Author: Anna Teixeira, English Teacher
The groan that accompanies the announcement of English class has a unique sound amongst teenage boys. In recent decades, the subject has been pinned as ‘girly’ one, due to the requirement of concentration, empathy and discerning emotion within texts – things that society assumes are boys’ weaknesses. This needs to be revisited. English in schools needs to be revisited.
Unfortunately, the subject itself has become constricted into formulas and creativity-draining essays – reducing any inspiring text into a trite and narrow argument. Social concerns don’t just end with the English curriculum, but with how boys are engaging with it, and with school in general.
ENGLISH CREATES POSITIVE WORLD VIEWS
We worry about boys being violent, about them feeling entitled to the bodies and lives of women around them. We worry about them being emotionally repressed and lost, ridiculed when they feel emotion and we worry about our boys feeling shame for who they love or are attracted to. Overall, we worry that boys are being shoved into a restrictive box of toxic masculinity, where their interaction with the beauty and grit of the real world is reduced to a superficial TikTok stream.
So, why would English be the solution? How could this broken subject offer anything of worth to a broken generation of boys?
It might be hard to believe that studying novels, poetry, drama, art and film provides something that no other subject can offer – but this study offers the invitation to be someone else, to experience life through someone else’s eyes. In our times of division and increasingly narrow perspectives, we need our young boys to be considering the merit of various experiences and viewpoints.
We need our young men to feel what life is like for those who are different, those who are less fortunate, and those who live in far-away cultures. Simple, quick sentences don’t do that. Theoretical conversations don’t do that. Snap chat doesn’t do that.
ENGLISH CREATES A SENSE OF BELONGING
Once the cornerstone of many societies, and a rite of passage that young people used to find a sense of belonging in their religion, culture or community, the art of storytelling seems to have died out in recent years. Our stories are reduced to soundbites on social media and the moral compass of our western society seems to be spinning in a directionless spiral as a result.
We need young boys to be involved in the world of another person. Storytelling draws young men into an experience where they are emotionally involved, invested and interested in morals and behaviours. It is stories that allow us the freedom to walk around in a different time, a different space and see the world through someone else’s lens. All from the comfort of our chair for very little (or no) cost.
English has the potential to be a cornerstone of moral education – to understand the implications of decisions; the fallout of hardship and the ability to rise again to build resilience. Stories enable young men to safely engage with the messiness of this world and experiment with the outcomes of certain decisions and behaviours. In non-fiction, they can be taken through real-life stories and learn from the wisdom of those who have walked before them. They can be inspired and can see into the depths of the soul of individuals who have seen people at their worst and also become people at their best.
When boys read of, or listen to, other young people struggling through poverty, bullying and abuse, they gain an awareness of the blessings that they have, or feel a kinship and connection to others that share their struggles.
Studying humans through text shows us that we aren’t alone, even if no one around us is talking about the difficult emotions that we feel.
When we look at these texts in a class, we make a safe space for boys to explore emotions and a safe space to face them. It shows them that true living and true masculinity includes engagement and processing of all the human emotions; and that this doesn’t make you less of a man – it makes you more, in every way.
ENGLISH CREATES EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION
When young men can’t express what they feel, they usually use their bodies in violence to express themselves; whether that be hurt, embarrassment, frustration or even happiness. English allows young men to find ways to express their emotions, thoughts and feelings that we haven’t had language for before. When someone explains the feeling of true emptiness and isolation in a way that they recognize, they can then communicate effectively with the trusted people in their lives to find support and help.
As a built-in bonus: reading, listening and considering stories and written art gives boys an opportunity for mindfulness. The rare moment to be still and appreciate what is around them. It inspires gratitude when the beauty of their world is pointed out.
So, we need to let go of the idea that English is about essays. We need to let go of the rigid idea that English doesn’t work for boys.
English is a study of being human. It’s a way to learn the language of the soul. It’s a way to see the world and connect with a deep sense of belonging that anchors us to a common experience and existence in this world. Our young boys need English now, more than ever.