Reading for the “Real” World
When I first started teaching I quickly got on-board with the idea of “real world” texts – some of the same technical documents that are being touted in some Common Core discussions. Of course, as an English teacher, I wanted my students to read and appreciate great works of literature. But I also wanted students to be able to read a rental agreement, a credit card application, etc. At the time I saw those two types of reading as only tangentially related, in so far as they both involved “reading.” Now I know better, and more fully appreciate the power of reading and analyzing great literature. However, my attraction to those “real-world” texts came from a good place. I wanted my students to be prepared for the world beyond high school. I wanted them to be able to excel in college and get good jobs – the things I equated with “the good life.” A decade later I still want those things for my students, but I’m starting to wonder what skills are really needed to live a rich life.
Thanks to Facebook I know what many of my past students have done since graduation. Several of my students are teaching abroad, and one is in the Peace Corps. Some students are working in retail. A few are in the military. At least one works in the correctional system. Many are college graduates. Some completed some college classes before dropping out. Several have children. A few are married.
I spent my first few years in teaching working hard on lessons that would give my students the real-world knowledge and skills they needed to have in order to “achieve.” I was trying to make sure they understood that rental agreement, or that Newsweek magazine article that I was sure would help them navigate the “real-world.” But in the last decade I’ve had to navigate the “real-world” a lot more than when I was a naïve twenty-two year old stepping foot in a senior English classroom. I’ve been laid-off. I’ve shifted my career aspirations. I’ve had children. I’ve taken a year away from the classroom. I’ve re-imagined what it means to be successful. I’ve watched some of my students grow up from a distance. And I’ve learned that the things that really made a difference for my students in that mean ol’ “real world” are critical thinking, imagination, and the personal strength they developed in their youth and beyond. Sure, maybe my “how to read a rental lease” lesson was helpful, but the teaching that makes a difference is the teaching that opens my student’s minds to new ways of understand “success” and gets them to open their own Etsy shop, or go teach in a foreign country. The teaching that makes a difference is analysis of how a text is written so that they become critical, not blind, consumers. I want to stop looking for the holy grail of “real-world” lessons, and instead think about what kinds of critical and creative thinking experiences I can immerse my students in. With more and more of these experiences they will develop those thinking muscles, those creative impulses, those thoughtful and reflective instincts. Along the way we will might draft some grant proposals, read non-fiction, discuss the rhetorical use of statistics and, of course, analyze narrative fiction. These exercises will be thought-provoking and will be the catalysts for my students thinking to transform. That is my new standard for a good lesson or unit. Sure, we have learning objectives, and we’re going to work hard to meet them. But in the end, I want to stretch their minds and get them thinking in new ways. The lessons that do that are the lessons that last last a lifetime.