In a class of twenty with nine different majors all planning to be teachers, we talk about literacy. What does literacy mean in music? Math? History? We spend a semester exploring literacy–reading about academic literacy for English learners, and sociocultural understandings of disciplinary literacy (PDF), and about street fiction, or current events in their disciplines. Given this wide-ranging discussion that pushes my students’ understandings of literacy way past “reading and writing” and into questions of language and purpose in disciplinary contexts, why, oh, why, did two ELA preservice teachers land at centering their final text collections on The Great Gatsby and The Stranger? My text collection assignment asks for a set of texts around a topic that will appeal to a wide range of readers and that cover a wide range of genres. There is nothing that says “pick a novel” but that’s what both of them did.
When I have questions like these, and the students clearly did the actual task I set them to not just phoned it in, part of my process is to really ask myself: “What did I do–or not do–that led to this outcome?” My first answer, often, is related to history or tradition. The history of English as a high school discipline is wrought on the spines of novels. I can acknowledge that and wonder what else I could have done to help my students reframe their understanding of what it means to teach English.
In answering my second questions, I realized that I push all those other majors really hard to think about what literacy. The PE teachers need to learn to teach students how to read the lines on the field or court, and what it means to give directions to a gym full of students, half of whom are learning English as an additional language. The math teachers need to learn that reading numbers takes a particular skill, and using writing to explain computational processes is a powerful teaching tool. But, because the ELA teachers come in having some prep about literacy, I realized don’t focus as much on them. I don’t push them to rethink and reconsider like I push the other majors.
One of the students loved Camus and could talk at length about why The Stranger was so key for him as a 16-year-old. My job becomes, then, helping him see that it isn’t Camus, but the love of the book that is the important part. How can he set up his students to fall in love in love with a book they need to fall in love with? The book they need when they’re 16, not the book he needed when he was 16?
So next time I have English majors in my disciplinary literacy class, they’ll get pushed too. Pushed and stretched to rethink the place of a novel in the curriculum and consider where the novel fits and how to get the just-right novel into the hands of every kid.