Ain’t that a nail hit on the head

If I had a Greatness in Commenting Award, today’s winner would be a blogger who goes by the Internet handle of Alpheus.  Beneath a post at Professor Mondo’s place about the generally-wretched state of basic composition skills, Alpheus left this gem:

… if grammar can’t be taught because “it’s like asking kids to eat their vegetables,” if correcting composition papers is so tedious and hard it drives conscientious teachers to tears, then the only real explanation is that education has become so much about keeping students happy and (minimally) motivated that it’s no longer possible to ask them to do the work to learn what they need to learn.

Exactly this.  Increasingly, going to school is less about learning and more about emotional cushioning.  The children are considered to be too fragile to be contradicted and corrected; their self-esteem is regarded to be the paramount concern, rather than their minds.  To that sort of thinking, knowledge actually becomes the enemy, rather than the point.  After all, a kid can get facts wrong, make objective errors, and place lower than the other students, leading to sadness and frustration.  Kim Brooks, who wrote the Slate article that Mondo linked, described the results in this manner:

And so recently, I’ve started asking them: “What exactly did you do in high-school English class?” And … the answers I get from them about their preparation in the language arts are surprisingly similar.

Those who didn’t make it onto the honors or A.P. track hardly mention writing or reading at all. They talk about giving oral presentations and keeping reading journals evaluated with a big, meaningless check. They reveal putting on skits, reenacting some scene in a novel or play whose title they can’t recall. … As for the students who did make it to more accelerated English courses, their recollections are a little less disheartening, but only a little.

Read it all, as they say.  You may not be surprised if you have kids, or are an educator (or even know an educator).  When Brooks asks the chairman of the Evanston (Illinois) High School English department about the difficulties involved in teaching the students basic grammar and composition skills, he does two things: 1. offer some edu-speak doubletalk; 2. shamefacedly admit that there’s a lack of will behind teaching that information: “When you start talking about grammar, it’s like asking them to eat their vegetables, and no one wants to ask them to do that.” [my emphasis]

In this way, modern educational practice is selling children woefully short.  Few who ought to know better – indeed, a shrinking number of those who DO know better – are willing to make those kids buckle down.  In some cases, when you talk about the new crop of educators, they can’t buckle down on these topics because they are of the generation that wasn’t made to buckle down themselves.  I’ve seen a lot of educators of every grade level, kindergarten to college; many are family members and close friends, and through those I’ve gotten a lot of exposure to modern teachers and teaching theory.  Nearly all the teachers I know are enthusiastic, happy, motivated… but determined? Diligent? Are they willing to challenge themselves to stick to challenging the students, requiring them to master as much as they can?  This is where I wonder.  The older ones are more often this way, and the younger ones, less so.  I am no longer surprised when I read things written by educators and administrators, showing only the most tenuous hold on the principles of English composition.  I’m tempted to break out a red pen of my own.  Mostly I just fret.  How are they going to pass on knowledge they don’t have?  Worse, how can they instill the desire for excellence in their charges when they settle for mediocrity from themselves?

It gets to the point where I can hardly use the words “teacher” and “student” because that’s no longer the relationship.  One thing that this article confirms for me, is not so much an issue with this or that teaching method or ideology or theory, but a more basic problem, one that must be fixed first if any theory at all is to have a chance – and that basic problem is sloth.  It’s hard to find anyone willing to deal with sullen, reluctant, or whiny children who complain that something is too hard, or that they got a bad grade.  There are plenty who would do it anyway, except that in doing so you sooner or later deal with sullen, reluctant, or whiny administrators who find it easier to discipline one teacher than tell a multitude of those children (and their indignant parents) to stuff it.

Even the author, who is doing yoeman’s work pointing out the problem, suggests some of this in her own writing style.  She’s a college professor, so she shouldn’t be doing the high schools’ (or even the middle schools’) work for them.   True – in theory.  But she teaches college composition.  As frustrating as it is to have to get them through the remedial work, it is in fact the job she’s signed on to do.  To borrow a metaphor, you go to class with the students you have, not the students you wish you had.  And when I read the article, I get the sense that in this, she’s more on the teachers’ side than the students’.

Hearing this, it’s hard to blame the overworked high-school instructors out in the trenches. It’s hard to blame anyone for not wanting to teach writing, which, while it might not involve manual labor or public floggings, is hard, grueling work. Often it demands maximum effort for minimum payoff, headache-inducing attention to detail, wheelbarrows full of grading, revision after revision, conferences with teary-eyed students. Who wouldn’t prefer to talk about books or stories or poems? Problem is, the hard, grueling work to be done doesn’t go away. Ask any college composition teacher.

This just sounds ridiculous.  What do you mean, we’re not supposed to blame teachers of English for not wanting to teach their subject?  (It’s painfully funny that Slate reinforces this attitude by describing Brooks solely in terms of her professional writing career, to the entire exlusion of her teaching résumé, in an article specifically about teaching English grammar.  I’d think it at least deserves a mention of some sort.)  Do your jobs.  And this “maximum effort for minimum payoff” is bunkum.  What’s the payoff in letting kids journal their feelings, or do peer discussions, or waste their time with ideological readings of texts when they haven’t been given the tools to properly investigate and critique either the text or the ideology?  There’s none; at least, none for the kids.  But the educator can cruise along, having substituted feel-goodism for knowledge, happily giving out empty A’s to class after class of kids who deserved far better, but were saddled with a system too lazy to offer it to them.   Oh, but they’re affirmed!  Affirmed in stupidity, perhaps, but hey, job’s done.

And again, there’s a certain lack of buckling down evident in her writing style.  Slate helpfully mentions, at the end, that she’s a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a published fiction author who just finished a novel.  All great – it’s more than I’ve done as a professional writer, and I don’t begrudge her any success at all.  I do wonder how she gets off a final paragraph of one single sentence, spanning 18 lines of text.  The good news is that, in the midst of this great blubbery valediction, she mentions students who have validated the hard work by saying that they’ve learned something.  Eventually, that’s the point, and it’s one that more teachers need to take to heart.  It’s up to them, unless we think that hordes of under-taught teens are going to march on their school board meetings demanding more rigorous curricula.

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One thought on “Ain’t that a nail hit on the head

  1. Kate P May 14, 2011 at 9:09 am

    The other problem is–and I’m surprised nobody else mentioned it–some teachers don’t know the correct grammar themselves. We are reaching that turnover in the generation of teachers, aren’t we?

    There’s a lot of self-esteem preservation going on where I teach–it’s showing in the lack of discipline, poor writing and speaking, and dearth of manners/healthy fear of authority.

    I personally have no problem correcting the kids with this stuff.
    Student: Do you have a stapler?
    Me: I think you mean, “May I please use your stapler?”

    I try not to sound like a witch about it when I do correct them. Problem is, instruction/correction is not done consistently throughout the school, and might not be reinforced outside of it.

    Other things going on: Kids read less, and not as well; PBS has changed a lot of its literacy education programming (have you SEEN what “Electric Company” is nowadays?); nobody does sentence analysis or diagramming anymore; memorization is frowned upon.

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