3 “Back to the Basics” Ideas for the High School English Teacher


(My current PreK/ K students experience a lesson in fractions after a rousing 1-minute mathematical lecture by yours truly…)

Years ago, I taught literature and advanced synonym to high school and college students. I reminisce about those days often, fondly remembering my students who are “all grown up” now. To this day, my students remain dear to me.

After all, I taught them how to pronounce “Beowulf” and enlightened them that he wasn’t actually a wolf.  I was one of the people who taught them how to read Shakespeare, punctuate sentences, throw their heart into peer reviews, and compose slam-dunk business letters.

It was a fun job and I truly feel like I contributed in a small way to their well-being.

But if I were to go back to the classroom, I think I’d do some things differently.

Over the past 10 years, I’ve learned a great deal about, well, learning.  I’ve read endlessly about what really matters in a person’s development. I’ve learned more about my preferred style of teaching, my method of organizing a curriculum, and the vision that would drive every choice I’d make in the classroom.

I’m discovering that homeschooling my own children is enriching me as an educator.

Though I often think about how teaching at the high school and collegiate levels has given me some advantageous perspective for my own children, I more often consider how teaching my own children has enriched me with perspective for education at large.

If I could go back in time, or if I have the opportunity to return to the classroom at some point in the future, here are 3 “back to the basics” things I’d pursue, especially at the high school level.

So, what would I do differently?

  1. I’d prioritize Copywork.

    Most of my students – high school and college level – had not read much over their lifetime. Their writing reflected this poor diet. But there was a deeper weakness: many of them didn’t yet know how to think, make connections, draw conclusions, or demonstrate that they cared about ideas.

    Nor did they know how to identify good writing. I always found it interesting that they championed the artsy classmate who over-used the thesaurus: they swooned at his pretty 4-syllable words even though his papers rarely made sense. Meanwhile, the “math guy” who wrote succinct, well-appointed papers because he had been trained how to think logically was completely overlooked. (Surprise! The “math mind” usually receives high grades in English class. This is why.)

    It’s not that my students had lousy teachers in the past. It’s just that they hadn’t yet read enough “good writing” to acquire a comfort level with ideas, sentence structure, and communication.

    One of the best ways to assimilate into “good writing” is to read good writing (lots of it) and to copy it (lots of it), word-for-word. It’s the way great men like Benjamin Franklin taught themselves to think, write, and speak effectively in the past.Why wouldn’t this classic learning habit benefit our beloved students, too?

    For the Freshmen and Sophomores…

    I would require my freshmen and sophomore high school students to hand-copy copious amounts of the best-of-the-best writing in literature, poetry, science, history, politics, philosophy, and mathematics.

    I’d require very little original writing during the first two years of high school, and would focus most of their writing assignments on copying and studying great writing across the disciplines.

    For the Juniors and Seniors…

    By their Junior and Senior year, the students would be ready for original composition instruction. Their minds would be full of great ideas, sentences, and organization; they’d be ready to craft their own great ideas into sentences, too.

    Just to keep them investing in Copywork, I’d teach my junior and seniors Commonplacing, by which they’d copy selections from their reading. Some of them would looooove it, most of them would endure it. I’d be the meanest teacher and check their books regularly, requiring accurate and daily copying from their own studies, reading, and interest.

    I have a hunch that twenty years later, 90% of them would thank me for being such an old-fashioned stickler. That’s worth it.

  2. I’d compose each course with “experiences”, “discussion,” “research”, and “lecture”.

These four elements resonate with most learners in one way or another, and I truly believe that the ability to learn in these four ways is more important than the content itself.

I’d invest time teaching my students how to

I don’t think I spent enough time teaching my students how to engage in enriching experiences, or how to have profitable discussions about books and ideas, or even how to listen to a lecture. But in the future, I intend to invest as much care as it takes to strengthen my students with these abilities.

  • Participating in a large-group experience – whether it’s acting out a scene from Hamlet or preparing a feast of medieval proportions – requires humility, creativity, cooperation, flexibility, appreciation, and curiosity.
  • Engaging in a discussion requires students to prepare, listen well, attribute quotations, disagree, use evidence from the text, and work as a community to grow in understanding.
  • Diving into research is a highly valuable skill, requiring curiosity, hard work, discernment, and faithfulness.
  • Sitting in a lecture requires attention, memorization, engagement, appreciation, and patience.

I would tell my students as much and we’d work on these skills together, recognizing that there is so much more to a classroom experience than checklists, worksheets, and grades.

3. I’d only offer extra-credit for reading, including audio books. 

My mantra would be, “read, read, read, read!”

In most school settings, I’d probably be beholden to a set list of literature selected for the curriculum, so I’d set up the most motivating extra-credit reading challenge I could conceive and afford.

I’d encourage each student to choose a series to complete by the end of the year: “Narnia! Tolkien! Harry! Laura Ingalls Wilder! Ralph Moody! Beatrix Potter!”

I’d provide an expansive list of great books, good books, picture books, fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. I wouldn’t bat an eye if a Senior chose to read 50 Caldecott Picture Books to raise her C+ to a B. I’d gladly add those points to her grade, knowing that those picture books were probably some of her best – and most enriching – memories of Senior year. Or, what if a Junior’s father read “The Hobbit” to him every evening through the month of February? Extra credit, baby. What a golden experience that would be.

Whatever you do, “Read, my darlings! Read!”

So. Now you know. These are the daydreams that spin around in my mind some days. Consider these “notes to self” or “food for thought” that I just had to get down on paper. I’d love to know your “back to the basics” tips for teaching high school and college students so that I can store them away for the future. ‘Cause in 18 years, you know, our baby will be graduating from our homeschool and I may be looking for a job. 🙂


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