Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

High school English stifles creativity

Over the summer, I made myself a list of goals. One of those goals that I valued the most was that I would write a poem every single day.

Throughout my life, I’ve been interested in poetry. I’ve dabbled in it for years, without committing myself to a solid effort. This summer, I decided that I should get down to business and try to become a ‘serious writer.’ I did write a poem every day. Through thick and thin, I wrote roughly 120 of them. I was thrilled with some, unimpressed by others. It was a grueling process of self-discipline. But I still hesitated – I never felt as though I was working ‘hard enough’ and I was disappointed.

I asked myself why this was. I’d written a poem every single day – what did I have to be ashamed of? Sooner or later, after much speculation, I realized that I have high school to blame for my feelings of inadequacy. Throughout our lives, we accumulate literacy: from when our parents read to us in bed, to story time in kindergarten, to the first story we write, to the teachers we have to every single other context in which we experience words. These contexts shape us –they teach us how to read, write and interact with words. And many of these contexts impress ideologies onto us that are incredibly (and subconsciously) much stronger than others. The American public school system is one such context.

I think it’s fair to say that the American public school system is fairly oppressive, especially in high school English. In high school, students are handed a novel, usually one that is seemingly outdated and extremely boring. Teachers instruct their students to take notes on character, plot, vocabulary and surface-level themes. The teacher predetermines these themes. Are the deaths of Romeo and Juliet the product of fate or flaw? How does George and Lennie’s friendship affect the two men? How does Jean Valjean symbolize a Christ figure?

Students are never taught to read beyond themes such as these, and furthermore, they are never taught to formulate their own interpretations. Public high school sometimes place very little importance on original ideas, and students are conditioned to stop having them, knowing that they will be considered irrelevant or off topic.

Students are then required to write essays on the book they’ve read, focusing only on the central theme of the novel, of course, and regurgitating only the ideas of the teacher that have been impressed upon them in class. Besides forcing students to become formulaic and uncritical writers, this model of education focuses solely on acquisition. Teachers want to make sure that their students have comprehended their philosophies and can restate them. The essay is graded for content (content commanded by the teacher) and completion. The latter is perhaps even more important than the former.

In my experience, students lose far more points on the rubric for turning in a late paper than turning in a paper with misguided ideas. This emphasis on completion is stifling to students. It teaches students that only complete work can be deemed acceptable. The joke here is that writing is never complete. There is always something that can be improved, expanded or clarified. Of course, the fact that the content is purely a restating of the teacher’s usually shallow literary interpretations would nip any further drafting in the bud.

In “A warning to college profs from a high school teacher,” Washington Post writer Valerie Strauss describes the writing that is expected of high school students on Advanced Placement exams. That is, their writing is not considered at all – the response is graded according to whether the student wrote the correct answer. She says that, as a teacher, she struggled between teaching her students how to succeed on the exam and teaching them to be competent writers and thinkers.

She says, “I would like to believe that I prepared them to think more critically and to present cogent arguments, but I could not simultaneously prepare them to do well on that portion of the test and teach them to write in a fashion that would properly serve them at higher levels of education.”

She continues, “Further, the AP course required that a huge amount of content be covered, meaning that too much effort is spent on learning information and perhaps insufficient time on wrestling with the material at a deeper level.”

Teachers are needed for structure and guidance, but this should never translate into the policing of ideas. Students should be allowed to explore their writing. Even before exploring their writing, students should explore their own thoughts. Let students choose their own topics of conversation, push them to delve deeper into the themes they recognize, value their input and nurture their personal writing style. The emphasis should never be on a ‘final product,’ written according to strict and unbudging guidelines, stapled, turned in on time and evaluated accordingly.

This summer, my poetry did not meet these expectations. It had no purpose, no point, no due date, no criteria by which to be graded. How could my work then be evaluated, and thereby validated as something with integrity? I found myself questioning the legitimacy of my own efforts, terrified of the concept of uncompleted work that did not fit into a greater whole. I had no means of judging my work, because it did not conform to the standards that had been impressed upon me by public school for nearly a decade.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The way that high school English is being taught in the United States is stifling students’ creativity. It makes them self-conscious about having ideas, makes them unsure how to communicate them, makes them uncritical and uncommitted and, in general, makes them hate English. There needs to be major reconsideration of the way that public schools teach this subject. If students come to understand that success means regurgitating a teachers’ ideas and scoring well on a rubric, are these students truly learning?

Elise Martorano is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected].


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