Recently, I was teaching in a high school, and a directive came down from our administrators that final exams were to be graded on a curve. In a meeting with the other English teachers in my department, I found that none had learned in their teacher prep programs how to do the fairly simple calculation necessary to standardize test scores (to express them as standard deviations from the mean), so I taught them how to do that. That calculation is something useful (and illuminating) to learn in a teacher prep program. Even more important to learn are the ways in which such calculation fails–its inherent biases and limitations. For example, if a test is relatively easy, then using Z scores can unfairly punish students whose scores really don’t vary much from those of their classmates. And, of course, though there are common guidelines for setting cut marks based on standard scores, these are often set arbitrarily. Sometimes, they even should be.
This experience got me to thinking about what future English teachers should learn in a teacher certification program. Thus this post.
Most important is the content that future English teachers learn in their English classes. That should be primary. Note that this list is not intended to be comprehensive but suggestive of what might be included in a high-quality program. Some items on this list might be taught not by ed school profs but, rather, by subject-matter experts in other departments. Better yet, it might be team-taught by an ed prof and by that subject-matter expert. Some of the stuff on this list is intended as inoculation against GERM–the over-the-top, pseudoscientific claims of the assessment-crazed leaders of the Global Education Reform Movement.
First and foremost, future English teachers should develop a wide-ranging familiarity with classic literature (with the canons of American, British, and world literatures), with YA literature, and with the common structures and archetypes of folk orature–nursery rhymes, charms, songs, legends, tall tales, myths, folk tales, fairy tales, and so on. The future English teacher should be widely versed in all three and in the Stith Thompson Motif-Index of Folk-Literature and the Aarne/Thompson/Uther Tale Types Index. In addition, the following are all, I think, important for the future English teacher to learn:
- Approaches to literary works/critical approaches (agonistic criticism, anti-interpretive criticism, archetypal criticism, author’s intention, biographical criticism, colonial and post-colonial studies, deconstruction, didactic criticism, Euhemerism, evolutionary criticism, feminist criticism, formalism, Freudian criticism, the hermeneutic circle, historicism, interpretive communities, intertexual analysis, Marxist criticism, mimetic criticism, New Criticism, New Historicism, paradigmatic analysis, philological criticism, reader-response criticism, structuralism, syntagmatic analysis, textual criticism). For brief descriptions of these, go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/2019/03/24/approaches-to-literary-criticism/
- Formal characteristics of/blueprints for writing in various genres, and employing traditional literary motifs and archetypes, with emphasis upon operational specification of writing based on these characteristics (e.g., here are the characteristics and elements of a fable or a press release so you can write one yourself; here are a bunch of classic hero’s journey stories, and after you’ve familiarized yourself with these, write one yourself)
- Phonics (in a course on phonology) and morphology
- Rhetorical techniques, tropes, and appeals (to ethos, logos, and pathos)
- Logical fallacies
- The elements of speech (pitch and intonation, stress, length, rhythm, pace, volume, timbre, articulation, enunciation, diction, respiration, facial expression, eye contact, gesture, stance, posture, proximity, heightening, expectation, pauses, movement, register, dialect, appearance, kairos/rhetorical context, paralinguistic vocalization, body language)
- Common documentation formats (MLA, APA, Chicago) and stylebooks; proper manuscript form for academic writing
- How to use standard proofreading and editorial symbols to mark a manuscript. NB: The methods for substantive editing and proofreading are different. Both should be learned.
- Methods, types, and limitations of educational measurement (summative, diagnostic, and formative assessment; criterion-referenced versus norm-referenced assessment)
- Basic educational statistics, with an emphasis on techniques for statistical analysis of educational attainment and, importantly, skeptical analysis of claims regarding educational data
- The cognitive psychology of motivation; theories of psychosocial and moral development; child physical, psychosocial, moral, and cognitive development; the CANOE/OCEAN model of personality; Haidt’s moral foundations theory; instruction in sensitivity to and respect for cultural variation in language use and modes of thought; instruction in variations in human cognitive style and common learning disabilities
- Heuristics for writing exam questions of various types
- Portfolio and rubrics methods for grading student writing
- Elementary transformational/generative syntax and the cognitive psychology of language acquisition, with emphasis on how people acquire vocabulary and syntactic competence
- Methods and, importantly, limitations of readability analysis, use of word frequency lists from language corpora
- A toolkit of pedagogical approaches and thinking techniques (advanced organizer techniques and concept mapping using graphic organizers such as comparison-contrast charts, story maps, flow charts, fishbone diagrams, SIPOC charts, sentence diagrams, tree diagrams, Venn diagrams, lists, etc; counterfactual critique; heuristics for collaborative project work; methods of critiquing traditional binary structural categories; dialectical analysis; methods of definition, including ostensive definition, definition by synonym or antonym, definition by genesis or etiology, operational definition in terms of a set of actions or behaviors; essentialist analysis/Aristotelian categorization; nonessentialist alternatives to Aristotelian categorization (see this: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/2014/02/22/prototypes-versus-aristotelian-categories-in-the-teaching-of-writing/); thought experiments; types of inference (deductive, inductive, abductive); heuristics for nonalgorithmic problem solving, such as making lists, creating models or pictures, working backward, solving a simpler but related problem, means-ends analysis, trial and error, reductio ad absurdum; practical techniques for analysis; hypothetico-deductive method and falsification; mnemotics such as acronyms and the method of loci; programmed learning technique; the Socratic Method; the gradual release approach to lesson design—modeling, guided practice, independent practice; spiraling; stages of learning—instruction, rehearsal, and transfer)
- History of education
- Teaching, the law, and the regulatory environment
- Heuristics for classroom management
- Educational sociology, politics, and economics
- Sentence-combining and mapping techniques
- Techniques for note-taking
- Components of print and online educational materials and methods for evaluating and critiquing these
I think that a future English teacher with a decent command of the material above would be well-positioned to start learning the job.
But let me emphasize again that a primary requirement of a future English teacher should be that he or she has acquired a great deal of CONTENT KNOWLEDGE–knowledge of literature, grammar, usage, mechanics, literature, theatre, rhetoric, media, literature, more literature, even more literature, etc.–and has demonstrated competence in speech and writing.
And, ofc, all future teachers need lots of experience with mentored practice teaching.
Here are what I believe should be the key takeaways from any English teacher prep program (in addition to knowledge of literature and syntax and the structural characteristics of a wide variety of kinds of writing). Any future English teacher should have an understanding of
- the difference between descriptive and procedural knowledge, between knowledge of what and knowledge of how (NB: Use of the word skills should be forever banned from EdSpeak. The term leads to insane levels of vagueness and puffery.)
- the difference between acquisition (largely unconscious and automatic processes) and learning (largely conscious and directed processes) and ways to systematize and accelerate acquisition, consistent with how the brain is organized to carry out acquisition of different kinds, and, in particular, of vocabulary and syntax
- the relative pedagogical value of diagnostic and formative assessment and lack of value of summative assessment
- the usefulness of operationalizing instruction on concepts (turning them into concrete operations that can be carried out)
- the importance of world knowledge and of syntactic competence and fluency to reading comprehension
- the following facts about motivation: a) that extrinsic punishment and reward are DEMOTIVATING for cognitive tasks and b) that our goal must be to develop intrinsic motivation that will produce self-directed, life-long learners.
I know that this sounds like a lot. But it’s what the job actually requires, I think. And, of course, the pay of English teachers needs to be commensurate with these expectations of would-be teachers. This is serious business, like studying nursing or cardiology, and it needs to be treated with seriousness.
Copyright 2019. All rights reserved. This piece can be freely copied and distributed as long as this copyright notice is retained.
For more pieces by Bob Shepherd on the teaching of literature and writing, go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/teaching-literature-and-writing/.
For more pieces by Bob Shepherd on Education “Reform,” go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/ed-reform/