After considering carefully the ideas of
Jago and Scholes, Langer and Marshall, and a long list of others, I arrived at
my own sense of what English is. We
need to do more than teach skills and knowledge: We need to cultivate within
our students a range of personae, each of which is necessary if they are, as
Jago says, “to make a living, make a life, and make a difference” (2009, 1). Note
that each of the following personae has two sides: one devoted to
comprehending, interpreting, and analyzing the text or content created by
others; the other side dedicated to communicating one’s own ideas and content
through whichever means or media that person deems most appropriate to the task
and occasion. In other words, each role involves both comprehension and
composition. Here is a brief description of these eight personae English
teachers attempt to develop in students—and ourselves:
Storyteller: Whether a salesperson or politician,
parent or teacher, everyone must be able to use a range of means and media to
tell the story of an experience, an event, a situation, or a problem and its
proposed solutions; moreover, we must be equally able to understand and analyze
the stories, in whatever form and format they are produced, others tell us. As
Turner (1996) says, “Narrative imagining—story—is the fundamental instrument of
thought.” See work by Robert Coles, Jerome Bruner, Daniel Pink.
Philosopher: Whether in literary or expository, visual
or written texts, students encounter increasingly complex ideas they must be
able to understand and grapple with by posing questions and considering a
subject from multiple angles; in addition, they must be able to convey their
own perspective on and response to these ideas through words, images,
numbers—or some mix of them all— when writing about or discussing the ideas
they study through a range of texts. See work by Martha Nussbaum, Mark
Edmundson, Maxine Greene.
Historian: All texts and ideas are situated in a larger historical context; thus
we must know how to gather, assess, and apply background knowledge relevant to
the text or task at hand in order to comprehend its ideas and arguments; we
must also know how to reason like the historian when assembling and
communicating our ideas about trends, events, or texts. As we move into a more
global, connected world where we not only read the texts but confront the
history of other countries, we must become more historically adept readers and
communicators. See work by Kelly Gallagher, E. D. Hirsch, Janet Allen.
Anthropologist: We must all develop the ability to
understand not only our own but others’ cultures as we encounter them within
the classroom, the world, and the texts we study; this means also developing
the ability to observe, examine, and communicate insights about these cultures,
for such skills are fundamental to our personal and economic success. People
have spoken often of President Obama and the extent to which the influence of
his anthropologist mother contributes to his ability to understand and
communicate with people from various backgrounds in different situations. See
work by Daniel Goldman (SI) and ??
Reporter: Everyone today must be able to search for, locate, evaluate, and
analyze a remarkable amount of data from different sources; in this context, we
must develop and continually refine our ability to investigate, research, and
navigate through the ever-increasing sea of information available to us all.
Once we have done all this investigating, it is time to convey the results;
thus we must be able not only to understand but sift through and effectively
communicate insights from these investigations of people, places, ideas,
process, or texts in the most appropriate form and format, which may involve
traditional genres of written discourse but may also include mixed media,
audio, or video depending on the context and purpose. See work by Robert Coles,
Carol Booth Olson, National Adolescent Literacy Coalition.
Critic: Whether it is a literary or informational text, a written, multimedia,
or visual text, a commercial or personal text, we all need the skills critics
use to evaluate and analyze a text; indeed, such critical skills are
fundamental to success in both professional and personal realms as we are
increasingly expected to navigate the commercial, political, and financial
waters ourselves. Whereas the critical mind once had to focus on what it
thought about books and film, now it must also train itself to examine
retirement plans, medical options, and competing products and services.
Naturally, as with all critics, we must also be able to formulate and express
our opinions about the subjects we critique, offering insights about the given
literary or other text we have considered. See work by Francine Prose, Robert
Scholes, and Carol Jago.
Designer: Design is such a crucial aspect of any text—on paper, online, or in
the physical world—we need to know how to “read” for it, noticing the features
used to invest the text with meaning; people even speak of “designing experiences,”
which means that the very tablecloths and arrangement of the room are designed
with some intention in mind which the critical designer’s eye will notice and
understand; so, too, must we consider design when we compose documents, create
online content, produce videos, or otherwise communicate with people, taking
into consideration not only the means and media but also the available features
and functions of every element. Communication, whether received or created, is
too important to leave it to change; we are all designers now—or must learn to
be. See work by Daniel Pink, Tom Kelley, Gunther Kress.
All the other personae are very purpose-driven, related to success in one
domain or another. While success is a fundamental objective of all education,
we fail if students do not leave our classes having learned to enjoy the
journey that our subject offers. If they do not want to read, do not take any
pleasure in viewing, observing, thinking, or communicating, we have not been
successful. Thus the final persona represents a person who wants to know more
about the world and takes pleasure in exploring it, who sees reading, for
example, as being about not only the destination but also the journey.
Travelers want to know, visit, see, and understand; we, as their teachers, must
constantly be models of such a persona, cultivating this curiosity in our
students, playing guide to each as they seek to find in themselves those
subjects they want to study, those domains they want to explore and come to understand.
See work by Nancie Atwell, Teri Lesesne, Donalyn Miller.