Sunday, August 18, 2013

What Can We Teach?

What can we, as English teachers, teach? Should we teach basic reading and writing only? Seems to me we should get the majority of then funding then: two of the three R's of academics are English/Language Arts-based. No, my question is about more than curriculum. Like Plato's Meno, we need to know if things can be taught that are not on the curriculum. Specifically, can we help students learn to live healthy lives, inside and out?

In Thomas Foster's book How to Read Literature Like a Professor, the act of eating gets an entire chapter's worth of discussion. Seriously. For those who haven't read the book, the second chapter is entirely dedicated to eating, or what Foster calls acts of communion. Eating is everywhere in writing, but it is such an ordinary act that we sometimes forget to notice it. Eating is important. Not just its biological meaning, but its social, personal, and such meaning. Eating can be the gateway to health and energy or a gateway to self-destruction and lethargy. Eating is one of those things we take so for granted that we assume everyone knows how to do it. That is not true: it was not true for me, and it is apparently not true for our students today.

Peter Berg, a holistic mental health and empowerment coach for young people, recently published a fascinating article on recent trends in the health of our students. According to Berg's article, "Young people are in the midst of an unprecedented health crisis. For the first time young people have ailments that used to be limited to adults." These ailments include Type 2 Diabetes ("a disease normally seen in adults over 40") and "cases of nonalcoholic fatter liver disease." These ailments are just the ones tied to the rising number of obese children entering our classrooms everyday. Berg then points out the disappointing state of young people's minds. He cites the following infographic from Alyssa Celebre via Nomad Creatives:


But then Berg shifts gears. He pulls back on the sad state of affairs and declares that the work they do at is changing lives for the better. Berg says that "[he] empower[s] young people to take charge of their health and be the masters of their lives." The main way to do this is to "help young people know themselves. Giving young people time to reflect, think and be still is key in helping them getting to know themselves, what they need, and ultimately, what works for them." After reading that, I knew that we, as English teachers, have the perfect subject matter to help young people reflect and think about their own lives: literature.

I swear I am not saying this to justify the use of literature in an increasingly utilitarian world, but maybe there is something to that tension between the utility of school and the pleasure of exploring our human existence. I keep thinking back to the scenes in the cafeteria from 1984. I look into our cafeterias at school and I can almost imagine all of them dressed in shapeless overalls, skin turned gray by its estrangement from the sun. They sit and eat whatever it is they are fed (sometimes I am not sure it qualifies as food) and then return to sitting in their desks. I know we are supposed to serve "healthy" foods in school, but if your cafeteria is anything like mine, the students know how to circumvent our attempts to feed them well. Just the other day, back before the summer, I passed a student with no less than three big pieces of pepperoni pizza on his tray. Add in the chocolate milk and he had a meal. One solution is to limit the amounts and types of food, but then again I am an educator: I prefer to help people understand. And understanding health isn't so easy.

Just over a year ago, I was turning 29 and staring at 315 on the scale. At 6'6", I can carry 315 and make it look like less, but I was still unhealthy. My knees ached constantly. I was always tired. I didn't want to play with my sons because that meant moving around in crouched positions or walking to the park. Then, I read some stories in succession. I read "The Swimmer" by John Cheever and something started nibbling at my brain. I wondered if my lack of engagement with life now would result in Neddy Merrill's decrepit life when I got older. I read "The Destructors" by Graham Greene and the indomitable chaos of life came rushing in on me; the only thing I had worth maintaining was my own body, and I was trashing it. Then, I watched trainer Chris Powell on what is now called Extreme Weight Loss. I saw super obese people with more weight than I struggle and achieve great things in only a single year. So I decided I would try to do that same. I set out with a goal of being an even 200 by my 30th birthday. Long story short, I didn't make it all the way to 200, but I did reach 237. I lost what I lost because of reading some stories that I had read before, but had sudden relevance to me in a way I didn't expect. I learned to know and listen to myself so that I wouldn't miss out on my life right now. That is the power of fiction.

I committed to changing my life because of the themes of two short stories. If we give students time to think deeply about who they are in their lives right now and who they wish to be, grounded in the context of what we are reading in class, they will surprise us. Throughout my journey this year, my students knew what I was doing. They asked how I was doing after each phase of my plan. They asked what that stuff I was eating was and how it was made. They tried eating things outside the realm of pizza. They tried to balance their nutrients at meals. Some students even lost weight as a by product. My energy increased and I was able to be more on top of feedback and instruction. What can we teach? If we teach fiction with an exigent eye, students will follow our lead and, rather than learning to make a living, they might learn to make a life. And maybe, one day, they might even get to know themselves honestly and love themselves fully.


Candice Bremner said...

Thank you for these interesting points. I totally agree with you that we should be teaching our students how to live "right" using literature and, I believe, every possible opportunity we get. I believe that it is not just an option but actually an obligation, given that parents don't know how to do it. I delivered an assembly talk a while ago using the '50s show "Grease", the "morality" of which has always worried me. Our school performed it, but we cannot assume that our students take away the right message. Feedback told me that they understood well what I was attempting to teach them. If we, the (English) teachers don't tell them, who will?

Saara said...

I am very interested in the issue of curriculum and how (and why) teachers select readings for their classes. I have written a short survey about how high school teachers approach this. I would love some feedback. If you are willing to complete the survey, please email me at I will promptly email you the survey. Thanks!

Peter Berg said...

Daniel, interesting connections and I appreciate your reference to my article. I spent many years as a classroom teacher and often used literature as a way to encourage students to reflect upon themes and their place in the world. I had the privilege of teaching MS and HS students and was lucky to have spent most of each day with them in developing a humanities curriculum we looked at themes of courage, social justice and what our roles and responsibilities are or can be. It's interesting how issues of social justice are often tied with health especially when it comes to access and equity. It was interesting to read about your personal health journey and am glad you found the inspiration you needed. It's important for young people to have access to information that will help make the best choices so that they can take charge of their health in a real way it's about them empowering themselves. Literature is a great way for that to happen. I often have the young people I work with tell me about their favorite readings and have them read some excerpts that is geared towards their individual goals and needs. For me literature has been very important in my life I can honestly that Tolkien's works changed my life and yes there is a lot talk of food in his writings :) There is so much tied to eating and food and all them come together to impact our health. I enjoyed reading this post very much and look forward to more.

Kate Ware said...

A very interesting article!. I love that you are focusing your attention through the lens of food and healthy eating practices. I also think your concept for students of "learning by living" is brilliant. There are so many exceptional novels out there that are not part of the traditional teaching materials that have so many lessons and themes for students to connect with and grow from. If you can commit to changing your life because of themes from two short stories, imagine what teachers can do for their students by feeding them fresh, meaningful literature that is relevant to their daily lives.