“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I’m shocked by the fact that some people question the legitimacy of teaching mostly fictional literature in the classroom. They may ask why bother having kids read fictional stories that aren’t even real just to learn basic literary strategies? Why not teach them the things that are important? That is where the teaching of nonfiction and informational texts come into play. Although, in my experience, teachers think they are enhancing the students’ critical thinking skills, but they are simply reinforcing facts and formulas into their minds. You would think practiced English educators would come together to discuss questions such as, “Is it our jobs to only teach students how to read and write critically?” and “Should teaching social issues be as important as teaching literature and informational texts in an English class?” The answer to the latter question would seem far from obvious and would call for a consensus. Yet I have not discussed these questions in school, professional development meetings, or even in the faculty lounge that are supposed to teach me how to become the consummate English educator.
The connection between literature and social issues is something we do not see in the classroom often. Are they as fundamentally separate as some may think, or do they converge at some point to provide for a useful education? Instead of incorporating social issues in our instruction, at times, we expect students to use their underdeveloped critical thinking skills to pull out these issues on their own, and we teachers gloss over what could progress into an essential life lesson.
At the beginning of this school year in my own sophomore World Literature and Composition English class, we participated in an activity that revealed our class does not value students being active and informed citizens in their society as one of the more important facets of learning English in the classroom. I would argue that students need a safe environment to express their ideas, and there is no better place to do that than our English classrooms.
Schools should teach social issues in the classroom, especially in conjunction with English. Throughout high school, students are asked to do some form of community service for college as well as just being an overall contributing members of their community. In order to be that, they must know about the world they are expected to contribute to. Teaching social issues is not always easy, but it can be done. It hinges on how we communicate our lessons to our students. Social issues are present in the books we read, in the movies we show to supplement our lessons, and the discussions derived from the research students discover outside of class. We can even pull social issues out of Romeo and Juliet. Of course, teachers can explain the beauty of Shakespeare’s language and ask students to be able to find the main idea of the play. We can also talk about teenage violence, the institution of marriage, or even suicide as it also pertains to the story of Romeo and Juliet. We could even bring in a pop culture reference of the rapper Logic and his Grammy-nominated song “1-800-273-8255” (The title is a reference to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline phone number). Teachers and administrators must open their eyes to what is screaming right in front of them.
Teaching social issues through debate is something that I believe to be very effective. Controversial issues are a fact of life, so why not include them in our classrooms through debate or other means? Most of these issues are complex, so teachers much ensure that students can argue both sides. The key to a democratic society is learning multiple perspectives. Students need to be given a glimpse of what the outside world is like so they can fully understand it.
It would be a lot easier to just let it go and save social justice for the students to learn on their own. We can choose to either ignore or acknowledge the issues we encounter on a daily basis. Teachers may be able to control the environment of their own classrooms, but not the world the students live in away from school grounds. Students will face certain social issues whether we talk about them or not. Social media has turned the pound sign on the keyboard into a powerful weapon of expression. Riots, protests, and indictments are televised or available with the click of a button.
This reminds me of an episode titled “Hope” from the television show Black-ish. The episode centers around the parents’ two young twins and how their parents and grandparents all address police brutality and other racial issues while watching the indictment of a police officer accused of excessive force on television. Also in the episode, one of the older children is reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ acclaimed book, Between the World and Me. It is written as a letter to Coates’ son about the realities he will face growing up as a black adolescent in the United States. In his book, Coates tells his son, “I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world” (108). Ta-Nehisi Coates reveals that not only does he want his son to form his own educated opinions of the world around him, but to also understand the harsh realities he lives in. Furthermore, just like Coates’ son, our students will not just see social issues being discussed, but they will live them as well. They may ask us how come they don’t see women represented in leadership roles, or how can you tell if you live a privileged life, or, in reference to Between the World and Me, can we be optimistic about racial equality?
With increased pressures on standardized testing, implementing the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and dealing with unfair budget cuts, it is almost impossible to be able to teach a book like Between the World and Me in the classroom despite Toni Morrison’s quote “This is required reading” plastered on the cover. Even with all of those pressures, teaching about social responsibilities is one of our jobs as English teachers, and is something more applicable than anything students will ever learn from test taking centered curricula.
Social issues are not only rooted in racial problems. There is a wide spectrum of problems and topics to discuss with students. They need to be taught empathy and understand the stories of people in multiple contexts. Only with the application of social issues in our lessons will students make real progress in their worldly education.
In order to address the issues students are faced with every day, teachers could incorporate a debate revolving around the literature they must teach in class. In my sophomore World Literature and Composition English class, we were required to teach Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. One way to teach social responsibility is to have students respond to a debatable topic within the context of the novel. For example, “Is it important for people to own up to their mistakes and be accountable for their actions no matter what?”It is preferable that both sides of the argument are debated. Assign half the class on the affirmative, and the other half on the negative. Every student will speak at least once with a short time limit. Students will “pop up” out of their seats to speak on the issue from their designated side. The debates need to be collaborative and not aim isolate students. The goal of this “Pop-Up debate” is to help expand the students’ worldly views and allow them to see different sides of an argument.
Of course, many people will probably disagree that teaching social issues in an English classroom should be just as important as teaching classic literature. Some may argue that, while social issues are important, it is more important to be taught the elements of literature so it may help with the students’ testing and professional success. Honestly, it is an effective strategy to help students learn how to analyze the author’s complex diction in Frankenstein because it will help them learn how to read and write critically. This approach has proven to help students become successful in their post-secondary careers for generations, so why fix what isn’t broken? Classic literature is embedded in human culture. Not only is it an assortment of captivating tales, but also a record of humanity. Most people’s experience in English class is being bombarded with grammar rules, vocabulary, writing papers, and critically reading nonfiction prose and literature. With most English curricula, teachers have to “teach to the test” and follow the CCSS. It is the reason why most of us teachers get sick of teaching the same lessons in the same monotonous fashion. Not only does reading these novels have no use in the real-world if taught in this way, but often lose the interest of the students. The use of literature would have a much more pragmatic use if it were taught by pulling out the social issues rooted in the texts every so often. The thematic elements of literature would make more sense if paired with a real‑world situation. I know I will be the first teacher to draw up a discussion on being a teenager and struggling with identity and sexuality while teaching a unit on The Catcher in the Rye. But teachers who do not want to dive too deep into controversy still have more placid topics to discuss. Overall, literature could thrive when taught with social issues.
It is our jobs as teachers to allow students a chance to look at the world around them and be educated on debatable contexts in order to form a sense of empathy. With that said, I do not refute the role of parents in teaching their children social responsibility. I feel that a student’s education is deeper when teachers and parents work together. Since students are at school the majority of their day and interact with teachers daily, introducing them to ideas they may not discuss at home should be a goal of every English educator. I acknowledge that societal and cultural awareness can, and should, be taught at home, however, teachers can validate and elucidate that awareness outside of the home. We can teach students to look at their community and address these issues with an open heart and an educated mind. That is our job, isn’t it?