Even in my short time in the classroom, I have watched cultural values work to stimulate or deaden young minds. In the instance of the latter, some gifted youth have fallen intellectually stagnant, choosing again and again the brief thrill of the text message over the complex ideas available to them in literature. And the result is crippling: instead of producing generations of aware and thoughtful individuals who actively seek clever solutions to universal problems, many schools turn out thousands of self-serving, intellectually immature teenagers. In order to graduate quality thinkers who work for the common good of society, schools must teach students to think beyond their own experiences and circumstances, empowering them through knowledge to empathize with others. Such consciousness should lead to action, and action to true fulfillment.
The ideal English teacher, then, should model both (re)active thinking and thoughtful (re)action. As an individual empowered by knowledge, the teacher can pass on his or her thirst for understanding to his or her students. As the Model Empathizer and the Teacher of Empathy, teachers can enable students to react to assigned reading by first being willing to act upon newfound knowledge themselves. Through language, literature and composition, teachers can enable students to (1) identify and understand problems and (2) generate and enact solutions to these problems. Students’ capacity to empathize, think critically, and communicate – all excellent skills for mediating conflict and resolving problems – will increase as their teacher pushes them to think outside the bounds of personal experience. Consider this example: a class reads Sold, a recent young adult novel about an uneducated Indian girl sold into sexual slavery by her stepfather. The teacher could first raise the students’ awareness of the problems in the world that have enabled the girl to become trafficked. Empathetic students will be intrinsically motivated to explore answers to this problem. The teacher may then create assignments that enable students to react to the text. Students may read newspaper articles about life in India. They might write a response to a specifically enlightening or moving chapter in the novel. Or, they might hold a Socratic seminar centered on arriving at a solution to the problem. By the close of the unit, some students may become a mouthpiece for the voiceless (if only among their peers). Others may decide to invest their time, talents and resources in local causes.
The goal of a high school language arts education should be to equip students to act in the world by reacting to literature. Rather than simply developing their reading and writing skills, what if students strove for a higher standard? Performing to a higher standard would require that students learn to critically examine the current state of our world and articulate the weaknesses they find in it. Just as they receive practice in analyzing literature, writing essays and identifying grammar, students could also receive practice in channeling ideas into actions. Ideally, a successful student could pair literary skills with problem solving skills, such as making informed decisions, developing creative solutions to problems, and acting upon knowledge about the lives of dissimilar people groups. The goal of schools should not be to merely develop junior literary critics, but to train students to be eager learners, reactors and empathizers.
A classroom environment conducive to accomplishing these goals is one whose physical space, daily routines, and social atmosphere promote cooperative learning and exploration of resources. Physically, the desks in the classroom would face each other (as opposed to the board), allowing students to see each other and foster a sense of community where opinions are heard and accepted. Daily routines would be aligned to expose students to current events, and to put quality sources of information in their hands. Discipline in the classroom would work toward the purpose of teaching students the value of respect for themselves, each other, and for the content. School curriculum would be supplemented with material from non-traditional subjects like anthropology, economics, sociology, political science, and psychology. To diminish the importance of reading and writing in the classroom would be erroneous – but these practical tools must be paired with a desire to think critically and empathize with others. If educators do not push their students to expand their thinking beyond their immediate circumstances and experiences, the problems of the world will perpetuate, and our students may squander their time, talents and energies on less worthy causes.