Student column: The case for English class

The underpinnings of Ridgefield’s beauty and prosperity are in peril. The proposed Board of Education budget would cut between two and four English teachers from Ridgefield High School, a cost that Ridgefield cannot afford to pay.

According to members of the English Department at Ridgefield High, the impact of such a cut would be an increase of the number of classes taught by each teacher – from four to five – and, as a result, the tool known as a “writing conference,” or the practice of reviewing a paper in person with a student, would be severely scaled back, if not abolished altogether.

This proposal fails to recognize the value of English class. English class is not about ensuring that our youth internalize the plot to Jane Eyre or MacBeth; English class is about giving students the ability to write, read, and speak – in other words, English class serves to impart life’s most vital skills upon young people.

Being able to write effectively is crucial in obtaining and holding a job. Emails, resumes, cover letters, and memoranda are the media through which we evaluate applicants, coworkers, and subordinates. If graduates of Ridgefield High School are unable to competently write, they will suffer in their careers.

Being able to read well is a skill that is only becoming more important in society. Any member of an office who is expected to review documents, contracts, files, or any miscellaneous written word will flounder if they cannot comprehend the vocabulary, syntax, and diction that come across their desk. Beyond the office, reading ability is demanded by the deluge of internet news that exists today, not all of which should be taken at face value. A person deprived of a quality English education will be unable to distinguish fact from fiction, truth from deception.

And being able to speak articulately, perhaps the most critical skill one can possess, is also the one that is most often unacknowledged as coming from an English education; the voracious reader and prolific writer is, almost universally, also an eloquent speaker. Job interviews, public speaking engagements, conversations with friends, and expression of self are all tied to speaking ability. Language is the defining tool of humanity, and English class is the sanctum in which that tool is sharpened.

Writing conferences are the vessel through which the most valuable tutelage is delivered. Teachers meticulously read an entire paper with a student, explaining in detail and with specificity what they do well and what needs improvement. The writing conference is the flashpoint at which the abstract concepts of “good writing” fuse with the realities of a student’s own writing. Without conferences, there is a disconnect between the quality of a paper and the grade it receives. How should a student know precisely why they got a poor grade without feedback that directly addresses the deficiencies in their writing?

The value of a writing conference is exemplified by no one more than Cody Keenan, Ridgefield High School Class of ‘98. In his junior year, Keenan received a “C” on a paper for the first time in his life. As Keenan thought he was a skilled writer, he approached his teacher, Kathy Wassall, wondering why his paper was not well received. Ms. Wassall carefully explained the flaws in his paper, and, according to Keenan himself, that experience developed him as a writer more than any other did.

Fifteen years after that moment, Keenan was promoted to Chief Speechwriter for President Barack Obama. Keenan penned States of the Union and prepared the President’s remarks in the wake of tragedies like the shootings in Tucson, Ariz. and Newtown, Conn. And, when writing the speech he considers his finest – the President’s speech on the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s “Bloody Sunday” marches in Birmingham, Ala. – Keenan spent hours in conference with the President, collaboratively writing and reviewing, just as he had done years ago with Ms. Wassall.

English class sharpens the minds and brightens the lives of all who pass through it. The loss of such an integral piece of English class would deprive Ridgefield students of a profound educational moment that can inspire for decades after the adjournment of the conference. The Board of Education will meet every Monday at 7:30 p.m. until February 26th, at which point it will decide whether to gut the English Department. Ridgefield has an obligation to its young people to voice disapproval of such an action.

Max Cumming

Ridgefield High School, Class of 2018