AA: I'm Avi Arditti, and this week on WORDMASTER -- what's it like to be an English teacher in America today? I put that question to an expert at the recent convention of the National Council of Teachers of English, in Baltimore, Maryland.
Meet Carol Jago. Not only has she been teaching English at Santa Monica High School in Southern California for almost thirty years ... she also directs the California Literature and Reading Project at the University of California at Los Angeles, which trains English teachers to help them continue to grow professionally.
TAPE: CUT ONE -- CAROL JAGO
"I think the job of an English teacher is first and foremost to help students to be truly literate, both students who can read and [who] do read. And not just for functional purposes, but because within books are the important and lasting ideals of our society. And I really see English teachers as keepers of that American and that worldwide treasure."
AA: Carol Jago teaches the classics of English literature, like the epic Anglo-Saxon poem "Beowulf." She tries to make the stories relevant to students who these days may have other ideas of what constitutes a "classic."
TAPE: CUT TWO -- JAGO/ARDITTI
JAGO: "I think the importance of what we do, let's say with a study of literature, is that it helps -- it's like a window to the world, instead of thinking your whole world is your neighborhood. It's the job of an artful teacher to help them see through that window. It's not just lecturing but having them do things with the books, enact characters."
AA: "Well, I've got to ask you a question about Harry Potter."
JAGO: "Absolutely. I had a girl yesterday, while I'm trying to teach, she's reading 'Harry Potter'! I didn't interrupt her for a minute. I love those books! And why are they great books? Because they build on archetypal characters. To me, it fits right in to everything I'm trying to do by teaching the classics. Harry Potter has a scar, just like all heroes have a scar. He has a Merlin-like character in his life, he's got sidekicks. That's why these books work for everyone. I think the fourth Harry Potter, the 800-page book, has done more than anything I know to demonstrate to students that long books don't mean boring books."
AA: At the same time, though, as an English teacher, Carol Jago has to teach students whose native language is Spanish or any of the other languages spoken in ethnically diverse Southern California.
TAPE: CUT THREE -- JAGO/ARDITTI
JAGO: "I think learning English as a second language is a huge, huge challenge. For me, the more contact with native English speakers that one could have, the more easily that transition is made. That's what we see in Los Angeles. We have so many students trying to learn English as a second language. Those who live in linguistically isolated communities have a much more difficult time than those students who have more English spoken in their lives. I personally have a challenge ahead of me, because my husband wants to move to France. So it's been very interesting to me as a teacher to think about that and to think of my fears when I'm in France, my reluctance to talk. It's helped me be a better teacher of English language learners by confronting my own terror."
AA: Carol Jago, an English teacher at Santa Monica High School ... which happens to be where I went to school.
TAPE: CUT FOUR -- ARDITTI/JAGO
AA: "You remember me!
JAGO: "I do!"
AA: Also at the National Council of Teachers of English convention were all the big school book publishers, including Scholastic.
I talked to Scholastic's Carole Levine about the growing trend in America toward standards-based education. That translates to teaching geared to what state or local officials decide all students must know.
TAPE: CUT FIVE -- CAROLE LEVINE
LEVINE: "Teachers are complaining vehemently that everything is driven by the standards, because they are accountable all the way through."
AA: And has that changed your industry?
LEVINE: "It's changed in the way that we need to be so much more aware of testing, the way to test, what you can do to get ready, what the various elements are for this kind of learning, and trying to give it to the teachers."
AA: So how do publishers keep up? Julie Kreiss of Scholastic says that sometimes it's just a matter of linguistic adjustments -- keeping up with new terms for existing materials.
TAPE: CUT SIX -- JULIE KREISS
"So people call us and say 'do you have informational texts,' and if you're not aware that 'informational texts' in many cases means non-fiction ... you have to stay on your toes in that sense."
AA: That's all for WORDMASTER this week. If you're trying to keep up on American English, and have a question, send it along to firstname.lastname@example.org or VOA Wordmaster, Washington DC two-zero-two-three-seven USA. I'm Avi Arditti.
MUSIC: "An English Teacher"/Bye-Bye Birdie