English class is not what it used to be
Older readers will remember the days when early elementary public school English education consisted of reading Dick and Jane books. Then later, as one entered the upper grades, it consisted of diagramming sentences, doing long reports without using run-on sentences and spending a lot of time figuring out what the different words in a sentence were such as adverbs, adjectives, nouns, conjunctions, etc.
Then in the teen years it became about American literature, mostly written from an Anglo perspective.
That model for English education, or what is today called Language Arts, has changed considerably. Students still read, but it is coming earlier and earlier. Kindergarteners are now writing whole sentences. Learning the terms that describe words in sentences has become an active part of writing itself. And as for the literature, it has gone world-wide.
"In my generation the emphasis was all geared to learning to write to get a college degree," said Jim Thompson, Carbon School District's Language Arts Specialist. "While some things are the same, others are very different. Today students must learn to write differently to compete in the world of business. We are trying to create whole writers."
Thompson says that today's students educations are being geared toward technical writing.
Tailored for business
"What the business world wants is someone who can synthesize a lot of material, judge it and then present it clearly," stated Thompson, who teaches at Carbon High three days a week and works as the district specialist two days a week.
Writing today, even at the early grades, is about the relevancy of what is being done. The repetition of doing things in developing language skills is over. Students learn about sentence structure, types of words used and their operations through active writing, not through memorization.
"English basics are taught through the context in which they are used now," said Thompson. "They are not separate or apart from writing."
And when it comes to writing the world is filled with more information than ever. As knowledge increases exponentially, and delivery systems for that knowledge change (such as the advent of using the internet to find information rather than going to a library or other source) educators have decided the way students absorb what they are reading and what they write from that information much be much more discerning.
"The papers we have them writing now are argumentative papers, not persuasive papers as we have in the past," said Thompson. "Language Arts is a brand new baby."
In the past students were used to aggressively convincing a reader to take their side. This was persuasive writing. Argumentative writing puts the student in the place of developing both sides of an issue. In this type of writing students must explore more, find arguments and counter arguments to put in the paper. This kind of writing is about digging out facts and laying them all out. It is largely like a debate on paper, something good journalism schools have taught for years. Lay out the facts and let the readers decide.
"In this kind of writing students must take the responsibility to synthesize the material and figure out what is quality and what is not," stated Thompson.
The challenge teachers face is to convince students of the importance of going through all the information they have on a subject and using a variety of sources to make up their minds rather than set on one viewpoint that they may support or admire.
All this is set up to help students to think critically, whether they be five or 18. Over the years many in business and government have said that if students lack skills in one large area it is in the area of critical thinking.
"It is important for students to learn to draw conclusions on what is not said," stated Thompson. "This is no longer regurgetation of facts but knowing why something is the way it is. They are learning to not assume things, but to use facts to come to a conclusion."
Thompson compares looking at all the material available like cooking pasta. When cooking the pasta there is the pasta, water and other ingredients in the cooking process. But once the pasta is placed in a colander, the pasta is what's left. That would be the actual facts that would be used in writing.
When it comes to literature that students study, the change has also come in different points of view from around the world, not just from America.
"We are working to expose students to literature and poetry that are global in nature," said Thompson. "We have students reading literature from Africa, Asia and South America."
All these changes in how Language Arts is taught has been a challenge for everyone involved including the teachers. Thompson said that the concept that has been implemented of Professional Learning Groups (PLG) has helped in this respect a great deal.
"When I was a young teacher it was sink or swim," he said. "There was little help from other teachers or the master teachers in a school. Now with those groups having time to get together, the young teachers can learn from those with more experience."
PLG's are a concept that have been implemented by many school districts, utilizing aides to cover time in schools so teachers can learn from one another. It is a separate thing from the traditional planning time the teachers still have.
These concepts concerning Language Arts ties in with what other educators have been saying in this series of stories in the Sun Advocate about education changes in Carbon County. This is all is part of the Utah Core, and part of what is to be learned and what students will be tested on to measure their development and then to baseline their learning so more growth can be measured.
"Actually we still don't know what will be on the core test in Language Arts because this is all so new," said Thompson. "But we do know what needs to be taught."