Most English teachers spend a lot of time trying to fit their students into a neat little box. They teach them formulas and structures. They tell them what to write and how to write it. They do all of this so that their students can be “literate”, so that their students can pass the OSSLT. And maybe, if we all cross our fingers, by the end of grade twelve they’ll be able to send an email.
It’s important that we don’t send our youth out into the real world unable to communicate with any degree of effectiveness. That is what high school English is for, not Shakespeare or Sophocles. But this method of education poses a huge problem: students aren’t being taught how to think.
I like to believe that the ultimate hope of all teachers is to eventually tear down the box they’ve constructed around students and let them play. They teach the formulas and structures so that one day students can make their own. Unfortunately it seems that most students never reach this point. They never see beyond the five-paragraph essay or word count and page limit.
The University of Toronto is finding that its students have trouble with critical thinking. They’ve sent out a letter to Toronto schools urging teachers to take a different approach with their teaching. Students have become so stuck in their neat little boxes that they can’t get out: every essay needs three points, every paragraph needs an introduction and a conclusion, every piece needs a thesis statement and that statement must be one sentence. Then these students get to university and they’re told that everything they were taught is wrong. Every rule they know was meant to be broken. They’re told to be original. They’re told to think. And they can’t because it’s always been forbidden.
It’s no wonder that we have issues with plagiarism: new ideas aren’t what it takes to earn a passing grade. All students have to be able to do is regurgitate other peoples’ thoughts into a prettily-formatted collection of paragraphs in double-spaced times new roman, or worse, comic sans with borders and fancy line breaks. Students shouldn’t be rewarded for making words that look good. They need to learn how to make words feel good.
Realistically, teachers may never be able to provide enough individual attention to suit every student’s specific needs. Students require feedback and attention and someone to push them to their fullest potentials. Some students need lots of guidance from the instructor, while others need to be thrown into the deep end and left to find a creative and brilliant way out. Of course it’s unfair to ask this much of a teacher who sees upwards of a hundred students in a day.
However, it is possible to provide different classes to support the differing needs of our students. At our school, ‘essential’, ‘applied’, and ‘academic’ English classes are all offered. It’s important that we make these distinctions. Their purpose is not to separate or alienate students based on their abilities, but to know what kind of box to build for them and how long to let them stay in its comfort.
The reality is that our students are entering post secondary education sorely under prepared. We’ve armed them with a basic understanding of the plotline of a few major classics and an assault of prepackaged outlines. But we’ve failed to let them in on a vital secret: that essays can be six paragraphs, too.