Originally published December 2023
By Donna Del Moro
As a recently-retired teacher, looking back on my years in the high school English/Language Arts classroom, it’s clear that much has changed over the past few decades. I believe that to succeed in the ELA classrooms of today, teachers must possess the ability to go way beyond subject area knowledge. We are the starring roles in a drama that requires us to combine detective, math, and entertainment skills on a consistent basis.
First comes the detective work. I once assigned a paper on the omniscient narrator in The Scarlet Letter, requiring students to examine the narrator’s commentary throughout the novel. A paper arrived via email, Google Classroom, or some other learning management system. It was filled with beautifully written sentences, concise syntax, and a thorough analysis. But suspicions arose because some of these words sounded familiar, and Student X had never written an essay even remotely resembling this one.
Those words appeared to be stolen goods; I donned a fedora and a trench coat and the sleuthing began. A simple Internet search uncovered plagiarism, as did district-purchased software. The source may have been an online summary site like SparkNotes, or the student might have handed in their sibling’s paper on the same topic from two years prior. Of even greater concern, it could be that they figured out a way to use any of the Artificial Intelligence platforms out there, and the entire paper was written for them for free.
Or perhaps the student had simply reached back into their old-school homework-sharing habits and just copied another student’s paper or parts thereof. And so, this teacher-turned-detective lit a cigar, and, should this last circumstance be the case, called one student in at a time (careful not to allow them to get their stories straight), turned on an overhead light, and grilled the suspect(s) for answers.
As if sharpening our detective skills isn’t enough of a challenge, ELA teachers must also serve as mathematicians. Now, along with grading 100 papers two to three times per marking period, we have to keep track of students’ growth using data, numbers, projections, and percentages—all enough to make any literature-loving teacher’s head spin.
These requirements—relatively new in the scheme of things—take an incredible amount of time throughout the school year. This necessary evil brought on by the Common Core, statewide assessments, or simply the whim of state politicians, has dramatically changed English departments across the country.
Any teacher, regardless of the subject matter or the age of the students before them, must keep those students engaged. This requires a certain amount of entertainment savvy, and with all of today’s distractions, is no easy task.
Nevertheless, it was the part of my job that I used to live for. I liked to see the kids’ eyes light up rather than roll back in their heads; I liked when their hands shot up with an insightful question rather than asking to go the restroom; I liked when I could tell them that Hamlet, Macbeth, Holden, Hester, and Scout were not much different from them or the student sitting next to them.
We teachers bend over backwards to make literature written, in some cases, hundreds of years ago, seem like something new and exciting. We reel the kids in and we keep it light, offering up jokes that they don’t always get. We use music, film, video clips, and sound bites. Some of my colleagues used to sing songs for memorization purposes; the only thing missing was a quick tap or breakdance.
I myself used to divide our 55-minute periods into 10-minute segments of learning, which is about as long as a teenager’s attention span can last. There was a “Do Now” that focused on grammar, while I conducted a fast homework check. There was a pair and share question posed from the literature we had read, then a brief quiz (online of course, provided the computer was functioning properly, the network had not gone down, and Jupiter aligned with Mars).
I had students sketch to stretch their imaginations as I read parts of Beowulf to them. Sometimes students dressed as a stereotypical 21st century lawyer, doctor, musician, or author attending a pilgrimage to Times Square on New Year’s Eve, channeling their inner Chaucer.
If I ended any of this even two minutes prior to the bell ringing, chaos ensued. Bodies crammed in the doorway dying to get out; no one hung around asking to discuss the reasons why Holden is so depressed or why Hamlet can’t get off the dime to avenge his father’s death.
With that, the day’s set was finished, and I could retreat backstage for a quick cup of coffee or a bite of sandwich (if I was lucky) while I waited for the next audience to enter the room. But most likely, there were just four minutes in between blocks so my intermission had its limits.
Where Does That Leave Us?
A recent op-ed piece in the New York Times seemed to suggest that English teachers are to blame for the downward trend in the number of those majoring in English nationwide. The writer questioned an ELA teacher’s assignment that required students to annotate a novel, which is, quite frankly, one of the few ways to ensure a student is actually reading and engaging with the book. The writer called this tedious and a turn-off for students.
The piece also levied criticism on the more contemporary works that have crept into the ELA curriculum across the country, including The Perks of Being a Wallflower. (As a means of showing students that most contemporary works are derivative of those that came before them, ELA teachers encourage outside reading that can foster more lively discussion and serve as a basis for comparison.)
To make matters worse, the growing movement to ban books across the country only adds to the stress level of any ELA classroom teacher. Will they be able to continue teaching the books that they deem classics, sprinkled with some contemporary literature to keep things fresh? Will they be able to encourage students to read outside of class by using the school’s media centre or the local library? The answers remain elusive.
So, as ELA teachers grapple with their multidimensional personality requirements, they continue to assign the reading, the note-taking, and the papers. They continue to encourage collaborative learning. And, most importantly, they continue working tirelessly to instill in their students the same love of the written word that they possess—all the while trying to balance sleuthing, calculating, and performing to get the job done!
Donna Del Moro is a freelance writer covering education, arts, entertainment, and politics. She resides in New Jersey where she taught high school English for the bulk of her career.