Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Is it possible to make English class relevant?

One of the goals of our English department is to:

Make English class relevant to students' lives now.

This is a lofty, but I think, incredibly important goal.  Yesterday, I had a brief conversation with Susie, a colleague, regarding this goal.  I mentioned that I thought we had to ensure the texts we selected for students to read were relevant to their current lives.  She countered that it was the writing that had to be relevant.  This forced me to think about my original position and question the texts my students read.  How is The Kite Runner significant in the lives of students in mostly white, Canada-born Orangeville?  What about The Rez Sisters?  What possible connections can my teenage students make between their lives and the lives of middle-aged First Nations women living on a reserve?

In PLC today, Andrea, Scott, and I discussed this goal briefly, and now I am of the opinion that the writing is how we can make seemingly irrelevant texts relevant to our students' lives now.  Scott highlighted the fact that guilt is a driving force in The Kite Runner.  Perhaps the specific events and experiences of Amir aren't directly relevant to the lives of our students, but the concepts of guilt, or parental battles, or love, are in fact relevant to students.  We need to give them the opportunity to make these links.  Andrea pointed out that within The Kite Runner unit, we already encourage students to make connections via their defining moment speech.  This is a good point, and I think I am going to begin encouraging students to begin making and sharing personal meaning during our chapter seminars.

Now I think that many of the texts we study--even the Shakespeare we chopped from the course--can be relevant to our students, but as teachers, we need to encourage and welcome the personal connections via writing and speaking opportunities.


  1. I like the direction your PLC took on this. I think a lot of it goes back to the time we are willing to spend with something (text, idea, concept, skill). The opportunities you write of ("We need to give them the opportunity to make these links." and "we need to encourage and welcome the personal connections via writing and speaking opportunities") take time that we so often feel is precious in a semester filled with no bus days and other things that steal our time. We need to remember that the opportunities are precious. Maybe we don't cover as much, or cover it the same way, but the time the students need to make those connections and make the texts meaningful is important.
    I would hate to think that we only gave students texts that they could relate to or that were about experiences they share or understand first hand. I find reading is often about learning about others' experiences that you don't share. Realizing that there are other 'realities' out there and even in extreme differences common ground can be found through emotions is a huge step in becoming a thoughtful citizen.

  2. Thanks for the feedback! You are right about making the time to do important can be so hard. I think in 3U this semester, we have some wiggle room because we got rid of an entire unit.
    I also agree with you about reading. I LOVE reading books about people and places and experiences that I'm not familiar with. At the same time, though, I make the readings relevant to me by thinking about how my life is different. For example, on the surface I don't have anything in common with Angel, the main character in "My Book of Life by Angel" (my White Pine book). But upon further reflection, we're both protective of our younger siblings. Through reading the novel, I also was able to think about how lucky I am that my life didn't turn out like hers. It opened my eyes to the lives of young women (teenagers and girls) who are essentially forced into prostitution.