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Courtney Langton

Courtney is an aspiring high school teacher. Her teachables are History and English, but she's happy to teach anything that doesn't involve numbers or formulas. Her particular interest is in promoting gender equity and anti-oppression both in and outside the classroom. She writes a detailed To-Do list every morning, and enjoys nothing more than a good book and a plate of bacon on a rainy Saturday.

Jonathan Wong

Jonathan's primary interest is moral education. His teachable subjects are English and Music. He encourages critical thinking and hopes to teach his students to recognize, and strive for, what is truly important to them without forgetting to be compassionate, tolerant, and open-minded along the way. He likes making analogies and his favourite is one that compares life to jumping on a trampoline.

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Why we study English
Monday, June 29, 2009

We're going to use today's post to indulge our egos a little bit. And by "indulge," I mean we're going to post on something that is perhaps not relevant to every teacher. But Courtney and I are both English teachers. And this is a question that we come across time and time again, whether it was when we were high school students ourselves, university students trying to figure out why exactly we're studying English, or when we had students ask us during prac.

It's interesting. Because nobody ever questions the value of mathematics or science or economics when talking about academia. Tell people that you're a chemistry major or studying linear algebra or business management and people rarely give you the "So what are you going to do with that?" look. Of course, on the other side, English isn't the only subject that falls into the category of "subjects that the majority of grownups question in regards to practicality". As someone who took a good slew of electives in philosophy and sociology, I know that these subjects come under the brunt of scrutiny as well. And we do sympathize with our friends in these subjects, who have to constantly defend their choice of study.

But English is different. And I am almost positive it has something to do with the fact that English is a mandatory subject throughout all of high school. If you're an English student/teacher, not only do you have to constantly defend your choice of study from colleagues and grown-ups, but you have to defend your subject in school too! Unlike every other subject, which stops being mandatory at some point in high school, you must take ENG4U (that's grade 12 English) to graduate. The next closest subject (in terms of being mandatory) is mathematics, which you need to take up until grade 11. In grade 12, people only take subjects they WANT to take so they obviously don't question the classes that they themselves choose. But everyone - from aspiring doctors to lawyers to mathematicians - needs to take ENG4U.

So why is this? What is it about English that the government deems important enough to force everyone to take it, even in grade 12, regardless of their chosen path? What would YOU, fellow English teacher, say to a colleague/friend/parent/student, when questioned upon what could possibly possess you to study the language you speak everyday?

Why we study English

1. Verbal Communication. English students express themselves well. Studying English (if done properly) teaches you that when you say something, inflection, intonation, and clarity go a long way towards being convincing. Ever hear someone give a presentation in which every sentence ends with an upward inflection? Or listen to people who keep repeating themselves when they try to explain something? It tends to be difficult. Some people have natural knack for speaking. For those who don't, understanding what makes a natural speaker, a natural, goes a long way towards improving your own ability to communicate your ideas.

2. Written Communication. Think you'll never need to write an essay after grade 12 English? Well, maybe you're right. What about a cover letter? A love letter? An email? See, the thing about writing essays is that practicing formal writing improves informal writing. This has a lot to do with clarity. Writing essays forces you to write clearly. And when you can communicate clearly in the written word, this can be a powerful tool no matter what you do. This is particularly true because...

3. You realize that every word has a specific meaning. Still on the communication strand, this is one of the greatest things I learned when I studied English. There are a lot of words in the English language. But they're not just there to replace each other. Word choice is important to communicating clearly. Many of the problems we encounter and generate are due to a lack of communication or misunderstanding. Just because you don't need this kind of communication in your job doesn't mean you don't need to communicate clearly when you're interacting with everyone else outside of it.

4. You learn that things aren't black and white. A lot of criticism I get from people who are "forced" to study English in high school, against their will, is that we spend all our time interpreting and reinterpreting things that we can never full understand entirely. And my response to that is, "Isn't that what LIFE is all about?" English teaches you why you should always be careful when you read a newspaper. It teaches you how "Call me sometime" can have a hundred different meanings. And how real life is never as objective as a mathematical equation.

5. You learn to think outside the box. I was discussing a question once with my engineering housemate. And the question was "If an object were to be dropped into a lake, would the lateral (sideways) current affect the rate at which it descended." The answer, to him, was "No." I said, "That depends on the object. If it's an airfoil, then yes." This is not to say that there's no value in looking at problems strictly from a mathematical/scientific viewpoint. I'm just saying that English does encourage you to examine problems more holistically.

These are the 5 main reasons I'm glad I studied English in university. The big one is communication. You'll find that almost everything you study in English is geared towards thinking critically and being able to present your critical thoughts in a way that people will understand and respect. I once told an English class that writing an essay is like baking a cake. You take everything you've learned, throw it into the oven that is your brain, turn ON said oven (this is key), and turn out something that's both clear (looks good) and interesting (tastes good). English is how we relate to one another. It's how we share our ideas. It's the way we ensure that we're understood and that we've communicated. It's why we're able to put these ideas we have into a format that you, as readers, can understand when you read this blog. And it's why we will continue to teach English, all the way up through grade 12, for the benefit of our students.

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