High School English

When I went to college, I quickly found that the high school English classes I took were not normal. My professors in college were never content with my writing (nor should they have been; I was–and still am–paying them to help me improve!) but were consistently surprised at some of the material my high school English classes covered: we learned about not just narrative structure and other more traditional methods of interpretation, but we also received enough of an overview of all major forms of literary criticism up to the late 90s to be able to discuss such intelligently. I arrived at college well-equipped to ask questions about concepts outside the text and to make connections to such in class discussions. My high school English classes were for reading literature, of course, but also for refining my writing style and learning how to craft an argument, for understanding where philosophy and religion and film and psychology and so many other areas of thought intersect with the literature we read. Those classes were where I fell in love with literature all over again (and in a more mature way) as a teenager.

Having this background, I attempted to create much the same environment when I was a classroom teacher (two years between graduating from college and deciding to stay home with my one child at the time). I know that in such a short time I did not create exactly what I wanted, but I have fond memories of the books the students and I read and of the discussions we had. When my husband and I decided to homeschool our children, I looked forward to the years when I could read such books with and have such discussions with my own children.

This year is the first year I will teach high school English after 13 years away from classroom teaching. My oldest starts 9th grade in fewer than two weeks, and in preparation I have reviewed resources and materials and looked at others for the first time, as in past years they did not apply to our situation.

I wrote last week about how much I love The Well-Trained Mind; I must now add a caveat that I love it and its recommendations through 8th grade. I have mixed feelings about the authors’ high school English advice; perhaps, as eventually happened through two cycles of working through the book, as time passes I will be able to read the high school portions of the book through a lens that filters out what I have discarded or at least added where I find the book lacking. The English section just seems to be so sorely lacking that I have a difficult time ignoring the problem for now.

In chapter 26, the authors point out

In many classical programs, English as a subject drops out of the schedule by high school. Reading and writing aren’t separate “subjects,” after all, but skills that cut across the entire curriculum. Reading means coming in contact with the philosophical and creative minds of the past and present, something that occurs in both history and science. Writing takes place every day in every subject. So why do we need English as a subject anymore? Overall, we agree with this point of view. It does assume, however that the ninth grader has a complete grasp of grammar, syntax, and usage, and is able to write effectively in all the subject areas. We haven’t found this to be generally true.

While I understand the authors’ point, I am vexed then to read that the Great Books concept in their history curriculum includes books such as The Odyssey. How do you teach that as a history text, really? Without going into details, there won’t be a lot of primary source material for teaching such a work as historical. If, however, you are a homeschooling parent looking to work through the text with your child but have no tools for working through the narrative structure (the hero’s journey is a huge motif in literature, and The Odyssey is a great foundational work with which to teach it), TWTM here falls very short on its ideals. The history notes on the Great Books are all about the structure of the text, including plot summaries and the like; this seems rather basic for a 9th grade student, let alone a 12th grade one. Yet the explanation here seems to avoid explicitly teaching anything beyond what the student can think of in reaction to the test.

I find this disheartening to English instruction and underestimating of the students. Is this a way to teach to a test, to get the AP score we want? Is this really a way to teach students to interact in a college-preparatory way with literature if we never introduce any ways of looking at literature besides what they can think of in their own heads or figure out based on the author and narrative structure?

While explaining to my husband what I was surprised to find were the recommendations for high school English, I realized that if my own high school English curriculum had been structured this way, not only would I have been unprepared for college, but I also never would have majored in English or even had the chance to enjoy the English classes I took there. Endless note-taking on plot summaries is incredibly basic, not the thrust of a college-preparatory English class.

To that end, as we progress through high school English I’ll share my thoughts as appropriate (likely when we work through a particular book — many of them the same Great Books listed in the History chapter of The Well-Trained Mind) for anyone else who wants to prepare their children for the humanities in a way that is a bit more well-rounded and interesting. My literature selections also transcend the historical time periods we study in order to show themes across time as well as how, for instance, the hero’s journey (or at least its corollary) looks in non-Western literature or literature written by or about women. While staying in the historical time period is not inherently problematic, it does not offer a lot of diversity, something I find incredibly important and something perhaps forgotten in our Great Books-obsessed focus. Regardless of what we read, how we read remains incredibly important. I shudder to think of the many children who come to think of essentially a New Critical way of understanding literature as the way to interact with it. These students might perform well on AP tests, but will they be inspired to major in English or prepared for college English classes? Will they have the tools to attempt to answer the deeper questions those works of literature pose?

1 thought on “High School English

  1. I loved my English Literature classes in College. I guess it was because we read so many great books. I especially liked the discussions about said books. In High school those same classes seemed to be about the stlye of writing in stead of context. I was never in an acdemics plus class. I don’t think we had those back then. I enjoyed your post thanks

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