Why I Teach English

The estimated reading time for this post is 5 minutes

I teach English for selfish reasons. I love words, I love sentences, and I love how words and sentences create thoughts in beautiful and intricate ways. I love how we can say or write the same idea one thousand times differently, and in the process, inspire, provoke, madden, or excite as many people with our attempts. I love stories. I love what they tell us about ourselves, and what they ask us about ourselves. I love how stories, like music, bring us together and help us remember something about love that helps us forget to hate, at least in those moments we are caught up in the artistry of the narrative. Grammar. I love to hate grammar. I feel it controls me, it restricts, holds me captive. But as much as it does those things, it also conveys meaning so precisely that meaning becomes poetic. I’m pretty sure my passion for my subject, matters in my teaching. I’m brimming over with passion.

However, for me, teaching English is a subversive act.

I want to infiltrate the lives of my students with this passion and pedagogy I happen to have, to give them something that I am still working to acquire, myself. I want my Santa Ana students to gain those qualities and skills that allow them full access to what is available to them here in America. I want them to feel like they deserve and should have – with hard work – the same jobs, the same rights, the same opportunities, to which all others in America have access.

the same words

In order to become the successful agitator, the provocateur that sees my vision through, I have to allow my students to be the center of my instruction,

especially if I ever want them to become the center of their own lives and be agents of their own success. I’m compelled to begin with literature.

I love Shakespeare, Edgar Allen Poe, Kate Chopin. I value their literary contributions. The question arises: if these authors’ prose or poetry, with any regularity, are the main texts of a unit I teach, does this value my students, and does this put their lives and their culture at the center of my instruction. No, and it is okay. Because I know that if I bring in a text by Junot Diaz, or Sandra Cisneros, or, like I’m doing this quarter, Isabel Quintero – if a text from an author of Latino descent is at the center of my teaching, I am teaching my students that their culture, that they, themselves, are important and valuable. What I then do, is bring in as supplemental texts – Chopin, if we are discussing the value of life and death – Shakespeare, if we want to talk about how our names carry our identities, or not – and Poe, if we want to discuss our obsessions. My subversive technique does not require subtraction of great literature; it only requires a shift from traditional ways of thinking about what is valuable literature in schools. I do at times feel like Sisyphus, pushing a rock full of my students’ trauma up a steep hill, as I trample on, and rip to shreds my well- intended desires to get my students to see the value in reading literature from their own culture, and then writing and speaking about what they’ve read.

Our school’s focus of becoming a culture that works to make our students WHOLE (well, happy, organized, learned, excellent), provides another way for me to subvert old systems of thinking where the teacher is master, and a student’s affect is irrelevant to his ability to produce quality work. With this model, we know, ignored, broken children will quite possibly become ignored and broken adults, whose potential to thrive in any environment is greatly reduced.

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Using Canvas, our LMS, which organizes and saves student work, freeing students from the tedium of holding and keeping up with paper, is important. But, maybe more important is the fact students get to enjoy the absolute human right, the means, to a vital tool that levels the playing field of equity, whatever spaces they end up after graduation. Using the WHOLE model, I bring up WEB Dubois’ dual consciousness and how authors of color historically have written about and continue to write about the struggle to live with two identities – their cultural identity and their American identity.

The potential for healing is strong when students are able to assign a name to a condition for which they previously have had no language, but with which they have had experience.

During a discussion about mother/daughter relationships, I can bring up Toni Morrison’s conversation in Sula between Eva and  her daughter, Hannah, on what love should look like between a mother and daughter. We could discuss what it may have been like to raise kids in a generation where love was protecting your child from death, where survival was all you could consider, and a mother’s love in the late 18oo’s looked very different than a mother’s love who raised a daughter, more than fifty years after slavery ended. Not only might this develop our conversation about the conflicts between mothers and daughters, but, perhaps, the passage will spark discussion about opposing viewpoints, about varying experiences, about similarities in cultural struggles. Perhaps I can guide students to share points of view, without devaluing their fellow classmates’ views. Perhaps, the passage will provoke conversation about honesty in conversation that isn’t meant to hurt, but meant to clarify and gain understanding. Each of these, bringing relevancy to their relationships, bringing value to their own voice, while they learn how important it is to listen and gain empathy for others.

I am selfish. I have a passion for English and writing and have knowledge of English pedagogy. I understand full well how what I know stands as a vehicle to access for students.  I hope my passion, my pedagogy, my life experience, can help my students fully engage in claiming their dreams. To help them, to pester them into reading, writing, speaking, self-reflection, and into loving themselves and one another, is a balm for me.

It is the kind of good selfishness, good trouble in which I want to be involved.

I believe it is the kind of work John Lewis, the iconic civil right’s activist, felt was necessary in order to shift America’s systems of oppression into systems of inclusivity and equity.

 

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Darlene

Darlene

Writing Words that Matter in Orange County, CA. English teacher at Cesar Chavez High School, Santa Ana USD.
Darlene

Latest posts by Darlene (see all)

Darlene

Darlene

Writing Words that Matter in Orange County, CA. English teacher at Cesar Chavez High School, Santa Ana USD.

2 thoughts on “Why I Teach English

  • September 13, 2016 at 11:13 am
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    Helping students become whole, through teaching English…phenomenal opportunity to help build the skills our kids need to succeed! To help develop a student who can fully access all the opportunities this amazing country has to offer is not at all selfish (or at the very least the good kind of selfish), it is noble art we practice and out masterpieces are those whom bless us with their very existence!

    Excellent piece Darlene! Thank you for sharing 🙂

    Reply
  • Wes Kriesel
    September 19, 2016 at 6:57 am
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    My favorite line: “The potential for healing is strong when students are able to assign a name to a condition for which they previously have had no language, but with which they have had experience.” This is true of all of us, all through life; and it connects for me to the reason we should value our mentors – like you as these students’ teacher – and why we should value and practice our ability to reflect. These practices and resources help make us whole.

    Reply

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