Why you should care

Because the ability to differentiate between fake news and real is critical for our democracy.

Dr. Lisa Harper, OZY Educator Award winner
Sacred Heart Schools, Atherton, California

I fundamentally believe that a word after a word after a word matters. Which is to say: I believe in educating students to have deep respect for language and its power. Language is one of the main things that makes us human, and not to be able to use it well — and accurately — impoverishes us all.

I teach high school students in the heart of Silicon Valley, where much of the culture revolves around technology and venture capital businesses. While it’s exciting to be in the midst of this innovation, I love being the countercultural voice that tells students that reading and writing well also matters — not just so they can parse an Emerson essay, but so that they become better critical readers and thinkers. The better readers they are, the better they can assess and enter public discourse, ascertain whether that website they’re visiting is accurate or tell if that ad they’re reading is generated by a malicious bot. Reading and thinking well are critical to educating responsible citizens.

I never planned to teach high school. I studied fiction in graduate school, then received my Ph.D. in American literature and feminist studies, and for 17 years I was very happy writing and teaching English and creative writing at the University of San Francisco (most of those years in the MFA program). But as my own children aged up, I realized I wanted to catch students earlier in their writing development. I wanted to teach in a place where I could be of real service. The beauty of teaching high school is that you get to guide and support young people as they become more thoughtful, critical readers, writers and thinkers. The development that can take place in high school is profound and astonishing.

To do this work well, I’m challenged to meet each student where they are, and I’m fortunate to teach at a school that has as its motto “For the sake of one child.” I try to balance the intellectual rigor of the classroom with compassion for their lives and interests beyond it. It’s essential to recognize and respect the whole student and place their learning in a developmental and social context.

I also find it essential to consider the value of canonical works for our era, and also to read and respond to noncanonical and contemporary texts. That’s often where students can see themselves more clearly. For instance, when sophomores recognize the deep artistry and the linguistic and narrative brilliance of Hamilton, they get one step closer to understanding how powerful and transformative language can be.

Or take the example of a recent independent study student of mine who was really interested in the representation of women in superhero comics. When she had the opportunity to put those images and texts in a theoretical content, the results were astonishing. Being in the high school classroom with a background as a writer helps me frame these kinds of approaches for my students, and it helps me explain to them that every writer feels fear, panic and dread over some point in the writing process — and it’s OK to feel those things. I also tell them — because I know firsthand — that becoming a better writer can take years of practice. You don’t just walk out on the soccer field and start varsity without ever having learned to juggle. You don’t just think, “Well, I like snow,” then hurl yourself down a double black diamond. The same analogies apply to writing.

Writing is a skill that can be built over time, and I encourage my students to do just that. My goal is to help them become better and more thoughtful communicators — in the classroom and on the page. If I can do that, I feel like I will have done my small service to democracy and contributed one small but essential part in raising informed and educated citizens.

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