Mind the Gap: from Literacy to Literature

A few months ago at the OCSTA teacher conference, a secondary English teacher wanted to know the reason behind the increasing complaints about the academic ‘unreadiness’ of students entering their first year of University. What, he wondered, can secondary teachers do to help bridge this growing gap?

As someone who has taught for the past three years in both settings, I have a few ideas.  But before these questions might be answered, I wonder if this growing disconnect between secondary and postsecondary education needs some thought as it relates more specifically to the English department.  I wonder if the source of this disconnect lies in the fact that the English department of most secondary schools (Private and Public) is increasingly concerned with literacy, not literature.

In 2008/09 I studied for my B.Ed. at the University of Toronto with the goal of becoming a secondary English teacher; however, after one year of courses meant to accomplish this purpose, I never once heard anything about the content of the English curriculum. We were to teach communication, interpretation, critical thinking, and persuasive writing alongside a whole host of other “transferrable skills”, and whether we used Robert Browning or Dan Brown was of no particular concern. 

In fact, at another English conference I heard one teacher sharing a story of using a Car Manual in his class because the students enjoyed it.

My response: what the deuce?

Today, most English students and teachers in the secondary system operate on the assumption that secondary curriculum content is only of secondary importance and the true end of English education is to develop effective oral and written communicators, which may, indeed, be the end of English education.  In many ways, English is regarded as a handmaiden to the more important disciplines of Math, Science, and the ever-growing IT departments. This is a problem, and one, I think, that is systemic and needs to be dealt with across departments.

To clarify, I mean that every department must shoulder the burden of student literacy and direct that literacy to the unique concerns of their specific curriculum. Since most departments, sometimes English included, don’t believe that the English department has any real curriculum content of worth, the task of literacy is often unjustly shoveled onto them.  Unless secondary English departments return to a concern with English literature and not simply English literacy, the disconnect between secondary and postsecondary English studies will only get worse.

I would like to suggest a few things secondary English teachers might consider as they develop their English curriculum in a way that will prepare students for University English programs

Note: The following is in NO particular order

First, students need an understanding of why Story is important. Students need to begin thinking seriously about the integral role stories have in their lives. Stories (and imagination, and metaphorical language) have to be firmly placed as central to our lives, rather than something peripheral that only needs marginal attention.

Second, students should have a cursory grasp on the history of the English language and the development of various genres. I always wonder why most disciplines tend to develop over the course of four years and build on prior knowledge whereas English jumps from Beowulf to Blake without any explanation. Would a general understanding of the paradigm shifts from Medieval to Postmodern be too much to ask after four years of secondary school?

Third, students should begin to reflect on “how” stories are read and what they are doing when they interpret a text. Students should be able to interact with a range of different interpretive strategies and start to familiarize themselves with some discipline-specific vocabulary.

Fourth, teachers can begin to help students develop an ability to locate reliable secondary source material, an ability to critically read this material, and an ability to integrate secondary material and opinions/interpretations into coherent papers using proper referencing. 

There is no reason students entering into the University setting should claim they have never done this before.

Fifth, students NEED a revitalized understanding of the essay. Rather than teaching students to impose a rigid five-paragraph structure onto any and every topic they find interesting, we must begin to teach students the ART of the essay. Explain and teach the harmonious relationship between form (Poiema) and content (Logos) in order that students may realize that prose is not an enemy of poetry – both require careful crafting.