National English class loses grip on reality at a terrible moment

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Recent scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that no more than 37 percent of our children are proficient in reading and writing. For reasons puzzling to me, the National Council of Teachers of English thinks now is the right time to “go beyond the exclusive focus on traditional literacy skills.”

“Students should explore how digital media and popular culture are completely intermingled with language, literature and writing,” explained the 10 authors of the council’s recent position statement, “Media Education in English Language Arts.”

They say, “The time has come to decentralize reading books and writing essays as the pinnacle of anglophone art education.”

English teachers often tell their students to avoid jargon. The authors of this statement disregard such advice. They say, “It behooves our profession, as stewards of the communication arts, to confront and challenge the tacit and implicit ways in which print media is valued beyond the full range of literacy competencies that students should master.”

The council has approximately 35,000 members. It has done a lot of good in its 111 years of existence.

Amber M. Northern, the senior vice president for research at the nonprofit Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, loved the tips she received from the council’s quarterly newsletter while teaching English in a crowded high school in North Carolina. In her institute’s “Flypaper” blog, Northern said she took advantage of the “council’s resources for the overburdened and creatively challenged educator.”

I noted, on the other hand, that the council’s new position statement offers no suggestions on how a teacher who struggles to teach the basics can also, as the statement recommends, help students “critically examine popular culture texts” and ” productively disrupt classroom hierarchies as students exercise the right to freedom of expression on issues believed to be meaningfully relevant to their identities and values.”

The authors say they want teachers to help students become “empowered change agents” ready to disrupt “the inequalities of contemporary life, including structural racism, sexism, consumerism and economic injustice.” Students I interviewed are interested in those issues, but in English class they want to learn how to express themselves clearly and persuasively so that they can succeed in college and in life.

My main problem with the position statement is the authors’ seeming assumption that their approach will work in classrooms if they don’t give a single example of a school doing what they recommend.

Despite Northern’s fond memories of the council’s assistance, she called the new statement “ridiculous, not to mention detrimental to students and faculty alike.”

Of the 10 stated authors of the statement, only Seth D. French of Bentonville (Ark.) High teaches in a public school. The rest work in colleges and universities, where I often come across intriguing but impractical ideas.

University of Rhode Island communications science professor Renee Hobbs, chair of the group that wrote the position statement, told me by email that the authors described “a grassroots initiative driven by teachers” that started years ago. She said her work at the Russell Byers Charter School in Philadelphia, resulting in her book “Discovering Media Literacy,” and her studies at Concord (NH) High School showed that the new methods increased students’ literacy skills.

She called me “smug and whiny,” blessed simple adjectives that I don’t deny. The position statement used slang, she said, because it “wasn’t designed for a lay audience.” I still don’t think a campaign to “go beyond the exclusive focus on traditional literacy” will please many parents and lawmakers.

Education critic and Emory professor of English at Emory University, Mark Bauerlein, wrote in the journal First Things that the authors’ use of the words “decentralize” and “valorize” may seem strange and new, but in reality arose during the great excitement about deconstructionism 40 years ago.

French philosopher Jacques Derrida received little attention from the rest of the world for his approach to literary criticism, but he was a rock star in the upper reaches of academia at the time. “That NCTE would resort to these old clichés just goes to show that the progressive, forward-looking, oh-so-fashionable mindset of the authors of the media statement is no such thing,” Bauerlein said.

I’m not arguing with the authors’ concerns about problems in schools today. I only wish they would admit that classroom teachers have neither the time nor the power to deal with many of them. Here’s just one item on their to-do list: “It’s important for English teachers to advance our own critical awareness of how issues of power and inequality work in the largely invisible computer languages ​​that understand digital tools, platforms and applications, especially as a small number of companies dominate our online operations and benefit from the data we produce through online interactions.”

Many students today want what I wanted from my teachers: advice to improve their writing. One of my instructors recommended a book, “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. It still helps struggling writers despite being over a century old.

Here are some Strunk and White rules I try to follow, not always with success: Write with nouns and verbs. Revise and rewrite. Avoid using fining agents. Don’t explain too much. Avoid fancy words. Be clear.

I understand why the authors of the position statement want teachers to “help learners develop the knowledge, skills and competences necessary for living in an increasingly digital and mediated world.” But can they please postpone that for a while?

Their first pupils need more time to read and write. An exercise for those young people could be to simplify and clarify the position of the council.

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