How do I think for myself in a room full of people with different beliefs? How do I search for the truth in a world where fact and opinion are continuously intermingled? Where do I get my information and how do I articulate it? What does my language indicate to others?
These are essential questions posed in Bo Knox’s AP Language and Composition class every day. English class at CPA Upper School is not just for reading the classics or for “right brain” people. Knox combats the preconceived notion that English isn’t used beyond high school, that language and composition are non-essential to the 21st century workplace. On the contrary, he argues that every single job requires reading and writing every single day.
Together, Knox and department head Maria Jernigan (AP Literature and Composition) have created a culture of critical questions, putting the WHY before reading, writing, and speaking. Why is it important to love reading? Why is it important to hone writing skills? Because our thoughts and how we communicate them are fundamental to who we are.
“The art of communication and how to assimilate information is vastly disappearing. Information is given and received in bytes, limiting context, deep understanding, empathy, expertise, and critical listening skills. Good students of the humanities become thought-leaders in every industry,” explains Knox.
The “Twitter-fication” of our world is old news, however, the ramifications of this day and age are only just beginning to take effect. The ability to invest time and focus in subject matter, form independent beliefs, consider diverse bodies of thought, and articulate a position has never been more important. Knox has his class read literature of all kinds, both self-selected and assigned. As he states it, “you have to take in a lot of art in order to be able to produce it.” But the class also engages in frequent “think for yourselves,” research-driven evaluations of current events or issues. Students explore topics, write on them, and discuss them with peers. Topics have ranged from gun control and foreign policy, to collegiate athletics and genetic modification.
During these exercises, they address how to identify fact versus opinion and differences between news sources.
“In a time with ‘fake news’ is a common idiom, it is critical for us to address with young people how to find truth and dispel fallacy, regardless of your politics. We look at the world and linguistics through the lens of the gospel, avoiding the easiness and laziness of labeling, and stepping into the complexity of Jesus’s perspectives,” Knox says.
The course focuses on language, identifying patterns in prose, and understanding rhetoric as the code in which we experience everything. Partnering with MTSU’s summer reading program, students read Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. In the fall, the class attended MTSU’s convocation to hear Vance speak. Not only did the class meet Vance, but also junior Francesca Moore who won the program’s essay contest visited with Vance in a one-on-one sit-down. The opportunity to see and meet an author makes a book feel different, just as knowing and connecting with an audience adds weight, power, and importance to a message. These concepts extend far beyond reading comprehension.
This year’s class will participate in the same program, reading and meeting the author of Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson (holds the most-viewed Ted Talk in the world).
Knox also utilizes non-traditional forms of analysis such as podcast projects in order to maximize engagement while also maintaining workload. For example, students studied Hamlet in tandem with a series of choice plays including The Crucible, All My Sons, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Doubt, analyzing and connecting themes in their own group podcasts.
An integral curricular strategy for both Knox and Jernigan is student-led reading and writing. They have found that allowing students more ownership over what they read and write leads to higher quality work and engagement.
Knox says, “Work becomes better when a student really owns it. Authorship breeds ownership. That healthy pressure for your own work to be excellent – it enhances vulnerability, and you end up giving part of yourself to other people. It trains kids to be courageous.”
Both AP courses speak clearly to the school’s higher goals: to seek truth, think critically, wage war on cynicism, interact with others graciously, advocate your thoughts with confidence, empathy, and humility, and consider people to be full of complexity and possibility.