“I like it when my students cry” – No Learning Without Feeling

no learning without feeling Claire Needell Hollander

Claire Needell Hollander, New York Times Sunday Review, June 8, 2013
The author is an English teacher at a public middle school in Manhattan and the author of the young adult novel “Something Right Behind Her.”

She criticizes the Common Core State Standards for their excessive emphasis on skills at the expense of contents, emotional engagement, and deep learning.

David Foster Wallace makes a similar point when he says that the value of education is not primarily to learn how to think but what to think about.

Perhaps Howard G. Hendricks put it best: ‘Teaching that impacts is not head to head but heart to heart.’ Probably almost all educators want to have a lasting impact

“IT’S sad,” the kid at the far table told me, “but it’s my favorite poem we worked on.” He was talking about “The Weary Blues,” by Langston Hughes, and although his emotional language was rudimentary, his response was authentic. “So we should read literature that makes us sad?” I asked. He laughed. “Well, sadness, Ms. Hollander, is something people pretty much feel every day.” He looked up at me and smiled incredulously. The connection was obvious to him.

I like it when my students cry, when they read with solemnity and purpose, when the project of making meaning becomes personal. My middle school students turn again and again to highly charged young adult novels. The poems and stories they receive enthusiastically are the ones that pack the most emotional punch. Just as teens like to take physical risks, they are driven to take emotional risks. For teachers, emotion is our lever. The teen mind is our stone.

Put another way, emotion is the English teacher’s entry point for literary exploration and for the development of the high-level skills outlined in the Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted in 45 states. Unfortunately, the authors of the standards are not particularly interested in emotional risk taking but rather in the avoidance of political risk. It is a rather bloodless effort. […]

There are no agnostic texts on college campuses, but texts dense with philosophical, psychological and moral meaning. There are no state tests for college students. It is time to align our education system with college demands by opening a real discussion about what teens should read in middle school and high school. Tests given to adolescents need to be based on books students read in school.

Put this way, it sounds obvious, but it isn’t what we’re doing. Skills-based standards ignore the basic fact that language learning must occur in a meaningful context. The basis for higher-level learning — for philosophy, psychology, literature, even political science — is the emotions and impulses people feel every day. If we leave them out of the picture, reading is bled of much of its purpose.

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