I sat grading an ever-present stack of essays at a local Starbucks recently, wading through half-written thesis statements, missing topic sentences and an utter lack of textual support.

After finishing the last set, I slowly packed up as two people sitting at an adjacent table commented on the number of papers I was putting away. They asked if I was an English teacher, and after I nodded “yes,” they dove into a diatribe about how hard it must be to teach youth of today, how incorrigible and lazy teenagers are now versus how compliant they had been in these individuals’ high-school years.

“Unlike these young people, we respected our teachers and the education process; these youth of today expect to be entertained, and when the task isn’t easy or quick enough to finish, they just give up.” Well, that might be true for some teachers and some classrooms, but they had tapped into the wrong resource this particular evening.

My students challenge every stereotype these individuals were describing. They read eight or more novels during a single school year, in my class alone, writing twice as many expository essays, as well as writing a personal statement for their college application. Furthermore, my students are asked to participate in projects that extend far beyond the books and classroom.

They are asked to live and experience aspects of the characters’ lives they are reading about, and that is no easy task for them. But you know what? They respond with an enthusiastic affirmative! They dig in and take the challenge, not showing mere compliance but rather engagement and often wisdom and insight. Our students today crave that kind of interaction from their teachers, as well as long for an environment and vehicle in which they can involve themselves in heated discourse, critical thinking and discussions.

In the article, “Teachers’ Expectations Can Influence How Students Perform,” on NPR’s Shots health blog, Alix Spiegel addresses this issue — what we expect in our classroom from students changes what students produce.

We have become a nation of test-givers, assessing student performance and knowledge in a way that is largely exempt from any kind of real-life application. As important as standard assessments are, relevant and authentic assessments are even more vital. Educators must give assignments that engage students’ curiosity and imagination instead of those that hold little authenticity and are simply to satisfy answers to a test; when they do, students will rise. They will lean into the issues they face in literature and current issues in the world if given the chance, and it is inspiring to see that, when given an opportunity to voice their opinions and share experiences, they can do just that.

In this kind of atmosphere, compliancy gives way to engagement and it is here where students find their own voices, where they uncover the seeds of their own stories and where they discover themselves. In an educational system that many deem broken, or at best, in need of a serious makeover, there is an obvious choice we can still make as educators. Every day, we can still choose to find a way to make literacy relevant in our students’ lives. In spite of all we face, making this happen is absolutely teacher-dependent.

As it turned out, the individuals’ self-assessment was absolutely correct; as I walked away, they were engaged in a heated conversation about education and students today, sounding a lot like my fifth-period class.

Ann Camacho has been an English teacher for more than 20 years. She teaches honors American and world literature as well as AVID elective classes at North High School in Riverside, California. She and her students just published a collection of essays and personal statements titled “Bookmarked: Teen Essays on Life and Literature from Tolkien to Twilight” with Free Spirit Publishing in March. 

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