Let me get this out of the way – I don’t hate English. I recognize that language distinguishes us, as human beings, from other life forms. We are powerful because we possess the ability to not only formulate our own thoughts, but also exchange ideas with the people around us.
My displeasure is directed strictly towards my high school English classes. While they introduced me to some fascinating works of literature, these courses failed to capture the true essence of language arts. Many of the activities that we completed felt synthetic and forced. It often felt as though our teachers were conducting a testable experiment instead of promoting real learning. Here are five things I don’t miss:
- Shakespeare Read-Along Sessions
Shakespeare’s works were always meant to be performed on stage, rather than read from a book. My high school teachers took this far too literally by asking individual students to act out scenes in class. Often, we would stumble upon many of the foreign phrases, and we would struggle to follow the iambic pentameter. These sessions ultimately did not help students to understand the material. Thank goodness for SparkNotes.
- Vocabulary Quizzes
After completing our assigned novel studies, we would often be tested on unique words that were present in the readings. The goal was to expand each student’s vocabulary; however, our quizzes were usually full of arcane terms that had no value outside of their given context. In the end, these assessments turned out to be mere exercises in brute force memorization.
- Book Reports
Most fiction authors intend for their books to be enjoyed as holistic works. Yet, in order to satisfy the specifications of our book reports, we were required to dissect our chosen novels with scientific precision. By the time that we completed our character profiles and plot analyses, these works appeared to be more mechanical than creative. In many ways, our book reports were too concerned with the minutiae of our stories, and distracted from the broader themes at hand.
- In-Class Essays
My classmates and I used to dread in-class assignments. Many of us in the so-called “gifted” program considered ourselves to be perfectionists, and we never felt that an hour was enough time to piece together a polished work. Indeed, writing is supposed to be an iterative exercise; even the most experienced writers need to edit and proofread their work. We believed that our time constraints imposed an unjustified barrier on our creative processes.
- Cheesy Re-Enactments
In an effort to bring modern technology into the classroom, our English teachers often assigned us filmmaking projects. These involved adapting written works into visual productions. Unfortunately, we only had access to low-quality equipment, and few of us could skillfully apply special effects. As a result, our films were usually shaky, blurry, and cheesy. These projects ended up having more comedic value than educational value.
Overall, I felt that the quality of my high school English experience was compromised by a lack of meaningful activities. From my perspective, a proper language arts curriculum should emphasize practical techniques for producing original content. English encompasses much more than just literary analysis, and I regret that my high school English courses neglected to capture the true power of language.
To be fair, I did enjoy certain aspects of these classes. I have always loved to read, so I was fascinated by the diversity of the content that we were exposed to. Shakespeare’s works, in particular, broadened my historical perspective towards the evolution of theatrical arts. Some of his lines were extremely powerful; I will always remember Macbeth’s tragic soliloquy:
“To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.” (Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5)
Now that I am in university, I have much more freedom to explore language arts on my own terms. I try to read for pleasure during my spare time, in order to expand my horizons. Personally, I enjoy reading non-fiction books, because they allow me to make meaningful connections between my personal life and broader societal issues. One of the books I recently finished reading was Elon Musk’s biography, which opened my eyes towards the sources of his passion for innovation.
Looking ahead, I am genuinely excited to engage in a variety of activities as part of ENGL 119. This course has challenged my notions of what an English class can be about, since there is a great emphasis on the application of language skills. Having already explored a variety of genres, I am starting to realize that communication is more systematic and less intimidating than I had initially thought. Over the next few weeks, I will continue to approach the tools and techniques presented in this course with an open mind.