An English Teacher in a STEM World

Square Peg in a Round Hole_0565

Let’s face it: I’m an outsider in today’s education system. A square peg in a round hole, a fish out of water, a teetotaler in a bar; yes, I am an English teacher in a STEM society.

Don’t get me wrong; even though I speak a different language (metaphorically, of course), I understand and value the emphasis on math and science. When I am at the doctor, you better believe I am looking for someone who has a strong background in the sciences. And when I am hoping on a plane to San Francisco to bike across the Golden Gate Bridge, you better believe I want the engineer who designed these things to have their formulas and calculations correct. Math and science are important, and our students deserve the very best in instruction and resources in these disciplines.However, I am tired of being overlooked and feeling devalued because I am in the humanities. Grants, scholarships, and technology are raining down from the STEM clouds while the humanities are a dry, parched desert slowly dying from a lack of interest and resources. The time has come to water the ground and offer a fertile field where the humanities can once again flourish.

So my plea to you is to not give up on the humanities; the humanities are what make us human. The next generation is frequently criticized for being narcissistic and the humanities give them the opportunity to explore topics such as love, death, jealousy, compassion, and emotional fortitude. While one may argue that discussing “Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once” may be a waste of time when students could be “learning something,” I would argue that when a student is faced with a choice to do the right thing even if it is costly, he or she needs to have already mentally explored that topic. Of course, students can think through difficult issues without stories, but stories stay with us and help internalize life lessons. Owen Meany (A Prayer for Owen Meaney) and Warner Pfenning (All the Light We Cannot See) illustrate that life and death have purpose, Atticus (To Kill a Mockingbird) reminds me to consider another person’s circumstances, and Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy (Pride and Prejudice, sigh) make me rethink my prejudices, motives, and societal expectations. The list goes on and on.

Then there’s poetry. Poetry puts into words what we cannot – or do not know how – to say. “The world is too much with us; late and soon/ Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—/ Little we see in Nature that is ours;/ We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!” Yes! We have sold our hearts to the things of the world and are no longer able to see the beauty in nature; the Barber version doesn’t sound as good as when Wordsworth says it. Poetry can be therapy as well as I have seen students who struggle with self-image, death of a loved one, or feeling misunderstood find peace and understand through poetry. We cannot send the message that this is any less important than figuring an equation.

I met with a science professor last from a major university about a year ago and asked him how high school English teachers could best teach their students technical writing. His response to me was, “Please, let us focus on that. We need people who not only understand science but be able to put science in layman’s terms so teach your STEM students to be less scientific in English class and more conversational.” In other words, we need balance.

So I argue that we don’t need STEM or STEAM, but we need math, English, science, history, and the fine arts all working together. When I teach Frankenstein and Brave New World we discuss the scientific elements and the lessons that go with them. My colleague Orla Thomas (hooray – NGHS TOTY) asked me earlier in the year for some advice because she was having her chemistry students write a story; her students are exploring chemistry through storytelling. Problems are rarely solved in the isolation of one discipline but rather by using information from several disciplines. Let’s drop the labels of “I’m not a math person” or “he’s just an artsy kid” and encourage students to figure out how what comes natural to them is strengthened through the exploration of other disciplines.

As we move into the 21st century, let’s bring the humanities back to their right place in education.

3 responses to “An English Teacher in a STEM World

  1. I enjoyed reading your thoughts. If you have time please check out my blog. I am a teacher wrongly accused by Silicon Valley billionaire David Welch in Vergara vs. State of California. Thanks & keep engaging the minds of others by challenging them to think and be free…

  2. Hi, SusanGBarber. I had to let you know how much I learned from reading about your conversation with the sciences professor. I teach college writing, and have long been concerned about my ability–or inability–to prepare my STEM students to write effectively in their fields. Reading how this one professor encouraged English teachers to in turn try and encourage their students to write from their own position rather than a more discipline-specific position did much to bolster confidence in my current approach, which has at its core the rigor that should come with a college writing curriculum but which also values individual expression and the ability to use writing to think through an idea, engage a counterargument, and suggest why a point of view matters to them, and potentially to others. Thanks a lot for sharing this post. Looking forward to the next one!

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