“Literacy across the curriculum” is a term that I have heard about for a couple of years now. A few friends who are teachers are plagued by it, (right or wrong, they are frustrated that they have to take responsibility for literacy when it is not specific to their discipline), administrators that I have encountered during observations, while excited and supportive of the idea, seem bamboozled by it, and for some reason, ELA teachers that I have encountered seem resistant to it. (I have psychoanalyzed this resistance, perhaps in error, as a result of fear that the English discipline is somehow being threatened by calls for a change in focus from obsessing about traditional things like the structure of the short story or the rhyme scheme of a sonnet, to a focus on nonfiction texts, media studies, critical thinking, and multi-literacies).
When I first began studying education, I had a professor who asked one of our classes what it is that we do as ELA teachers; she wanted to know what our purpose as educators was. The class was tentative giving their responses, if they even attempted to give any at all, and had a great deal of difficulty answering such an abstract yet utterly germane question. The truth was that no short answer would suffice; there was no correct response. It was a situation of: “I’m not telling you, I’m asking you”. The semester unfolded as an introspective hell examining what we currently teach, what we should be teaching, and the deeper rationale to both of those questions. It was shaky ground for veterans and newbies alike.
The solution that we arrived at, if there could be any verifiable conclusion at all, was that there is a difference that is being cast in ever sharper contrast between being and English teacher and being an English Language Arts teacher. (This is a conclusion that I have come to not just as a result of that one class, but in the entirety of the time that I have spent in graduate studies. Others may have reached a far different solution or teaching philosophy, and they are welcome to it). Basically, what it comes down to is the more traditional style of teaching English seems to be more about transmission; transmission of dogma (the tyranny of the canon), enculturation in what often is a literary tradition that has little relevance to students’ lives (and punishes or condescends to any perceived aversion to its splendor), and an often snide derision for writing that does not conform to those perceptions, (specifically graphic novels, most film, and other visual innovations used to communicate ideology). Thinking of pedagogy as ELA, on the other hand, seems to be much more broadly based in its approach and embraces the very things that the English teacher derides.
Now, there needs to be a moment of pause here. A breath needs to be taken before we assume that we need to trash everything that the previous generation of English teachers took such pain in championing. I would rather not get into this tired debate of the old guard versus the new, one side pointing the finger at the other in an attempt to invalidate teaching styles that were designed for completely different times and circumstances. One of the teachers I spent time with during my observations, for example, was the typical English teacher. In fact, as the middle school that the observation was taking place in was the same school that I had attended twenty years earlier, I realized that her classroom instruction was exactly the same as it had been when I was a student at this school. (And I don’t just mean it was somewhat similar, I mean it was exact. The short stories, novels, and poems that were being studied were the same, presented in the same order, and examined in the same tired, Formalist way as when I was in eighth grade).
Yet despite the fact that I almost entirely disagreed with the selection of material and the way in which it was presented, (why would I be teaching to kids as though they are going to be English majors when not many of them will be a member of this reviled field?! [see this and this]), it was, and still is, difficult for me to cast any kind of dispersion against this teacher. Her delivery was practiced and polished, and her classroom management was beyond reproach. (This was evidenced by the fact that when she gave me the reins for a couple of lessons, I was fairly eaten alive by the thirteen to fourteen year old rejection mentality that wanted nothing to do with my namby-pamby malarkey. This teacher, on the other hand, had a way of instilling the fear of God in those little rabble-rousers). This was a woman who had been teaching for thirty-five years and had seen educational initiatives come and go every three to five years, sometimes being adopted and modified to reality, but most of the time failing and perishing in the flames from whence they had been forged. In other words, this was someone who had fought that previously mentioned old guard/new guard knife fight many times and never lost; a survivor, and you’ve got to admire, and respect, that kind of tenacity.
When it comes to literacy across the curriculum, however, it is evident that we as ELA teachers are going to have to take responsibility for the success or failure of this initiative because it is our charge to make students into strong readers and writers. Beyond that, it is also our charge to make students into strong critical thinkers who are able to take information from sometimes disparate sources and synthesize that information into a coherent and articulate opinion that can be backed up with an authentic voice as well as verifiable evidence. Heavy stuff, yes, but at the middle, and particularly high school, level it is the humanities, specifically ELA or English (and yes, he grudgingly admits, social studies as well) that bears the burden of introducing philosophy, in the very Greek sense of the word, to young minds that will find use for such a skill in whatever facet of life they end up pursuing, be it a lawyer or a doctor or an auto mechanic or a day trader.
So then our attention has to turn to how literacy across the curriculum means supporting the teaching of our fellow educators. How can we make the sciences part of our non-fiction reading and/or research writing instruction? (Here is a very good article about the incorporation of science-fiction in the study of science. Is this a role that we can fill?). How can we support the ceramics teacher who is teaching a unit about prohibition-era pottery and requiring that her students submit multiple drafts that describe, in detail, the creative process that they are involving in the creation of their own pottery in light of this unit? How do we get math-oriented students comfortable with using language to express complicated arithmetic concepts to the layman? Ditto for students who have an economic or political bent.
I suppose what I am saying is that the ELA teacher has to be a jack of all trades type of individual. Someone who knows a little bit, or at least is well read enough to offer insight, into just about any of the other subjects that are covered in secondary school (and then some) to provide students with enough guidance to write further on said topic. That can be daunting, but I don’t think that it means that we have to be expert on these things, just willing to attempt their incorporation in our literacy planning.
We’ve all been students in the humanities long enough to have strong research skills for example, and we are all prolific readers or various subjects, so why would we ignore that attribute when considering how and what to teach?