But as we were leaving, a small debate crept into the conversation: from where does the "teaching" come? The standards? The texts? The activities?
It's the age-old debate of "why do we teach Animal Farm?" or "why do we have to read Macbeth?" Every English teacher over the past dozen decades has likely had to address this issue at some point or another. While this complaint is usually the result of a bored student, it does lead to an interesting point: where does the content come from in an English class? I see two ways of approaching it: you can teach the content for it's own sake (because it's quality stuff everyone should be exposed to) and design activities to help absorb and understand the novels/stories/poems...or you can use the novel as lettuce. By this, I mean the novel isn't really important at all, but serves as a vehicle for delivering the actual flavor (the skills and tasks) to the students. In these cases, we might not care that students read and understand Macbeth, so much as we're caring that they read and understand anything. It's not that we want papers on Animal Farm, we just want papers because papers are the products of good writers. It's a worthy debate, and one which I go back and forth on all the time. There's lots of great books out there which, I would argue, need to be taught. On the other hand, it only takes a few moments to explain the plot of Beowulf. English should be about what you do after that.
But for some, the "stuff worth teaching" comes not from the novel or the activities at all...but from the standards themselves. And it is this that leads to an even deeper question: just what the heck are "standards". For those unfamiliar, PA (and all states) have lists and lists of standards which all students must be able to meet by certain grade levels. For English and Language Arts, there's several dozen standards which students must/should be able to master by 11th and 12th grade. Standards are often words as "students will..." or "students will be able to..." statements which delineate just what students will be able to do following class. It seems a really simple concept at first...but the more I thought about it yesterday, the more confused I got. Are these "standards" meant to be a divine source content...or are they simply labels for validating our activities or our novels? Are we supposed to read the standards and then design projects to appease them, or are we supposed to create activities and double-check them to make sure they're authorized content?
Some may not think the debate matters...and perhaps it doesn't. In many cases it's likely that the same conclusion will be reached no matter which direction they chose to approach it. But in some ways, I feel the answer is very important. As a teacher, I think there's still so some value in declaring activities, projects, tasks,and products valid in their own right. I don't come to work, nor do I lose sleep over whether or not students have demonstrated mastery over all the standards...but I'll be concerned if they can't write a paper, give a speech, construct their own research project, or craft a video. Teaching is about giving students the ability to do certain things...not just check off a list. The more I hear about the standards, the more I have to wonder whether it's our job to revalidate our tasks, our content, and our experiences. In the world, there won't be standards and labels anymore; you'll simply need to be able to do or do not. The quantification of content out of the novels and tasks and into the labels given The Labels the keys to the kingdom.