‘Miss, what about….?’ ‘Miss, I think that…’ ‘Miss, are you sure…’
As a high school English student-teacher, these are questions I get almost every class. Kids who want me to explain myself more, need extra clarification on a certain point, or just downright disagree with what I just said. And I love it all because every question asked means there was a thought behind it (except of course, the age old ‘Can I go to the bathroom’, which generally has a pressuring bladder behind it).
When I was in high school, I thrived in English class. I had discovered a subject where I could pore over the stories I loved to read and then write about them and people would actually care what I said. Being the 5th child out of 8, even in the loving and inclusive family I grew up in, I often longed for my voice to stand out and be heard by itself, rather than in the context of my large family. And English class was, and still is, a place for me to do this.
However, throughout my 4 years of high school, never in a million billion years would I ever dream of questioning my teacher. I was blessed with fantastic English teachers all through high school but even when I would occasionally disagree over something…and would always keep quiet about it. The teacher was my school-parent, and just like I would never talk back to my parents at risk of punishment, I would never challenge a teacher.
So when I began teaching as a student teacher myself now, I was surprised more than anything when a couple students each class would question what I said or provide their own stance on the issue. But the more I thought about it, the more I loved that they felt comfortable enough with me to do so. And at the end of the day, isn’t questioning what English is all about? How can I stand at the front of the class and talk for half an hour then give out an assignment that basically just requires the students to repeat what I said and call that an English education?
English is about critical thinking, it’s about reading and interpreting and discussing and arguing over other people’s words, and then writing your own in response. It’s about learning to utilize communication skills to make your voice and your opinion known through a venue we all understand. It’s about questioning and it’s about thinking. And I think it’s a heck of a lot easier for us teachers when students obediently write down what we’ve said and call it gospel. But if there is no room for each student’s voice in your classroom then I would argue that it is not an English class.
Now I want to take a second to point out that there is a difference between questioning and confronting, and that difference is respect. A student needs to be able to show respect for their teacher’s authority in the classroom, but in turn the teacher should also show respect for the student and their right to a different opinion. It’s a balance that can be precarious at times, but necessary to truly build an English critical thinking education in a world that loves to produce thoughtless consumers.