2 Jul 2013

The Problem with High School English

Others have tackled the issues before.  Christina H over at Cracked wrote about 4 Ways High School Makes You Hate Reading and over at Genji Press, Serdar tackles the disconnect in Science Fiction Repair Shop: Talking Genre Constriction Blues Dept.  Here, it's going to be a little more personal, what my problem with English in high school is.

It made me stop writing.

Worse, it made me loathe writing.

Obviously, something changed since then, since, well, I wrote this blog post.  But, if you told the high school me that I'd be writing a regular blog post analysing movies, you'd get one of the most incredulous looks imaginable.  Even the idea of something like Subject 13 would have been outside the realm of possibility.

The main problem I had with English class was that it was boring.  Repetitive.  It didn't matter what the material being covered was, the same or similar questions would be asked every time.  The pace was, to me, glacial.  Not helping matters, I was assigned the same book, Lord of the Flies, in three separate grades*.  The poems assigned have all melted into a puddle of words; none stand out.  Even Shakespeare got the rerun treatment; Macbeth in two separate grades.  Same questions, too.  If I had done the homework, I'd have recycled previous answers; if I cared.

Another issue, unique to me, was that writing was a chore.  Not the creative part of the process, but the physical part of putting pen to paper.  I thought faster than I could put the words down, which was incredibly frustrating.  Part of the problem came from a gymnastics injury from grade 3; I tore a ligament in my writing hand, an injury that, at the time, wouldn't heal 100%.  My hand still hurts to this day, making writing with pen and paper a painful chore.  Another part of the problem, cursive writing.  I could either write quickly or write neatly-ish.  I adjusted my writing to take into account the speed; first drafts were also final drafts.  Revision happened before pen met paper because a fix would require starting from square one.

Writing became a tedious chore.  By grade 9, I knew I wasn't going to take courses in university that required multipage essays and was aiming for engineering.  Math and science courses took priority over English class.  The odd thing, though?  I learned more about grammar in French class.  I learned more about writing essays, especially the type of essay I'd write in university, in Geography.  I learned more about rhythm and tone in Music.  The lessons I learned in English were, first, to hate poetry, and second, to hate writing.  Unlike the results in Christina H's column, I never learned to hate reading.  I just learned that proper literature was dull with characters I didn't care about.  Meanwhile, the books** I read had plot, interesting characters, and intricate settings.

Parent-teacher meetings happened, eventually getting my school counsellor involved.  The core of the meetings were to find out why I was failing.  At one point, I was asked what would happen if I went from Advanced*** English to General.  Would my marks improve or get worse?  My answer was, "Get worse."  My reasoning: I was bored to tears in class; slowing the class more would turn boredom into torture.  At one point, I had seriously considered just signing up for the make-up course in summer school and just not take English during the school year.  At least summer school was faster.

Pacing was a problem.  I read a book a week, if not more.  English class, though, would spend weeks on just one book, then weeks on the Shakespeare play, then weeks on poetry.  Even in semestered classes, the pace didn't improve.  Weeks reading a book that I'd never willingly pick up, with a bare whisper of a plot, with characters that I didn't care about, answering questions that I answered in previous years, with handwriting that was completely ready for a career in engineering or medicine if I didn't take the time to write carefully.  But, improving the pace might have lost other students who were slower readers.  It's a balancing act, but the extreme ends both lose out.

The choice of novels never helped.  The last assigned book I read fully was The Guns of Navarone.  I read Guns in the first semester of grade 9.  I made the deliberate choice to not read The Hobbit when it was assigned, preferring to go by my memory of reading it in previous years for fun.  I didn't want to associate the book with the chore of English class.  Other books, I either flipped through (All Quiet on the Western Front, To Kill a Mockingbird) or read the first few chapters and set it down to never touch again except in class (A Separate Peace, Catcher in the Rye).  Some of the books I flipped through more in protest against having to take English yet again.  Others, though, the characters annoyed me.  Dorothy L. Sayers Dorothy Jones Heydt summed up it up well, "I don't care what happens to these people."  The one phrase a writer does not want applied to his or her main character.  Yet, I could use the phrase on several of the novels assigned - Lord of the Flies, A Separate Peace, and Catcher in the Rye.  The latter two, I can summarize the narrative as "whine".  As for Lord of the Flies, I've seen lines**** with more dimension than the characters in the book.

Shakespeare suffered as well under the slow pace.  The combination of archaic language and reading a play instead of seeing or performing it raised unnecessary barriers.  Then came the usual questions, the same ones as always.  Left me wondering why I had to take four years of English when it felt like I was going through grade 8 each year.

Between the repetition, the chore of writing, the novels, the poetry, and the sheer boredom, I learned to hate writing.  I hated writing so much that in university, not only was I in Engineering, where math and science was more important, I filled the mandatory Arts electives with language courses, seeing them as far more useful than anything that would have an essay required.  The one course, in Geography, I took that was going to have a massive essay worth a good percentage of the mark turned out to be too large for the professor to assign the essay, turning it into a multiple choice mid-term.  I wrote a grand total of two papers in university.  One was my thesis to graduate from Computer Science.  The other paper was for a pilot project to get engineering students to learn to write by having us read over a report on a fatal collapse to analyse, summarize, and suggest improvements; I received an A- on that.  That paper gave a me nice ego boost, got me thinking, over time, about my writing skills.

Thing is, I never really stopped writing.  What happened was that any writing that I did that wasn't related to English class got reassigned as hobby, as class work, as something that wasn't associated with English.  So, all the character prep work I did for various role-playing games?  Hobby work, not writing, since the goal was to build up a character.  Assignments in other classes like Geography and Physics?  Write-ups and analysis, focusing on the subject matter; the goal was the Geography or Physics, not the actual writing+.

Slowly, I'd try dipping my toe into creative writing.  I had ideas that weren't being used in games and needed to come out somewhere.  I wrote for myself, to see what I could do.  Hesitant steps, just get the idea down and see what happens.  The first break point came in 1995, after the English dub of /Sailor Moon/ hit the airwaves.  I had watched the first season fully, taping it if I couldn't get home in time from work to see the episode.  I was aware of the idea of fanfiction, with some posters to alt.fan.sailor-moon already writing.  One weekend, I watched the week's worth of episodes followed by a rerun of The Frantics' CBC TV series Four on the Floor and an idea struck that insisted on being written.  Yes, that does mean that "Sailor Canoehead" opened the floodgates of my writing career.  The reaction on afs-m was unexpected; people enjoyed it.  Suddenly, writing wasn't seen as being a tortured process that only the select do.  I mean, if I could do it, then it's not exactly a Dark Art open only to The Chosen Ones.

I graduated high school in 1986.  It took me nine years to realize that writing isn't a painful chore.  Sure, the onset of word processing on computers helped greatly, letting me get words out almost as fast as I can think them and without the cramping from holding a pen.  The lessons from English, where writing was dull and repetitive, robbed me of nine years of writing experience.  I could have been writing far sooner, enjoying the process that I use today.  I could be a far more confident writer.

Nine years lost, because English class made me loathe writing.

Update (09-JUL-2013): While researching something else, I discovered I misattributed the phrase, "I don't care what happens to these people," to Dorothy Sayers instead of Dorothy Jones Heydt.  Apologies to all involved.

* Note the use of the term "grades" instead of "years".  I failed grades 10 and 11, mainly through not doing homework, making both up through summer school.
** I read at the time and still read science fiction, fantasy (standard and urban), and mysteries.
*** In Ontario at the time (early 80s), classes were separated into three levels - Basic, for people having severe problems with a course; General, for the college-bound; and Advanced, for the university-bound.
**** Math humour.  Lines are one-dimentional, connecting two points on a plane.  The thickness of the line is irrelevant and a product of drawing the representation of the line.  Polygons, for the record, are two dimensional.
+ The physical part of writing still existed, though.  I kept with a "first draft is final draft" method where the first version gets a heavy revision in my head before being committed to paper.


  1. The way we teach reading, or specifically literature, is completely broken. Just on a basic logistical level: how the heck do you get stuck with "Lord of the Flies" three times in a row in different grades!?

  2. No arguments about how broken the teaching is. There was nothing in English class that I didn't learn in other courses. As for "Lord of the Flies", different locations. First was in Grade 8, then in Grade 10 summer school, then again in Grade 11, at three different schools in the city. I'm aware there are people who like the book. For me, it was an exercise in tedium. I later found out that hte book won an award. I now count that award as being a warning sign.

  3. High school was rough for me when it came to English also. I had no desire to write essays on boring crap other people wrote. I had ideas that I wanted to tell. I ended up failing Ninth grade due to just not giving a crap and not doing homework. Was just a few points shy of passing a few classes. I think I did pass one or two because I still managed to finish everything in four years, but had to double up some classes.

    I hated everything we read in every English class except the year my 10th grade English teacher let the class vote on a book and we picked the first Dragonlance book. Which I happily re-read and even helped create questions for homework assignments.

    1. I failed grade 10 and managed to fail grade 11 twice for the same reasons. I didn't bother with the homework, didn't submit any creative writing to my work folder, didn't care about the class to bother to participate. I was there because the province said I had to be there. I didn't even have the chance to choose what to study, either.

      I do remember reading Bradbury "A Sound of Thunder" and answering questions about it, but that was a rare moment. I think Poe's "A Cask of Amontillado" also came up, because I remember making the connection between it and the wine in the old TSR Top Secret module "Operation: Sprechenhaltestelle". Beyond that, all the poetry, all the short stories are long forgotten.

    2. I know there were a few times I was supposed to read Shakespeare, but I honestly never did. I faked it and bluffed my way through quite a few times. I remember I ended up taking 9th and 10th grade English during my 10th grade year.

      I did take creative writing, but struggled due to disagreements between myself and what the teacher felt was "real" writing. I ended up passing, but only because I spun a lot of bullshit. I maybe handed in half the assignments I was supposed to.

    3. I had Shakespeare each grade from 9 through 12. I also wound up leaving space open in my last semester of grade 13 in case I failed grade 12 English in the first semester. (I didn't, thus got a spare.)

      I never had the option of a different version of English class; it was always the overall course. And, yes, I ignored assignments, like first drafts, like poetry, like book reports on the books I read, like adding to my writing folder (emptiest folder ever). I was in the class because the class was mandatory. Didn't mean I had to expend effort.

  4. Sorry to hear about the turn-off; it does kind of baffle me that you got the same book so often. I'd have thought there were checkpoints or alternatives for that. I do see a key difference between us though - I kept English writing as a separate entity from recreational writing.

    I've kept journals all through my life. Very much off-and-on, but I've stumbled into diaries I kept in first year of high school. (Oh, look at that, I didn't fit in back then either...) Probably the sort of thing that you couldn't really tap into on account of the injury. But it was a way to express myself separate from class. I also did some other forms of "recreational" writing, like writing reviews for the first few "Trek: Voyager" episodes or creating the "Knight Rider Drinking Game" (I think that was in University?).

    English class was for proper structure, and delving into hidden meanings and things of that nature. Basically the stuff if you wanted to be a pro; I had no designs on that. But then, I wasn't bad at it either, and could memorize Shakespearean passages with the best of them. I like predictability. So... maybe the system was designed for people like me? I don't know. I do recall that in senior year, we were told to do a book report on 'Any book you like, subject to approval', and I totally froze up. I had to ask the teacher for a recommendation, because while I read tons, I didn't think any of my choices were "the right sort of book" for English class.

    Now, is that what things are like TODAY? I don't know. I grant that most of my own experience with English teaching comes from being a student, which is a very poor benchmark. (Everyone thinks they know education because they were a student - yet, go figure, fewer people think they are medical experts because they've been a patient.) Suppose I can always check with the upstairs crowd in September.

    1. I got the book in three different schools - Grade 8 (IIRC), Grade 10 (twice, one was summer school), and I may have seen it again in Grade 11. I did "writing" that I didn't think off as writing - it was for a hobby, therefore it didn't count.

      English, for me, was Grade 8 repeated all through high school. Very little changed year to year. Structure came from other classes. Hidden meanings weren't hidden; "Lord of the Flies" was a tedious exercise of finding symbols, something I really didn't care about. I didn't want to find out about people here on Earth. There were worlds out there with far more interesting tales. I didn't want to read a plodding story about archetypes/stereotypes of characters I didn't care about. And, given how I felt about English, going pro was the last thing on my mind. Seventy-five minutes of tedium. Given that almost all the books assigned to be read in class were dry, filled with dull characters who did next to nothing, I had no reason to read anything for class.

      Fortunately, I did keep reading, mainly because I ignored the assignments.

      Today, no idea. I haven't heard anything from actual students or parents of students on reading material, except that "Hunger Games" is in use for the non-university track and a Dickens book for the U level. I still question the purpose of English class; why it's mandatory, why a heavy focus on destroying reading as a pleasurable pastime. I'd like to know if things have changed.