Reflections on “How About We Actually Bring the Art of Language into Language Arts?” 

When I was in graduate school I had the great fortune to take a course with Dr. Rebecca Mlynarczyk that introduced to the world of composition and rhetoric and its longstanding political commitment to make college classrooms inclusive of the literacy practices of all students. It was my first opportunity to think about the art of language that would eventually inspire my recent blog post on calling for the bringing of the art of language into language arts.

I was so honored when Rebecca emailed me to share some free writing that she had done with her granddaughter in response to the post. I was so moved by the responses that I asked both of them if they would allow me to share their responses on my blog. They both graciously agreed. Together they powerfully show the damaging effects of traditional approaches to language arts and point to alternatives that truly embrace the art of language. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did!

Reflection on “How About We Actually Bring the Art of Language into Language Arts?” 

by Liberty Evans

When I went to a “real” school, ELA– the acronym for English Language Arts –was always unfortunately one of the least looked forward to classes. It was boring. We were taught a few basic formulas for persuasive essays, narratives, and informative pieces, and we were made to read books and “analyze” them chapter by chapter. A good thing to know how to do, perhaps, but it consisted mostly of kindergarten-level worksheets.

There never was any creative freedom in ELA class. It was just “do the work just so” and “use this formula or you will get a bad grade.” I have always liked writing and reading. I have written entire books for fun. ELA class was not about that. Honestly, I’m not sure what it was meant to teach us. It seems as though it– like many other parts of the education system still are –was developed back in the 1950s when all you needed to be able to do was follow rules and work in a factory.

In 6th grade, I took a creative writing course. It was actually what I would expect an ELA class should be like. We worked on one big project all year long, a book or poem or song, and we did a lot of free-writes and practiced coming up with creative stories. It was fun, and I learned a lot.

This past year, I have been homeschooled. My grandmother has been my English teacher. Each week, she asks me to complete a Reading Journal. I read a book section by section, write a summary for every few chapters, answer some questions that relate to the book, and come up with a topic to discuss when we meet via Zoom. Aside from that, I have also worked on a few essays– some of them about books we’ve read –and creative pieces. I think that we have achieved a good blend of traditional writing skills and techniques and creative exploration.

I wish that “real” schools would do the same. If they would level up the challenge, give us something to think about, to be interested in, I think a lot more kids would feel that ELA is not in fact a useless waste of time. (I also think that they should actually teach grammar formally, but that’s a different topic.)

–May 12, 2021

Reflection on “How About We Actually Bring the Art of Language into Language Arts?” 

by Rebecca Mlynarczyk

    Reading this blog post by Nelson Flores a few days ago, I found myself agreeing very much with what he was saying. We are all artists when it comes to speaking, reading, or writing in our native language, but schools, especially the earlier grades, tend to treat students like dummies who don’t know anything when they enter the classroom. They begin by teaching reading, not always in the most sensible way. Some students, like Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, actually have to pretend they don’t already know how to read so that their first-grade teacher can “teach” them.

            The same is true when it comes to writing. Teachers, and the all-important standardized tests, try to convince students that writing a good academic essay means following a strict formula ending with five boring, predictable paragraphs. Nothing creative or artistic is required to write a paper like this, but if you can do it without making a bunch of grammar or punctuation errors, you will probably get an okay grade or pass the standardized test.

            I didn’t think about this at the time, but as I was designing Liberty’s English curriculum for 7th grade, I did not want to reinforce these misguided ideas about what language is, what English class is. Fortunately, she began the year as an extremely mature reader and writer, so I didn’t have to worry about building her vocabulary or teaching her correct grammar, which is something I don’t believe can be taught directly. People acquire competence in language by actually using language. They increase their competence in language by using it more and more. So I assigned what I felt was a lot of reading and writing for someone in 7th grade.

            For me, one of the keys of teaching, and I think this also relates to putting the art back into language arts, is assigning reading and writing tasks that the student(s) will find engaging and meaningful. I started with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon  because I thought it would be a page turner, and it turned out to be for both of us. I followed that with some of my own favorite books, great books from different eras, but all relating to the topic of racial justice—something that has been on everyone’s mind since the police murder of George Floyd and other black people and the ensuing protests across the whole country. To Kill a Mockingbird,  Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of an American Slave, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  I hope Liberty found her work on these texts engaging. For me, rereading these works brought out a theme that Nelson highlights in his blog post—our shared humanity, whatever our social class or the color of our skin.

            In the second half of the year, knowing more about Liberty’s abilities and interests, I chose books that would give her a break from the often disturbing content we had encountered in the first half. It turned out by a serendipitous coincidence that most of these texts were fanciful and took place on remote islands and involved sailing, one of Liberty’s sports interests. My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, The Tempest by Shakespeare, and The Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin. I had never read anything by Gerald Durrell or Ursula Le Guin, and it had been years since I had read or seen The Tempest. This also turned out to be serendipitous because I learned that surprise and unexpected delight on the part of the teacher as well as the student can help to put the art back into language arts.

            I wanted Liberty to have a chance to practice different kinds of writing—freewriting, descriptive writing, regular analytic essays, personal essays, and, I suspect her own personal favorite, fantasy writing. I also encouraged her to include drawings for some of these assignments. Now, at year’s end, she is in the process of selecting some of this work to include in an end-of-year portfolio.

            Next year Liberty will return to “real school.” I hope she will look back on the work we did this year as work that encouraged her to see and use the art of language more than just another routine class in language arts. And I hope as she completes middle school and continues into high school, she will have more English classes that put the arts back into language arts.

–May 12, 2021

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