Insights from the English Department
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” I’ve kept these words by the American journalist Joan Didion near me since entering the classroom as an English teacher, whether posted on the wall above my desk or scrawled on a faded page of my notebook.
They remind me that reading, writing, speaking, and listening — the raw materials of storytelling and also the core skills of English language arts — are essential to life. Literacy is necessary for academic success, from economics to chemistry; it is also a requirement for basic survival, for “wherever illiteracy is a problem,” said Northrop Frye, “it's as fundamental a problem as getting enough to eat or a place to sleep.”
Didion’s claim also points to the older, more mysterious power of stories to delight us, to inform us, even to make us. That is, we discover — and rediscover — our identities in the stories we believe.
The CAJ English department is comprised of teachers who agree that, as Christians, we are in a unique place to understand the importance of stories and the words that compose them. We know that by his word God created heaven and earth. We also know that Jesus came to us as God’s Word: the man who is everything God wants to say to us, heaven’s greatest truth and deepest grace — personified. And at the center of our lives is The Bible, God’s salvation story, which joins us to Jesus in a narrative that, by His spirit, lives and breathes.
In our classrooms, we look with our students for echoes of that story. With growing complexity, from kindergarten to AP, we discuss characters, compare themes, annotate paragraphs, analyze metaphors, parse arguments — and write paragraphs, metaphors and arguments of our own. As we do this work (which feels like fun on some days and great labor on others), we seek the thread that connects novels, memoirs, articles, poems, songs, essays and films to the Great Narrative that encompasses all others.
In learning to read in the classroom, we learn to better read the narrative bits that swirl around us outside its walls: conversations with parents and friends; promises from politicians; opinions from pundits; jokes from Snapchat; images from Instagram. We learn to evaluate, separating wisdom from foolishness, insight from sham.
This is one way we grow in grace and truth. Such growth is slow, like an oak tree’s. Which is why we English teachers are in the classroom with our students day after day, reading, writing, speaking, listening. It might seem like the same old thing. But within our students’ hearts and imaginations, something is happening. Seeds planted — by a teacher, a writer or another student — are rooting, spreading, reaching for light.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Yet behind every story, we seek the One Story to which all others point, the only one with the message of everlasting life.
About the Author
Vincent Howard is the head of English at CAJ. Before coming to CAJ last year, he taught for three years in public schools in the United States after working for several years in various jobs, including as a freelance writer. Vincent loves when his work places him at the intersection of people and stories, and he his thankful for the many lessons his students have taught him about both of these subjects.