Sunday, June 30, 2019

Teaching English in an anti-democratic culture

Two days ago I led a workshop for teachers on "Making Ethics part of High School and Middle School English Class" at the Bread Loaf School of English in Vermont, as I've done every summer since 2012. (A post about last year's workshop, with links to earlier posts, is here.)

We began from the perception held by the teacher-participants that many of our leaders do not demonstrate democratic values. Not surprisingly, the anti-democratic characteristics that are so prominent in our political culture are showing up in the classroom as self-centeredness, lack of respect for others and intolerance of differences. The teachers believe that our political culture intensifies the self-centeredness that is part of human nature and normal development.

The teachers discussed a wide array of classroom approaches they use to encourage democratic values in their students. These included:

As someone who has never taught at the pre-college level, all of these techniques made sense to me, much as many of the different "schools" of psychotherapy make sense. I believe they share the aim that a participant called "metacognition" - the capacity to step back from our own initial thoughts and emotions to take a wider view of the situation we are engaged with.

Another participant urged teachers to "return to our lofty purpose" of drawing students into the magical world of words - literature and writing - as both a primary aim and as a path towards strengthening democratic values.

The teacher-participants unanimously agreed that literature and writing promote the democratic orientation that American schools seek to strengthen.  Well chosen texts act both as "mirrors" (helping students sharpen their own sense of identity) and "windows"(fostering understanding of others). And learning to write well teaches us to step back from our original thoughts and words to see whether we can back up what we're saying and whether we're saying it in a way our readers will understand.

Over the many years I've spent at the Bread Loaf School of English I've learned from the teachers who are students in the program that the primary objectives they have for their students are to (1) increase skill and engagement with literature and writing and (2) promote development of democratic attitudes, altruism and concern for social justice. 

At its heart, teaching, like medicine, is a calling. Supporting education for all should be one of our first goals as citizens. It's a privilege to be able to work with dedicated teachers like the group I worked with on Friday.