Sparked by an inspirational post from Clay Burell, an incredibly thought-provoking comment thread ensued which challenged many of us to think about the importance of communication. In all its varied forms, communication is the most important skill in a new century where it is, generally, instant. The new tools and ideas challenge us to think and reevaluate how students are assessed and writing’s importance in this “brave new world.” The seed which grew this wide, 75-comment tall plant was, of itself, an interesting and engaging post about Muhammad Ali. In school, Ali got his share of D’s for his poor written skills. Yet, as the following quote from him shows, he had an intrinsic grasp of the English language, which he readily expressed through oral communication.
I went into a restaurant downtown - you couldn’t do that back then, because things weren’t integrated yet - and I sat down with my [Olympic] gold medal around my neck, and the waitress came up, and I said, ‘Yes, I’d like, uh, a cup of coffee, and a hot dog.’ And she said, ‘I’m sorry, we don’t serve negroes here.’ And I got so angry, I said, ‘And I don’t eat them, either. Now bring me a hot dog!’
Is this the kind of word play, humor, and fundamental grasp of language which you expect from a D- student?
Being only 15, I really did not know much about Muhammad Ali. I researched to discover the man behind these words that could “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” As I read (and watch) more of his oratorical genius, the breadth and depth of his ability to manipulate the English language for success has not ceased to amaze me. (How many D- students end up being honored by giving the graduation speech at Harvard?)
I think we can all agree that Ali understood how to use English, but his grade report would beg to differ: Cassius Clay does not have passable English. This discrepancy can be attributed to the overwhelming emphasis upon writing throughout school curriculum. Honestly, as I look at the string of recent exams and assignments I fail to see how I would be able to pass or show any true talent without strong writing skills:
- English: journalistic essay analysis of Romeo and Juliet
- Science exam: write a paragraph upon various science concepts
- Math exam: (along with other problems) explain a problem in paragraph format
- Health: essay upon the elements of health
- History: 1,000 word paper upon the background of Iranian nuclear weaponry
should all communication mediums be weighted equally, or should writing be given greater weight?To even begin to delve into that question, the arena for debate must be built around English and Language Arts, including the difference between the two:
…the difference between “language arts” and “English” is paramount in my opinion: English deals with the language of English. Language arts deal with the art of language. Language Arts can deal with multiple languages. Graphics are a language. Symbols are a language. There’s no reason they shouldn’t be stressed just as much written English.If (practically) anything is a language, what separates Language Arts from other courses? I think the answer to that question lies in that LA should focus around how language can be written and spoken to craft meaning, while other courses focus upon the specific applications of the theory of language. Though Benjamin held a divergent opinion, the continual weighting of writing is shown in what courses are required:
Okay, let’s give graphic communication its own course. (Some might call it art) I’m 99% positive it won’t be a required course. In most schools, “art” isn’t.Yet, English is. Taking my own school, for example, graduation requires 4 years of English (more than any other subject) and only ½ year of “fine art” (which includes both oral communication and visual artistry). Anyone see the discrepancy? Ignoring the tangents into computers‘ place in the writing process, the continual emphasis upon writing is attempted to be justified by the good ol’ workplace argument that “it’s what employers want.” Looking at the changing landscape of the workplace, that argument continually holds less and less ground. In many of this century’s jobs, reporting is just as likely to be done through quick Skype calls, IM chats, and emails than through TPS reports. So long as applicants have the ability to communicate (whether through writing, speech, or graphics), employers can utilize their talents in diverse fields. Of course, most of the world’s information is still stored in the written word. Walking into a library, it would be hard to imagine communicating any other way. Even the digital revolution has failed to change this substantially. For the most part, this lengthy debate was battled by masters of the
In fact, I would even go so far as to say that being able to communicate using other mediums makes you stand out from the crowd. As I attempted to communicate, those rare gems shine out in a sea of stones.
Of course, the looming stresses of writing-based SATs and important exams continues to put pressure upon teachers to focus on writing. Though you may not have much room to maneuver, I challenge you: think about how you, as a teacher of any subject, can help to recognize the other mediums of communication and those who have mastered them.
Even after 75 comments, the debate is not yet resolved. For this, I turn to your additional voices and ideas. In a world filled with words, how can equal weight be given to all the forms those words may take?