As I wrote in a previous blog, my invitation to speak to the Secondary Section at the upcoming NCTE Annual Convention in Atlanta is indeed an honor. On the other hand, what could I say that could be helpful, important, or even significant when today there are so many competing concerns about education and teaching English?
One thing that strikes me is the centrality of the Secondary Section to all that NCTE does and even to the origins of the organization itself. When NCTE’s founders established the organization in 1911, it was secondary concerns—specifically an imposed and mandatory reading list for high school students—that energized the group to form an organization and, ultimately, to resist dictates on any number of issues, mandatory reading lists among them. Over the decades, that kind of activism has not dimmed. Three of the issues, old and new, that the NCTE Secondary Section has tackled include:
- Use of media in secondary classrooms: We are not the first generation to grapple with the appeal of media that moves quickly and offers more than we are able to do within our four walls packed with 30 some desks and bodies in real-time attendance. How to harness media and use it well in the classroom has been a serious concern for NCTE Secondary Section members over the decades. That concern focused on newspapers and radio in the 1930s and 1940s; on television in the 1960s and 1970s; on computers in the 1980s; and now on social media, smartphones, and tablets. Students reading comic books in class concerned Secondary Section members in decades past, which may seem quaint today until we consider that incorporating the graphic novel into our classrooms is still controversial in some schools. The Secondary Section has provided leadership for decades as teachers adapt and use media in their classrooms.
- High-stakes testing in secondary schools: Massive testing of secondary students, especially through the use of the ACT and SAT, emerged as an issue in the 1960s and has morphed, some 60 years later, into a testing culture that has resulted in the most tested generation of high school students. These students are measured by their school districts, their states, and, for those who have adopted the Common Core State Standards, by a national norm. The Secondary Section has been instrumental in tracking this testing and critiquing its use and overuse.
- Representative materials in secondary classrooms: Innovative and cutting-edge textbook series and use of alternative materials in English classrooms emerged as educational issues in the late 1960s and early 1970s; the drumbeat for multicultural materials was similarly strong. Today, Secondary Section members continue to work to open the literature canon more widely and to showcase voices from all segments of society, including underrepresented, immigrant, and second language students.
So when I talk with the Secondary Section at the upcoming Convention, part of my focus will be what the group has successfully spearheaded in the past and, in the spirit of our new NCTE slogan (to be showcased at the Convention), what we can do in the present and future. Certainly, one thing I learned as NCTE historian was that the fights in which we are currently engaged are not new ones. This observation is not meant to dismiss or devalue the difficulty of what we face or the strength of our adversaries in 2016, people who do not work in schools and for whom education is often just another tool to reinforce economic disparity and cultural anemia. But if we are tempted to look to the past to see an era of golden tranquility, a serenity to which we no longer have access, we need to resist that urge. Public education at the secondary level has been under siege and a battleground from the mid-1910s to today—what to teach, how to teach it, and whose voice counts the most are the three pillars of this ongoing conflict. Today we face state standards and national ones; we face teacher independence vs. scripted and aggressively paced instruction; we continue to beat at the door obstructing the central importance of the voice of the local—classroom teachers, parents, and even, crucially, students themselves. What to teach, how to teach it, and whose voice counts the most rang as burning issues in 1911 and ring now, in 2016.
The NCTE Secondary Section has certainly not won all of these battles nor established itself as the only voice of guidance and reason. Through our collective work, however, we continue to represent secondary teachers, secondary students, and the English profession itself. It is important work, and ongoing, and will once again flourish when we gather in November in Atlanta.
Leila Christenbury is Commonwealth Professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond. She is the recipient of NCTE’s Distinguished Service Award, a past president of NCTE, and a former editor of English Journal.