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Editorial: Teaching Language Arts is Border Crossing

Leyton Schnellert

Leyton Schnellert is Co-Editor of Update and and a part-time Faculty Associate, Field Programs, Faculty of Education, SFU. leyton_schnellert@sfu.ca

Teaching is political and personal; individual and relational; responsive and bureaucratic. Perhaps we, as English Language Arts Teachers, are better prepared to live and understand these dichotomies than other teaching disciplines, for we specialize in multiple interpretations, suss out unreliable narratives, and use context to guide our meaning making (versus an arbitrary set of rules). True, our field was once bound by “correct answers” and “standard interpretations” (and, to be honest, reducing a student’s writing to a mark out of “4” still smacks of a certain essentialism); however we have moved beyond that era (often called formalism and New Criticism for those of you keeping track).

The recent passing of Louise Rosenblatt reminded me of the ways she helped us to rethink single interpretations through Reader Response Theory. Rosenblatt called us to mine students’ interpretations and meaning-making processes, and an era of English Language Arts as exploration was born. But where do we head next? As a new IRP is drafted (a committee on which I sit), and English departments weed through their bookrooms, shouldn’t we ask ourselves what English Language Arts are (and mean) in an era of googling, globalization and knowledge production?

So what do we know about teaching and learning in 2006? Colleagues from across your district and the province are wondering the same things.
What exactly is it that we do? We ask students to:

  • question,
  • interpret from several perspectives
  • prove their case while taking into account all that they dismiss, and
  • create new concepts.

To be a member of today ‘s information age students and teachers need to become anthropologists, sociologists, historians and cultural critics. Students need to marshal evidence to prove their case. To teach and learn in 2006 requires teachers and students to challenge what we do based on what a situation requires of us, and to determine a position or course of action through a process of analysis and critique. To teach today is to cross boundaries and disciplines. We look for artifacts that hold special meaning, take field notes, look at how what we do impacts students and, in the end, strive at all costs to make ourselves obsolete. We want our students to develop agency: to deal with situations with increasing creativity and independence.
Now, where to start? Take an old unit and put a new twist on it, rework your year with a few big ideas to guide you, decide to let go of something that’s not working to make room for an approach that intrigues you. Let BCTELA help. As part of our mandate, BCTELA works to support members’ professional development through Update and our annual Fall conference. Nicole and Dauvery have assembled a conference program (building from Fall 2005’s thoughtful, creative program that was cancelled due to job action) that is a powerful mix of cutting edge ideas, interactive problem-solving opportunities, and fuel for student-centered practice. As professionals we are constantly challenging ourselves to keep up to date. As individuals we want to engage in personalized inquiries into practice, but when do we slow down long enough to reflect on, question, and transform what we do in light of what we’ve learned? We can only move forward as we make sense of what we do in light of what we might do.

Weaving current events, multicultural literature, and philosophy into our courses is an ever-evolving process. If only there was a formula (or a magic spigot)! As Krista writes in her article, Professional Development from the Inside Out, forming and taking part in a professional partnership or study group can help us make a personal commitment to try something new.

Ethnographic poetry? Fascinated by role drama? Intrigued by differentiation? Fan fiction? Find a group of colleagues who can bring their own perspectives and insights to a new practice. Working together presents multiple possibilities and creates momentum.

Let this Fall’s conference jump-start your year. Cross the arbitrary borders of school districts and find out how others teach for critical thinking. Come make theory-practice connections with Jill McClay, Carl Leggo and Kathleen Gregory. Together we are better.

See you in October!

Leyton

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