The Secondary Section is the heart of NCTE, and being asked to speak to the group at this year’s Annual Convention is an honor. The founders of NCTE, the people who gathered in Chicago in December 1911, came specifically to that meeting to talk about the control of the high school curriculum, and their passion fueled the founding of the organization. Thus, the Secondary Section was the aegis of NCTE, has been central to NCTE ever since, and whoever talks to the group needs to bring their best thinking.
But what to say that could be helpful, important, or even significant when there are so many competing concerns about education and about English teaching? There is no shortage of topics and never a shortage of dire concerns.
Just this past month is totally typical. On Sunday, September 11, 2016, the Washington Post reviewed Nicholson Baker’s new book Substitute about his recent short stint in the schools (no surprise; he found it “grinding” and filled with worksheets and routine). The Post also featured a 50-state analysis of funding for education vs. corrections (the news, again, is just what you would expect—in most states prison funding, with few exceptions, trumps school funding by huge margins).
And on that same day, the September 11 New York Times Magazine’s feature was High School, USA—four articles on schools in New York, California, Idaho, and the challenges of discipline (it’s complicated), refugee students (fitting in is a struggle), and students who are dealing with issues of sexual identity (no, this is not a great time for non-straight students).
At least we know we are relevant—there’s no lack of interest in what we do in the schools, and no lack of ideas as to how to make it better.
So, as I mull over my talk to the Secondary Section, the voices in my head today are more than just a little raucous. What are the choices and the questions? There are many:
- the degeneration of civil public discourse and how this current election has engendered a remarkable increase in language slime—linguistic bullying, name calling, and personal attacks
- the exploding and incremental increase in the power of unfiltered, often uncritical, social media
- the national crisis in student debt and the future of college attendance
- the persistent and widely ignored role of poverty in student academic achievement (don’t bother giving me your scores; just tell me your zip code).
For us in secondary English, there are also other questions of deep concern:
- the perennial failure to acknowledge and use the expertise of the classroom teacher
- the implosion of the Common Core
- the dispiriting resistance to reimagining the high school
- the heartening—but by no means clearly permanent—de-emphasis on standardized testing
- the precipitous decline in the numbers of undergraduate English majors in college and doctoral students in English education.
Whatever I choose, perhaps the only encouraging point is that education is as relevant and central to the discourse of our marketplace as ever. Issues of secondary teaching and secondary English teaching are not on the sidelines. The passion that ignited our founders 105 years ago can still be felt by those both in and outside the classroom—we want to do it better, we want to do it right. The problem is, as always: what path (among dozens) to take? What topics (among thousands) to choose?
Stay tuned—more later.
Leila Christenbury is Commonwealth Professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond. She is the recipient of NCTE’s Distinguished Service Award, a past president of NCTE, and a former editor of English Journal.