I can no longer be a specialist

I am a specialist English teacher. Out of virtue of probably being taught wrong (all due respect to my elementary teachers, who knew no better), I spent most of my youth cultivating a hatred of Mathematics (sorry mom, I know it’s a strong word). When I approach numbers now, and participate in dialogue around the “new” way to teach math through problem solving, rather than through the memorization of cryptic formulae; racing a second hand to the bottom of a division practice sheet; standing to recite the times tables to a harsh audience of classmates, I find I have a certain proclivity towards the process, which astounds me in contrast to a younger memory of bee-lining to Guidance to drop OAC Finite Math.

I am a specialist English teacher, because I once felt that I could impart the greatest amount of enthusiasm for that subject. I love literature, love tearing apart a poem, stringing and twisting words together: there are shoeboxes full of terrible adolescent poetry to attest to that notion.

I am a specialist English teacher; but I see the virtue of breaking out of that pigeon-holed box, and I don’t just mean dropping The Outsiders novel study from my syllabus. I have this hope for a classroom that espouses the tenets of a Makerspace: “Learning environments rich with possibilities, (that) serve as gathering points where communities of new and experienced makers connect to work on real and personally meaningful projects informed by helpful mentors and expertise, using new technologies and traditional tools.”

Isn’t that the inquiry-based environment we are striving to create? Isn’t that what Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown are referencing in A New Culture of Learning when they posit that “students learn best when they are able to follow their passion and operate within the constraints of a bounded environment”? Isn’t the role of the teacher to be the helpful mentor — with expertise — but more importantly with the knowledge to point the students towards expertise beyond the space? This is the technology piece. This is where I recognize that I am not the only source of content (and that I am not the most important source of content ). Do not misunderstand this to assume that I am now relegated to the sidelines in this model. In a world overwhelmed with information (72 hours of YouTube video content is uploaded every minute: only some of it is good) someone needs to help provide the context. Someone needs to help wade through the biased judgement of the tunnel-visioned-self-important masses, who share without full comprehension, and lead the sheep astray.

Someone needs to ensure that our students are not sheep.

Looking at the Full Day Kindergarten classrooms, we see students engaged in these types of “personally meaningful projects” (makerspace.com). At any given moment they are applying numeracy and literacy skills in integrated ways that shirk the idea of it being time for Math, or time for Language. These students are cultivating a love of learning; a natural curiosity, and the drive to inquire. This is the type of environment that we want to cultivate: one that acknowledges the pail vs flame reference is even more pertinent now that you cannot possibly carry around a bucket big enough to carry the knowledge you need. It may have been in an industrial age we could exit the school, enter the workplace, and take our place as a cog; but that world is gone, and what Yeats said then is even more important today.

There are technologies emerging that attend to the concept that content is no longer king: that it is no longer desperately important for me to learn about pioneers and medieval times because that information will be available for me when I need it: better to teach me the critical literacy skills to understand how that past informs the present, and how to judge the information offered. Open Badges are one way that institutions are acknowledging that students on individualized learning paths need a way to be recognized for their learning. Learners need ways to display what they learn from all of the decentralized venues that are now available, in an age where information is not relegated to the stacks in public libraries, but is ubiquitously available from small devices we carry in our pockets, outside of the walls of academia.

So I can no longer be a specialist English teacher. I cannot pre-suppose that a space in which “each student (is) engaged in personalized, collaborative, inquiry-based learning environments” (HWDSB Strategic Directions 2013-2014) can be contained or constricted by a traditional notion of timetabling, of compartmentalizing content in temporal boxes. I cannot pretend that Art and Science and Dance and History and Music will not bleed through. This is more than just integrating subjects and technology: but recognizing the importance of doing those two things is the inevitable first step towards changing school.

Published by jarbenne

Jared Bennett is the Student Information System Consultant at Hamilton Wentworth District School Board.

Join the conversation


  1. Hi Jared,

    I am an English teacher who has been working as a literacy coach for the past three years. When I left my high school classroom, I had already begun to push the boundaries of the discipline moving toward what I now will call inquiry.

    Eng2L, a course typically filled with young men, became my war boys course. We explored not the history of war, nor the value of the military, but instead immersed ourselves in the human stories that emerge from battle grounds of today. Grounded by Kevin Sites’ In the Hot Zone, students choose a current area of conflict and searched for the human stories behind it to understand the conflict, to connect to the world, to learn something about themselves.

    As a lit coach, I increasingly felt the constraints of my title. Word walls, guided reading, writer’s workshop all important parts of a balanced literacy approach, of course. But I wanted to talk about the big ideas. What words? What texts? What topics? How is what we do at 9:00 connected to what we are doing at 1:00? How is all of it connected to the student? And what is the role of technology?

    I am heading back to the classroom in September. I am eager for the opportunity to reinvent myself as a teacher of inquiry. Of course, I will be assigned English courses (there is no getting around that), but more than ever I want to flatten the classroom walls; not just to learn about the world, but to learn with the world. Will poetry and essay analysis still be a part of our learning? Absolutely. Only now it will not be entirely determined by me.

    And I laughed at your reference to Makerspace because I just yesterday pitched the idea of creating an opportunity for students to make. I see this as a co-curricular event, but connections to courses will surely emerge over time.

    Your post resonated deeply with me. It has become cliché to say that the power of technology is its ability to connect us, and yet here we are. Thanks for sharing your shift in thinking.

    1. Thanks for your comment Julie. We work in a profession that can sometimes value knowing a lot about a little, when it is far more helpful to know a little about a lot: just enough to know where to find more as required. Relinquishing the reins to the students and allowing them to determine parts of the learning — as you suggest — is the key.

  2. Jared, I absolutely LOVE this post of yours! One thing that I miss this year teaching a junior grade instead of a primary one is that ability to integrate. With so many subjects being taught through rotary, the bell seems to dictate everything, and the learning is compartmentalized. Your post has me thinking about how I could change things for next year.

    My real aha moment was when you were talking about teaching some of the different Social Studies subjects, and instead of focusing on the content, you’re focusing on the “big idea.” What a fantastic suggestion! I’m just thinking now about how that big idea could be used to help students on all ages guide their learning in some of these subject areas.

    Thank you for getting me thinking! I plan on sharing this post with the teachers at my school too. I think it’s a great one for everyone to read.


  3. While I was reading your blog post there some delicious irony going on…our Grade 6 students were in the resource room using laptops to complete EQAO.
    There was a question involving calculating the mean of a set of numbers. None of the students knew what “mean”meant and I couldn’t tell them. They weren’t allowed to look it up in the dictionary or search it online. This is what the government is testing and spending millions on.
    This totally flies in the face of the direction schools and boards are moving towards. There is no collaboration or inquiry going on, just students sitting in their individual little areas giving answers to questions that have been designed to level them off.
    This information is then used to more or less rank schools and can even impact property values.

    At any rate, I agree with your premise that teachers are not really specialists anymore in the new framework in which teaching is heading. We provide context, wisdom, advice, feedback and help teach students how think. However, we still live in a world that assigns a percentage on kids and this dictates whether they can get into medical school, law school or humanities. It’s a difficult reconciliation between these two worlds and it will be interesting how policies and attitudes shift over time.

    1. The framework created for the completion of EQAO stands in such counterpoint to the conditions a conscientious teacher creates everyday as to render the results moot for all but the most compliant and conditioned of students.

  4. Jared,

    Great post – you give a lot to think about. I’m totally with you as a fellow ‘hater’ of math in elementary and high school – I dropped it after Grade 11!

    I’ve been trying to teach math through problem-solving and science through inquiry, but have found it difficult with my class this year. I’m not sure if it’s because it’s my first class and I don’t have a high level of familiarity with the content, my students’ level of prior knowledge and exposure to these methods, a combination of the two or something all together different.

    I love the idea of self-directed learning, but how can we cover all the prescribed curriculum if students aren’t ‘self-directed’ to uncover the information? Do we need to change the way that curriculum is prescribed to us as teachers? Will that ever happen? I guess in the meantime we just try our best, set new goals each year and continue to work towards being more of a ‘facilitator of learning’ rather than a ‘teacher of information’.

    1. Yes. The curriculum needs to change. I’ve been lucky enough to see a draft of the new Social Studies curriculum. If it is any indication of the direction the curriculum documents are headed as they are revised, you will start to see explicit directions on how to implement inquiry into practice, with less focus on content.

      1. For Leaders of Literacy Collaborative Inquiry, two of my teacher colleagues dove head first into student inquiry and in both cases social studies was the main content area (literacy being the driving force of all content areas). The grade 6 big question was “How do the stories of other people impact my life?” and the grade 5 question was “How have innovations of early civilizations developed and changed to meet our needs in modern society?” You can view our work here:



  5. O this learning, what a thing it is!

    (The Taming Of The Shrew)

    I will be encouraging the class to have a read through your manifesto, your challenge for change. There are so many reasons why technology should lead the charge, but I think it will be wise leaders, such as yourself, who will do the bidding for the changes we need to see in schools.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *