I believe that teaching the English language arts means teaching skills around critical thinking, researching, and the general synthesis of written and oral knowledge in a caring and connected manner-to all students who walk through the door. Because the English language weaves through almost every aspect of life in the United States, those who are skilled at understanding, interpreting, and using it in a variety of manners and situations will stand the best chance of success, as defined in the broadest possible way. It is my job as an English teacher who cares deeply about her students to give them every chance to succeed within the context of the language arts.
Students, even in the most seemingly homogeneous classrooms, are quite diverse. Any attempt to accommodate this diversity can feel daunting. However, a change in mindset from accommodation to appreciation can feel like an exhilarating challenge. The end goals need not shift; rather, the pathways to achievement can be flexible and varied. To achieve this flexible teaching style, I have been guided in large part by teacher-researchers like Nancie Atwell, Linda Rief, Barry Lane, Tom Romano, and others.
I especially resonate with Atwell's (2nd edition) stance of a teacher as one who learns along with her/his students, while at the same time having the ability to transmit, to hand over to them, a depth of knowledge that only time, study and experience can bring. Just as it is true that students need space and respect in which they can learn skills and formulate their own approaches to the English language, it is also true that there is a reason we have teachers in the first place. A good teacher, I believe, guides her/his students, acts as a mentor to them, and uses her/his knowledge and skills to enhance the acquisition of knowledge and skills on the parts of their students.
Research shows that the rigidity of the traditional teaching style in which the teacher lectures and the students sit in rows taking notes is not necessarily useful or effective; particularly when we consider the teaching of grammar, composition, and other language-related skills. However, I also believe that a rigidly-held-to workshop model is not necessarily the answer. The key, for me, is to remember that it is rigidity itself that is so often not effective. Having a wide range of effective approaches and knowing how and when to use them is the way to go.
A modified workshop-style, using thematic units as a base, can be one highly effective way to reach a wide variety of students, largely because it can incorporate many different approaches to teaching within its boundaries. This kind of lesson planning combines structured assignments with student-chosen work, all designed to reach specific goals in the acquisition of language skills. It allows for a flexible teaching and learning style within a larger overall structure. It also lets students know that their teacher expects excellence from them, and helps them to learn to expect excellence from themselves - perhaps the most valuable lesson we can teach across the curriculum.
This style of teaching is also one which encourages students to connect what they learn in the classroom to everything else that is going on in their worlds. I believe that this is a critical piece of any teaching endeavor. True learning does not, and never has, existed within a vacuum. Especially today, when teachers are called upon to be more than teachers in many cases - and as always, when it is vital for all persons to be actively involved in the issues which surround and inform their lives - it is necessary for teachers to provide guidance which reaches beyond the strict confines of curriculum. We must be aware of, sensitive to, and care about, the whole lives of our students. This is a part of being responsible to them. If we do not care about those whom we teach, we have no business being inside a classroom.
To summarize, I believe that the effective teaching of the English language arts takes as its cue the richness of its subject matter. Because people think, understand and make meaning in an infinite variety of ways, the English language itself, as a tool for communication, is written, read, spoken, used and understood in an infinite variety of ways. Why, then, not teach it in a manner that, while keeping intact certain defining goals, shows respect and appreciation for the beautiful variety inherent in language? Why not teach in a manner that gives respect to and appreciation for the beautiful variety of the students comprising any given classroom? I can think of no reason not to.