Professors Amy Shoultz and Bonnie Sunstein on today’s English classrooms

Amy and BonnieIn honor of back to school time, we sat down with two experienced English teachers to find out what’s going on in the modern classroom. Bonnie Sunstein and Amy Shoultz are both English professors at the University of Iowa and both have years of experience teaching in classrooms. We talked to them on the phone about what’s new, what’s the same, and what Kate Turabian would think.

For those who haven’t been in a K–12 English class for a decade or more, what do you think they would find most surprising?

Amy: How little has changed!

Bonnie: There’s that story, if Rip van Winkle woke up right now the only thing he would recognize is a classroom. I love it because there is so much truth in it.

However, one unfortunate change is that there isn’t much writing going on. In the 1970s and 1980s, very important research into writing pedagogy resulted in lots of practice writing for students. We produced a lot of very confident writers during this time. But in the last ten years, since testing has taken over, there’s far less time spent on writing. So when students get to high school now they are not confident writers.

Amy: So much is said about how bad classrooms are, but I think you might be surprised at how much learning goes on and how committed the teachers are. When I walk into the high school where I teach every morning, I feel good about the future. I sometimes think the media doesn’t want us to feel good about the future, since the good work is not being broadcast. That’s not to say there aren’t problems that need to be addressed, but there are great things happening in classrooms every day.

Bonnie: One very positive change is that kids now, between their ability to text and tweet and communicate, are more text savvy than ever. They’re so willing to understand that there are different ways of looking at things. They are very willing to hold multiple perspectives, and that’s the essence of sophistication. There’s an intellectual sophistication that we didn’t used to see.

What kinds of books are being taught in these classes? Is there still an emphasis on classics or are more contemporary books being taught?

Amy: I think the Rip van Winkle applies here as well! But I do feel like the canon has expanded. You still see Shakespeare, The Great Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye, but you also see The Hunger Games taught alongside Lord of the Flies. There’s more young adult lit.  But the classics still anchor most of the classes.

I see teachers representing different voices in the classroom, with selections like Angels in America and Our America. I also think that since so much is available online, teachers are able to be a little more flexible and contemporary with their choices.

Bonnie: August 26 was my forty-sixth first-day of school as a teacher.  Add to that all my years as a student, I’ve had more than sixty. I have lived and taught and loved literature enough years now that some of the books that people wouldn’t teach when I was young are now considered classics. I grew up when Catcher in the Rye was a book that you read with a flashlight under the covers at your best friend’s house.

We’re sure many of our readers want to know: Are style and grammar still taught?

Bonnie: Our pre-service teachers always say they need a course on grammar. They’re highly polished writers, but they don’t know the names for various parts of speech. I tell them that any writing class is a grammar class and any reading class is a grammar class. It’s still being taught, but it’s perhaps being taught in context.

Amy: I think it’s being taught, but the traditional experience, like in my junior high experience, with a grammar book with exercises is much less prevalent.  If we broaden the definition of teaching grammar to include editing and revision, by the very nature of editing and revising you learn grammar. That’s how we teach it now.

It seems one of the most talked-about changes in schools across the country are the new Common Core State Standards. How are they affecting the teaching of reading and writing?

Bonnie: There is a lot of confusion about the Common Core State Standards. There’s nothing wrong with the standards; basically the standards are a nice list of what everybody should know. But the way they’re being implemented is raising concern with educators who worry they won’t be part of the decisions about implementing them. There are a lot of states in which legislators are trying to tie teacher performance to scores and tests. And that can be a problem.

Amy: For changes in the classroom, it depends on where you’re teaching. Some schools have already changed their curriculum to reflect the standards, while other schools haven’t implemented changes yet.

Bonnie: In terms of the impact on the teaching of reading and writing, I am concerned at what I see as a very literal interpretation of the standards. The standards don’t give us content directives—they really just outline basic strategies and concepts. They are being interpreted in very different ways across the country, and that will have an impact on the students.

Amy: The one good thing I’d like to see come out of this is more emphasis on writing in the curriculum. No Child Left Behind came at the cost of writing. Because of its focus on reading scores, English teachers felt pressure to focus exclusively on the teaching of reading. As a result, writing instruction has been fragmented to the point that it was no longer effective.

Bonnie: The Common Core State Standards come from a very democratic idea that everybody, no matter their family income, no matter what language spoken at home, no matter where they live, should be entitled to the same education. But every kid, every school has different issues. It’s unlikely that we will be able implement the standards and succeed across the board in the way that’s expected.

Tell us a little bit about the Turabian Student’s Guide to Writing College Papers and the Common Core Project. What are you trying to accomplish? Why bring together teachers for this?

Bonnie: The University of Chicago Press found that their Turabian Student’s Guide to Writing College Papers aligns well with the Common Core Standards. They asked us to help them envision a way that we could bring this book to a new audience of high school teachers and their students. We immediately decided that we needed a team of teachers to give us input on how the book could best be used in their classrooms. Amy and I have enormous faith in the power of smart creative teachers. We know they care about their students’ writing and are deeply committed to their craft.

So, we pulled together a cohort of high school teachers who are going to use the book in their classes this year. It’s mostly English classes, but we have some history and math teachers on board, too, as all subjects will cover research and writing under Common Core. They will use the book and will then report back on the experience, and if all goes well, we’ll have a new resource to help teachers implement the Standards in their classrooms, with the recommendations all coming from teachers themselves.

Do you think Kate Turabian would be surprised to see her work used in this way?

Bonnie: I don’t know if she would be surprised. I’m certain she understood how difficult it is for people to feel confident about writing and revision. For me the operant word is revision; that’s the key to teaching writing. Turabian’s Student’s Guide does a great job with that. And for that reason alone, I think she’d be thrilled.

Amy Shoultz is clinical associate professor of English education at the University of Iowa. She also teaches English at West High School in Iowa City. Bonnie Sunstein is professor of English and of education at the University of Iowa. She taught English in public schools for over twenty years. She is the author of FieldWorking: Reading and Writing Research; What Works: Designs for Teacher Inquiry; and Composing a Culture

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