The Answer

My grade 12s are currently working diligently away on preparing seminars for their classmates. We’ve been studying literary criticism and now they are becoming the experts, preparing a short story to present to the class and explaining how analyzing the text from a particular lens reveals certain insight.

It’s tough. It’s frustrating. It’s totally worth it.

As I listen to the conversations happening all around me, I hear students puzzling through really challenging questions, and some of them ask me, “But can you tell me what it means?” A part of me really wants to. Not that I necessarily know the answer, but I’m very tempted to tell them what I think. Still, I resist that urge, because I remind myself that the second I tell them what I think something means, a part of their brains shut down and that’s the very part that I want them exercising. The steam coming out of those ears is good.

It can be torture for English teachers to listen to students come up with off-base or misguided conclusions, but we need to restrain the urge to give students “the answer” and instead ask them more questions.

Whether students arrive at what we consider to be a “right answer” is much less important than whether or not they ask critical questions, look for support for their ideas, and have meaningful discussions with each other. If all we want them to learn is  “the right answer” then we are emphasizing lower order thinking skills at the expense of higher order thinking skills.

Canon Fodder


I considered giving this post the title “So like…why do we have to read this anyway?” but I’ve been waiting to use the title “canon fodder” for a while because I heart puns. I get it from my dad. I also heart my dad.

At this time of year, we start discussing changes we want to make to next year’s courses, which I love. I had a great conversation with a colleague about the role of literature in the secondary English classroom. How do we decide which texts we use to teach with? (Texts with which we teach…. ack! This is informal writing)

When I first started teaching I would have said “Well I teach Hamlet and Life of Pi in grade 12.” I would never say that now.

Well I might, but I wouldn’t mean it.

Look at the curriculum documents that form the foundation of what we teach in Ontario. There is nothing in the document that says “Thou shalt study the English Canon.” It also never says “Thou shalt study Shakespeare.” It does mention Shakespeare as an example, but that doesn’t mean a teacher is obligated to teach Shakespeare. Still I think you’d be hard-pressed to find an English teacher who says that (at least at the academic level) students should never study Shakespeare.

Over the years I’ve learned to rethink the way I approach my teaching and I’ve come to realize that there are multiple entry points for getting at the curriculum expectations. This is especially important when it comes to thinking about how we can provide more opportunities to include differentiated instruction and assessment. I think sometimes as English teachers, we get it in our heads that we MUST teach________, without stopping to ask ourselves why. What is it that text A allows us to get at that text B doesn’t?

In my ENG4U class, one of the core texts is Life of Pi. In the past, The Stone Angel has also been an option but both my colleague and I agreed that we prefer Life of Pi (our department head wants us to use the same texts, and we weren’t ready for literature circles yet). That being said, I’m not a big fan of Pi. To me it feels like a great concept for a short story. I’ll leave it at that. But I don’t need to love the book to use it to teach with. Now we’re talking about bringing in Three Day Road, The Stone Carvers, and Yann Martel’s new novel Beatrice and Virgil so that we can have literature circles and provide more choice. I think this is fabulous in so many ways (don’t get me started on my Joseph Boyden crush). josephboyden

My teaching partner is totally on board but initially we talked about the possibility of getting rid of Pi in the 4U course and she was very concerned because she felt that Pi allowed us to teach tolerance for world religions and appreciation of other cultures. Now I would argue, and I did, that Three Day Road certainly allows us to do the same thing. On the other hand, is that the right criteria to use when selecting texts?

I refuse to be some sort of authority on “literahtchah…” (say it out loud… again… there you go, see what I did there?), even though some may argue that that’s part of my job as an English teacher. And I don’t think I should force my students to adopt my taste in books. I think we should expose them to as many different texts (and TYPES OF TEXTS…. we’re getting there) as possible. So I think this is a step in the right direction. Expose the students to new ideas, give them some guidance,  and let them decide.