High school English offers lessons in life

  • Article by: ELAINE BRANSFORD
  • Updated: September 2, 2013 - 5:45 PM

What every graduate can gain from their high school English classes.


July 9, 2013: Pre-schooler Heidi Bierschank was called to participate in a morning grammar exercise at Eastern Heights Elementary School in St. Paul.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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What should a senior in high school English know before graduation?

I have been teaching English to high school students for 10 years. Every year, I and the rest of the English department attempt a maddening exercise: to definitively “map out” where and when a student in high school should be taught the concrete skills of the English language.

For example, at what grade level do we introduce the rules of subject agreement? When should we expect them to correctly spell words like “endeavor” or “blithe?” When should students have mastered the difference between “their, there, and they’re?” When should we debate the use of the Oxford comma?

All of these discussions have merit and are, more or less, important to the overall goal of educating children. But if you have ever taught English, observed a child grow up, or experienced the growing up process yourself, then you know that the honest answer to these questions will always be “that depends.”

I have yet to meet a child whose process of maturity follows any chart perfectly; who doesn’t learn some things more quickly than he learns others; who doesn’t learn some things and then come to question them, forget them, or reject them entirely.

In the age of No Child Left Behind and The Common Core, we have embraced lists and standards. As we begin another school year, I’d like to offer my own list of standards and benchmarks that I would like every high school English student to know before graduation.

I’m going to break from the norm, a bit, and use the second-person “you” throughout, because, really, it’s our responsibility to teach, but it is the much more important responsibility of the student to actually learn.

1.  You should know that the world is wide, and while you are an important part of it, you are not the center of it.

2.  You should know that, however infuriating it might be, things can be both true and false at the same time. Things can also be more or less true, or more or less right, than other things. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t believe in things with conviction, but it does mean that you should remember this mantra: “I could be wrong, so let me find out why I’m right.”

3.  You should feel a sense of responsibility for your role in your family, your community, your country, and your world. It should be clear that, without this sense of responsibility, happiness will be elusive.

4.  You should understand the importance of a sense of humor.

5.  You should not be afraid to change your mind from time to time. And, for that matter, you should not be afraid to make up your mind.

6.  You should know that there is something you are good at and that you enjoy doing. You should then understand that it will take years of hard work and commitment to turn this something into a career. Despite our ardent wishing, no one is going to materialize out of the blue and offer you a dream job just because you seem so great.

7.  You should understand that you don’t have to like a character in a book — or a person in real life, for that matter — in order to learn something from him or her.

8.  You should take a cue from great literature and understand that there is one thing that remains as true today as it was 1,000 years ago — pride goes before the fall.

9.  You should understand that, in setting out to follow your heart, you better be sure it is really your heart you are listening to.

10.  You should understand that the relationship between happiness and fun is a complicated one.

I’m quite aware that this list is subjective and that there is no way to objectively assess these ideas; I would never even wish for such an assessment. It’s also woefully incomplete.

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