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Defining Ourselves: Why Now and To Whom?

If each of us had to define and describe in five sentences or less what we do as English teachers for our students—PreK-Graduate—what would we say? How would we define specifically what we do without using any of the following: grading, papers, long hours, inadequate remuneration, not enough time, trying conditions, and the list would probably continue. However, does such a list really define and describe what we do; who we are as English teachers, educators, intellectuals?

All too often, we rely on job-synecdoches—listing the descriptive “parts” of what we do in lieu of drilling into and revealing the “scope and sequence” of what we do—the order of units, plans, curricula. But what exactly do we do, and why is now, the critical time for us to know and share the narrative—especially for our 21st-century students and their parents

What We Do: The integral components requisite for a child, tween, teen, adult of all human and social iterations to function and succeed in daily living and career require that ELA teachers expose and provide the accesskeys through reading (fiction, nonfiction), writing, speaking, listening, collaborating, researching, and viewing. Sparking and fomenting sustained critical thinking contextualize the learning environment.

“What we do” has had resonance and consequence throughout the history of this country for educated and illiterate, for chattel and immigrant, indentured and migrant, for those born free and those who were later freed. “What we do” has enabled individuals to defy efforts to deny the vote, deny voice, deny one’s very presence, and to deny difference.

More importantly, students themselves articulate best what we do. Recently, I asked several groups of students—MS/HS—around the country to explain to me and to each other if their reading, writing, speaking, research, and listening in their English classes have or have not affected their understanding of themselves and the world around them. Their responses were thought-provoking. Here are a few nuggets:

  • The books we read make me aware of different people and cultures I have not met yet.
  • I understand better how to deal with difficult situations and when to speak and not.
  • I did not know other people felt the way I do about split families; it was good to read about someone else and what he did when his parents left each other.

To teachers and parents, these nuggets reveal much about our students and children: how they “take in” and process information; what they think about and why.

Who Is Our Audience and Why Must We Do Something Now ?
Emerson stated, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines” (Self-Reliance). To be sure, consistency and certainty are not wholly undesirable. English teachers are consistent, yes; we also constantly embrace change: ever-reflecting the notion of Emerson’s thesis—that we need not fear defining and redefining, adapting and evolving “what we do:” “Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.” (Emerson)

Ours is an ever-changing audience: students from generation to generation who actually don’t age and mature from year to year with us. In addition, both teachers and students from year to year are in a different space and place, constructing meaning and building relationships differently. Parents, too are our audience, as are local, state, and federal policy makers.

In the midst of the varied audiences, our students and their parents represent our permanent audience that is never in stasis. What affects this audience directly affects us. Parents and their children today, more than in the past, contend with social change, upheavals, uncertainty, a technology juggernaut, and a general, expansive sense of dis-ease.

While some of our colleagues yet contend we need not pay attention to any of these audiences, and others contend students decidedly don’t qualify as audience, we must pay attention to our students as audience—an audience who remains with us for a significant portion of their lives.

Within the dis-ease, the cacophony of non-teacherly voices, and our generationally-shifting students, we must acknowledge the immediacy of our using voices, best practices, and students’ testimonies as to the import and efficacy of our profession and our expertise within it.

Years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. stated: “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.”

We, ELA teachers, represent the sustained, coherent, cohesive, and substantive instructional pathway Dr. King articulated. Now, the path before us requires that we define, articulate, illustrate, and model all we have done, are doing, and will continue to do for life—for our students and their parents.

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