What We Do In English Class: Develop Voices

“I want students to use English to be advocates for their own lives.”

Eureka! Never before had I heard it articulated so simply, yet meaningfully, what our purpose as English educators should be: to equip students to be advocates for their own lives. Nicole Mirra, a postdoctoral scholar in education at UCLA, made this statement on the video panel “Community Member/Teacher as Connector” on October 9, 2013 (conducted as part of our Supervised Teaching of English class at Teachers College, Columbia University).


For the panel, speakers discussed the importance of connecting the classroom to the outside neighborhood community, both to keep students engaged in the course material and to try to get students to take action for positive change in their community — whether through raising awareness on a public health issue by writing a letter to a Senator or facilitating workshops on how to talk about difference, and so on.


In a workshop held at Teachers College on September 11, 2013, Professor Ernest Morrell, new chair of NCTE, echoed this sentiment. He said that one of the main purposes of the English teacher nowadays is to support students in “developing their voice.” This holds meaning in the same way that Mirra’s comment does, that language can empower students to effectively express and have their needs met, yet also relates to the reality that new technologies, social media and social networking call on all of us to articulate our voices, to brand ourselves, and to broadcast our thoughts many times throughout the day.

While Nicole Mirra’s statement was made in the context of a conversation on urban public schools, I believe it transcends all circumstances and can relate to any student.


What does it mean to be an advocate for your own life? To speak up, quite simply — for yourself, to yourself, in your community, in your relationships, at your job, and to the government, if necessary. This advocacy can take shape in a number of ways: closely reading the newspaper for information that impacts how you vote in elections or what businesses you support as a consumer; delivering a well-articulated speech on why you are the best person for the job; deconstructing and being critical of TV ads trying to reel you in to buy X, Y, or Z; journaling and writing freely so as to give yourself opportunities to reflect on and understand emotional and intellectual experiences that are affecting your well-being as a person. To be an advocate for your own life is to prepare yourself for building the best life possible.


To hear both Mirra and Morrell articulate the value of the English classroom in such similar ways felt very empowering for me. I’ve been feeling overwhelmed in recent weeks about how to transition from student to teacher, as I’m trying to process and make sense of a variety of influences on my teaching style and approach (professors at TC, my cooperating teacher, the theories and philosophies I’ve been studying in English education, my own background as a student of English and my own values, mainstream society’s expectations of teachers, etc.) . Such a simple, direct raison d’etre, gives me a mantra if you will, a grounding, a simple statement to reign things back in and give me focus.

English education = developing a voice = advocating for oneself. This idea holds additional value in that it can help us to be explicit with our students about the importance of what we’re doing in our classrooms. Student resistance to participating in school can be attributed to several factors: un-engaging curricula, un-engaging teaching, and low student self-esteem, just to name a few reasons. But one factor that educators at the secondary level seem to most often overlook is the lack of transparency with our students concerning what and why we are teaching what we teach. In so many middle school and high school classrooms (every one that I’ve ever been in), kids are kept in the dark about what they’re going to be learning today, next week and for the year. Why do we hand out syllabi at the college level and not at the secondary level? For sure, with the rigorous demands of daily teaching, it’s not possible to know what all of our lessons will be for a semester, but surely we could be sharing our goals for each unit with them. (Why not share the unit plan document?)

Students should be aware of our goals as teachers, of the essential questions we’re asking, of the skills we hope they will attain and why, and of the core standards that we are satisfying. We’re on this journey together. Shouldn’t we all know where we are going?  If not give them the unit plan, then at the start of our lesson teaching, we could be explicit and explain how reading the dense, complicated language in
Romeo and Juliet could help them to slog through a complicated contract one day or how considering the degree of allegiance he/she has to her family (as Romeo and Juliet must confront) could impact her future or how performing a monologue could help them to prepare a speech in a job interview on how he/she is the perfect person for the job one day.

Why should I be here?Why does this matter?How does what you’re teaching impact my life? I can almost see these questions roll across students’ foreheads as though a scroll when I look around the classroom sometimes. Would not articulating for them how and why the things we are teaching/learning could affect them in their daily lives help them to be articulate in turn and help them to see the value in the English classroom? Don’t they want to know why and how to be advocates for their own lives, to live better lives?

If we tie the “what this unit of study will teach you” to their daily living, then it will feel useful and hopefully empowering. In this scenario, I think everyone would be more invested – students and teachers. And if the unit of study doesn’t somehow equip the students to be advocates for their own lives, then we shouldn’t be teaching it.