left in the world and it isn’t wrong to use other’s analysis (as long as he understood it and made it his own) didn’t satisfy him in the least, and he brought up his math class as an example. He said that in math, he had to solve the problem himself and that if another student solved it before him, he refused to look at their work until he had figured it out himself.

Then it hit me.

I asked him if he had ever been asked to analyze literature, like I ask him to, before coming to my class. He responded with “I didn’t know you could analyze books like we do before your class.” In reference to my last post, because we piecemeal how we teach literature (by only teaching a few skills per piece of literature and not taking a wholistic approach to literary analysis) students see literature as separate islands in a vast ocean not realizing that all those islands are connected by solid rock below the surface.

I explained it to him through his knowledge of math. He has been working math problems since kindergarten. First he added, then subtracted, then multiplied, then divided, then worked algebraic equations and then… (I don’t know math past algebra, but you get the picture). All of those new mathematical concepts are dependent upon what came before them. You can’t subtract before you add, you can’t solve for x if you don’t know how to add, subtract, multiply, etc… Therefore, even when he doesn’t know a new mathematical concept very well, he still has all his prior experience of answering other problems as a guide to answering the new ones. New problems demand that he use his knowledge of old problems in order to solve them.

Unlike math, unfortunately, he sees each literary text he has to read as a separate entity, something that needs to be looked at in isolation (an island) from all other literature. All because he has only been told to look at certain elements for each new book he has had to read.

I can remember sitting in some of my early literature classes in college thinking “how the heck are these people coming up with this stuff (analysis)?” just like he does in my class. It wasn’t until I read something, analyzed it, and then used that analysis on other literature that I started to see patterns within all literature and, therefore, see the bedrock on which all literature is founded.

We need to make our students dive to the bedrock with every text they read.

Guerrilla Literature

As we end our work with a text, I like to have the students participate in what I call “Guerrilla Literature.” I will explain what this is later, but first let’s look at the reason why I’m using words as a tool for warfare.

I feel that some approaches to teaching literature can be limiting. The need to meet educational standards can lead to a fracturing of how we teach texts. What I mean is, because we have to teach, let’s say, characterization, we organize our units around that element and, therefore, our literature. The unfortunate result is that students see literature in tiny, niche analytical strategies. And because we move on so quickly, because we need to teach more standards, students don’t retain what they’ve been taught and thus show up to next years English class and say, “Our teacher didn’t teach us that last year.” the end result is that we tell students that they need to know what (insert random literary element) for the assessment over (insert random text), but now lets move on to (insert random literary element) that we’ll learn while reading (insert random text)…

I realize I’ve simplified the the teaching of texts, and that teachers don’t just teach one element per work, but even if we teach characterization, tone, and the historical background of a piece in one unit, we’re still missing out on so much more that the literature can teach us and students have little value in literature other than looking for symbolism and metaphor. While there is a push to teach pieces together that relate thematically, the appreciation of authors’ craft isn’t, and students don’t get to see the real importance of good authorship.

Literary elements are necessary to understand and appreciate literature, but when taught in small chunks without the needed connections that show their true meaning and importance, reading literature is something you just have to do in school. Therefore, the value is lost on students and why they often time don’t actually read the book and instead figure out what they need to say about the text from the teacher or another student and simply regurgitate ideas.

So what’s the alternative? Well, I’m still developing that, but anything I teach in class is sustained throughout the year. I teach the approach to literature, not the approach to a piece of literature. Don’t worry, I still cover all standards, but instead of expecting mastery at the end of a unit, I expect growth throughout the year.

Now back to Guerrilla Literature.

I have my students write important quotes from the text we’re finishing, in chalk, on the sidewalk of the bus loop. The idea is that other students on their way home from the “drudgery of school” will see all of this writing on the ground, read it, have some thought come to their mind, and WHAM!, they’ve been forced to think about literature. And maybe that quote was metaphoric, maybe it set a certain tone, or maybe it made them think about a book they actually read in the past. It doesn’t matter; they’ve read and thought.



As I continue to read NAW, I’m intrigued by the Silentists’ (not to be confused with Scientologists) search for perfect stillness. Stillness to me is the absolute of nothingness. A lack of movement indicates a lack of growth, change, pursuit, thought, feelings, desires, or anything else for that matter. To be perfectly still, one makes no decisions; one simply is, or rather, isn’t. I began to think about us and our desire to be perfect and how often we try to capture our “perfection” permanently.

I recently spoke to a student about her trying to get into college. She mentioned the fact that she had the right SAT score, the right ACT score, the right GPA, the right course load, the right amount of extra curriculars all to produce the right college application. In other words, the right snapshot of her at the right time that would allow universities to see her right perfection. All of which indicates, through binary opposition, that if it isn’t right, it’s wrong.

But what percentage of our lives do we achieve this perfect stillness?

In this wondrous world that allows us to share our lives with everyone instantaneously it may seem daft to say that we only share our perfections with the world. Yes, you can find 100 mistakes (grammatical or otherwise) a second on facebook, twitter, etc… However, the individuals who make those mistakes often don’t hold those mistakes as important or defacing, and therefore don’t care. Let’s call these mistakes, therefore, non-positives. Positives, therefore, are what people focus on making perfect, and remember, these positives are an instantaneous, permanent stillness.

We must consider the motivation behind why we post something on the internet. Sometimes it is linked to sharing information with others, but most of the time it is self promotion. This can come in the form of:
*a profile picture (How many pictures do you have to take of yourself before it comes out right? What makes you change it?)
*a post/tweet (Look at what I’m doing, eating, thinking etc… right now. Look how happy/creative/smart I am.)
We are constantly compiling data that shows us the way we want to be seen and we don’t allow ourselves to be seen in any other way than the way we want to be seen. Hence we are showing ourselves to the world in stills, momentary glimpses of our right selves.

I have a friend, Doug Cason, whose art has focused on individuals posting pictures of themselves on the internet. He found the background the most fascinating, when recreating this media in painting, because while the subject/photographer was so concerned with the subject/themselves, they paid no attention to what else was included in the picture, and the backgrounds were a jumble of random objects. They inadvertently were imperfect (non-positive) in their attempt to be perfect (positive). The same way my student, who unfortunately didn’t get into the school of her choice, was imperfect (non-positive) in her attempt to be perfect (positive). Thus proving that the attempt at permanent stillness is flawed.

Marcus explores this through his Silentists attempt at perfect stillness. The destruction that follows, to family and non-family alike, shows the fallacy of perfection given that even in moments of still perfection there is imperfection. It is growth to nothingness.

Notable American Women

I’m currently re-reading Notable American Women by Ben Marcus, which came about from a conversation I had with some students the other day. I had been describing the book to them, and one of the students suggested that we should all read it together. First off, it’s an amazing feeling to have students want to read what you give them in class let alone have them ask for extra reading, but they did and I was only too happy to oblige them. Unfortunately, this also forced me to look back at myself as a student in college.

I had read NAW eight years or so ago while I was still in college and can remember enjoying it and finding it intellectually stimulating, but in retrospect, I believe I enjoyed it because a professor had suggested it to me and I wanted so bad to read it, “get it,” and look “smart.” While I did understand some of it, my drive to look the part of an academic prevented an opportunity for me to focus on what I didn’t know and the chance to improve. Instead of accepting what I didn’t know, or understand, and ask questions, I focused on what I did understand. As a student, I was keenly aware when I was getting into an uncomfortable academic situation and would avoid it by focusing on an idea/concept I was comfortable with.

How much more could I have grown as a scholar had I accepted what I was lacking and worked to improve it? Yet many of us, as students or in our everyday life, do this. We hide behind what we know and avoid exposure to “the new” because we’re afraid of making mistakes, especially when the pressures of grades and looking smart in front of peers are a factor. Yet mistakes are where learning takes place. Mistakes drive learning through a desire to know and perfect our understanding of the world. However, if and when students fall back on what they already know, and in a sense plagiarize their our knowledge, there is no growth.

It is easy to fall into this trap with NAW given its metaphysical look at language and humorous rewritten history. Marcus makes it difficult to differentiate if he’s making a metaphorical point or simply working in the absurd. His quick movements from literal to figurative and metaphorical to absurd challenges the reader’s analysis; forcing them, more times than not, to step back and accept it for what it is; a linguistic adventure. A challenge that asks you to see elements of our world that are invisible, to touch the intangible, to be uncomfortable.

Even though I am a better reader than I was the last time I read it, NAW is still a tough read. And while I know I still won’t see all of the intricacies, my acceptance of what I don’t know will lead to a better reading experience.