What Should Students Know How to Do in Language Arts?

moving from knowing to doing I know Othello really well. I have taught it for the past fifteen years and can recite entire passages from memory. I have read extensively about it – everything from scholarly articles to blog posts – and have seen at least three different movie versions of it and a stage production. I love the play and I know my enthusiasm for it carries over into the classroom.

However, knowledge about Othello is not a particularly useful skill unless you are teaching it. No one will endorse you for “Othello knowledge” on LinkedIn. And I’m fairly certain there aren’t any six figure jobs out there that will take advantage of my passion and enthusiasm for this play.

However, in the past I have taught my English classes as if knowing works of literature is the main goal. We read Othello, discussed it, and took a final test to see if you remembered what happened. If we wrote a paper, I could claim we were working on writing skills, but in the end it was still mainly a test of how well the students read, or if they read at all.

Moving from “What should my students know?” to “What should my students be able to do?”

As I plan for the upcoming school year, I’m beginning to think less about what my students should know and what I want them to be able to do.  Making this shift puts the focus on skills that can transfer beyond the classroom and into any situation that students might find themselves in. As John Spencer and A.J. Juliani write in their excellent book “Empower”: “Our job is not to prepare students for something; our job is to help prepare students for anything.” When I think about what I would like my students to be able to do when they leave the classroom, I’m already beginning to move beyond  teaching content into teaching skills that can have broad applications.

So here’s what this might look like. Last year I had two classes in which whole class discussions just did not work. I would craft a bunch of thought provoking questions for us to discuss, but no matter I did they were reluctant to talk. It was frustrating for me because I felt like these students should take ownership of their education, especially since there were AP seniors.  Clearly I was doing all the work coming up with questions and it wasn’t paying off. I had an idea of what should be happening, but it wasn’t taking place.

Here’s My Plan.

This year one of my goals for all of my classes is that they should leave my classroom with the habit of always coming to class with something to contribute. This is a valuable skill that will help them tremendously in their college classes. Not only is there a tremendous amount of learning that takes place in actively contributing to the classroom environment, but it’s a valuable workplace skill to always be thinking about solutions to problems or positive contributions to projects.

In order to make this shift in my classroom, I may have to be willing to embrace some potential productive discomfort in my classroom for a few weeks while I establish the norm that I’m not going to be the one that leads the classroom discussion – they are the ones that will have to generate those ideas. And they have to be prepared to do this every day.  It’s entirely possible that I’ll spend a couple of awkward classes transferring the ownership of the discussion to them. But overall the goal is a good one, and one that makes content not the end result but uses it instead to reach a higher goal.

But What About Content?

Of course, this can also work with content as well. My students have an awful time with theme, and I’ve really been focused on how I can get students to understand this elusive concept. In the past I’ve simply wanted students to “understand theme” but that hasn’t helped me much. And in most cases they can’t figure out a theme on their own; I have to tell them.

This year I’ve decided that when they leave my classroom my students should be able to identify the theme of anything that they read, whether it be for school or pleasure. Moving from knowledge to skill helps me frame it better: what do I need to do to get them there?

I’m not completely sure what this will look like yet. But for starters, the first thing that my students will do in the online discussions is research common themes in literature and discuss works that they read (or movies or television shows they’ve watched) in which the theme is present. This will give us a good foundation to work from – we’re already building an understanding of theme that will help us as we tackle the complex works we generate in class. And they are the ones creating the content.

So Isn’t There Any Literature They Should Know?

Perhaps there are some things that we read that we truly want our kids to know. I haven’t taught To Kill A Mockingbird in years, but I’m guessing that’s a book that many of us believe our students should know. I have taught “I Have A Dream” on and off and feel like that great speech should be something our students know about.

But even then we can seize opportunities to teach students some skills. This past year the freshmen teachers had our students design a toast using the effective speech writing skills that we learned from MLK. It’s reasonable to assume that everyone will make a toast at some point in their lives, and everyone would like to give a good one. We felt like our students should be able to write and deliver a toast before they left English 9, and it added an extra skill that we didn’t have in place before. Instead of just studying the speech, students were creating a speech.

But ultimately we are missing the boat if we aren’t use our content to teach kids valuable skills that will prepare them for anything.


David Rickert is a high school English teacher in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. He has been teaching for over 20 years and has taught virtually every grade and every subject. David is passionate about developing lessons that make difficult language arts subjects fun and engaging. He is also an author on Teachers Pay Teachers





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