Ideas on education, the English language, and the teaching profession.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Wonderful World of Reading

The week before the school year begins, the district calls upon their teachers to enter the school campus and prepare for the new year. Emotions and optimism fill the hallways as new teachers and even veterans draw up strategies to make the curriculum engaging and really “get those kids up to grade level this year” (the administrators will make sure of this). New teachers rekindle memories of their own English classes that influenced them to teach in that subject area. Ideally, they imagine discussing those rich tomes of the cannon like Shakespeare's tragedies, the vast industrial worlds of Dickens’, the harrowing nightmares of Orwell, or the touching adolescent studies of Salinger. "This time," they think, "I will really make the text come alive for them, and even include some more material from some other authors like Marquez and Dostoevsky." They outline some possible lesson plans around these ideas and some provocative journal prompts to expand their students' means of expression. Indeed, during that golden summer week before the kids come, even the hideous, cracked, gray blocks of the school campus will not temper the dreams of ambitious new teachers.

Then the school year begins, and mandatory diagnostic exams reveal a shattering fact: Many of the kids are illiterate, and almost all of them read a good bit below grade level. The new teachers will plow on, though a bit more cautiously, and assign their wonderful classics to the kids and hope for the best. A vast majority of students do not even bother reading a sentence and taunt the new teachers to pass the time since they have given up on work in English class. The few students that do try will drift into daydreams because the text challenges them beyond measure. Even the sober teachers wise enough to adjust their material to the students’ actual reading level encounter the same challenge. Weeks of the students' mediocrity eventually wear the teachers down to jejune worksheets and books on tape. Exercises meant to improve grammar, composition, and analysis dissipate into nothingness the same way they did the last eight grades of the students' lives. The status quo's illiteracy remains unchanged, and students will continue to view their futures in terms of what plans they have for the next weekend.

However, schools will fiercely shelter their exceptional students filling the Honors classes. Those students escaped the rampant ignorance and misbehavior of the "regular" classes through their test scores, parents, or last names. Realistically, they do not truly excel in academics, but simply function at their proper grade level and manage to maintain it for their twelve years (though many will do this by cheating). Many teachers actually come from this bubble of Honors students, but they never realized that they were only part of ten percent of the student body until they start seeing the school as a teacher.

Naturally, the situation of mass illiteracy plagues many minds paid to worry. Administrators can only suggest more benchmarks, assessments, and meaningless staff developments laden with useless educational buzzwords. Most teachers simply quit after a year of failed attempts. Other teachers settle for the busywork assignments that succeed in maintaining an orderly classroom and the students' brainwaves. An incredibly precious few, however, will defy these positively scary odds.

These models of successful teachers never receive their due credit. Students, accustomed to indolence and coddling, hate these teachers because they actually demand effort from the students. Other teachers envy them for their success and their unorthodoxy in teaching (for one must know that teaching effectively is highly unorthodox). For the same reasons, administrators, if they ever acknowledge their existence, keep watchful eye on any signs of dangerous independence of thought and virtue. The model teacher walks a lonely road, but he saves the world from a chaotic ignorance with his resilience.

Surprisingly, the methods of these teachers do not contain any gimmicks or novelties. They simply possess an incredible amount of patience, endurance, and wisdom, which they model everyday to students eager to break that image. Their lessons require that the students exert themselves independently. They explain the relevance of every technique and skill, and model these techniques and skills constantly for the class. They require accountability for academic performance and use any means to procure it to the malaise of those students hoping for anonymity and scraping by like always. With such methods, everyday for these teachers will be a draining battle. However, those last weeks of the year bear the fruit of responsible kids armed to teach themselves independently, for the wise teacher will realize that this is the end education should try to pursue.

The dreams of teaching classic novels will come someday. Unfortunately, most English teachers spend most of their school year preparing a student for the task before embarking upon it. New teachers should prepare themselves to repeat simple directions and explanation ad infinitum. They should prepare themselves for the tedious procedures of discipline and the many phone calls home for recalcitrant students. Sadly, they might find themselves the first teacher to actually ask something of the kids. This image might lack glamour, and it might conflict with the dramatizations of Hollywood, but as Aristotle rightly said over two millennia ago, "The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet." If teachers heed this quote, they can move forward and carry their poor students with them on their back. The load might weigh them down at first, but the students will walk on their own soon enough. At that point, the true dream of the teacher will materialize.

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