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

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Some sketches during a staff development session

I had to attend a staff development meeting two days ago. As you can see, I had quite a bit of time to waste, so I drew some stick figures. It was just like being in high school.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Learning the Fun Way

Judging from the voices of Hollywood and those around the campus, successful teachers are fun teachers. They engage the kids with fun activities that somehow relate with the kids' interests and issues, and they transform them into students for life. They might have some controversial discussions among the kids about the unending banes of poverty, crime, and racial stereotyping. These same teachers will allow maximum creativity on assignments often substituting a given concept for satisfying students’ whims. For an English class, the unconventional yet motivational approach puts rap, poetry, oratory, interpretive dance, essay composition, model making, film, and grammatical exercises in the same academic discipline. These teachers think they have the wisdom of knowing that language equals emotional expression, so they can do away with the archaic practices of reading and writing. Rather, they can put activities more in tune with the students’ interests. This approach consistently appeals to the students who in turn give very little trouble to the teacher managing the vent/creativity sessions. They think it's fun, interesting, and, well, easy.

More than any other subject, English class serves as a pulpit for "fun" teachers. They reach out to the kids by demolishing the rigor and complexity of language and rhetoric. Shakespeare's rich prose and plot structures become reduced to simplistic themes discussed in simple language. Rules of grammar disintegrate into obscurity. They have even reduced the complex and vital skill of actively reading a classic novel to the same realm as passively sitting and watching a movie of that novel. In fact, very few students read books for class but have books read to them by an audiotape or the teacher. The students write very little as well, since their innovative teacher cleverly minimizes the arduous task by offering creative equivalents like artwork with crayons, free-style poetry, or scrapbooks containing specific pictures that somehow convey a meaning. Rest assured, these teachers abandon most objective grading standards and instead follow what their hearts tell them, usually to pass the poor babies (as many will lovingly regard them). Naturally, the kids love this stress-free environment and come to love (or more accurately, not hate) English class as it is now defined for them by the unconventional teacher reaching out.

The result that follows from this new summer camp curriculum replacing actual curriculum is a growing population of illiterates. Kids pass through twelve years of school without reading a single book on their own, writing anything more than a page, or even conceiving a sentence over six words. Many of them reason with the same sophistication as a student in elementary school. Those that pursue a college education learn that the spell and grammar check functions on Microsoft Word can do very little for a person with no real conception of spelling or grammar. Anyone who cares to chat with an average professor from any college faculty will certainly hear a heavy groan at the pathetic quality of students' writing that grows ever worse by the year. As a result, quite a few college professors utilize the same "unconventional" methods of high school English teachers. By doing this, they can escape that tedious task of teaching composition and close reading. Thus, a student may possibly graduate from high school and college without reading or writing proficiently.

This nonobjective treatment towards the English language pervades all levels of schooling. Students of all ages, their parents, and administrators now expect it from English and Reading teachers. If they refuse to teach that way, everyone around them will charge them with being boring, unrealistic, and incompetent. All those lovely authors of the English canon like Hawthorn, Elliot, Shakespeare, Twain, Orwell, and the Bronte sisters that English teachers cherish so deeply because of their ultimate literary beauty now disappear with utter neglect. These teachers stifle their intellectual stirrings and reluctantly push the play button for their emotionally and intellectually stunted students. They know that only fools try to challenge the status quo at a public high school.

Modern culture reflects this choice to remove objectivity and academic discipline from the English language. Eerily similar to the Newspeak of 1984, the only language in history where the number of words decreases each year, English in the United States experiences the same phenomena. Newspapers, which are facing extinction soon, have been edited for people with a sixth grade reading level. Most modern literature pales in comparison with the virtuosic verbiage of the nineteenth century. Magazines have more pictures and fewer words, even ones discussing literature.

Extending the Orwellian analogy, the reduction of vocabulary in English results in a constant diminishment of ideas. Newspeak nullified the ideas of independence and happiness by removing them from the language altogether. The United States suffers this same kind of loss. Many minds don't understand nuance or complexity like they might have before. Politicians demonstrate this decline of thought perfectly. They can treat incredibly complex issues like the environment, immigration, or trade deficits with incredibly simple, but somehow acceptable, answers like "Cut taxes", "More government subsidies", or "build a wall". Naturally, the other venues of culture that cater to the intellectual capacity of the masses follow suit. They simplify their art to petty agendas, gimmicks, or insipid platitudes. Like newspapers, television might also face extinction very soon because of this shameless pandering to ignorance.

People need to understand that the real fun of any academic discipline should come from increased proficiency. Teachers that push their students through the harrying grammar of the English language also enable many more possibilities for their students' thoughts and expression more than any assignment employing arts and crafts. Teachers that assign frustrating essays also open a vital area of critical thought that will eventually liberate young people from shallow propaganda. Teachers that take their kids through the heavy language of classic writers also endow their students with maturity, new ideas, and a larger mental capacity. The struggle demanded by these exercises lack facile amusement, but they do educate youths to rise to challenges of the world awaiting them, which should be the purpose of educational institutions.

Unfortunately, the conflict erupts from those who think educational institutions have different purposes like amusing the populace until they reach the age of employment or official incarceration. Those people often run the schools themselves to the satisfaction of ignorant parents. Like the students who relish inferior education, teachers, administrators, and parents also love the fun unconventional teaching methods because it relieves them of responsibility and makes their lives easy in the meantime.

Naturally, these easy solutions later create society's cultural undoing. Tragically, they create incomplete human beings as well.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Mental Block

"You, 6655321, are to be reformed," said the prison chief governor from the horrible tale of a Clockwork Orange. In this part of the story, the main character, a young man named Alex goes by a number that the prison assigns him, 6655321. His crime of brutally murdering and robbing an elderly woman placed him behind bars. The faceless quality of the prison setting that reduces every inhabitant to a number and crams them into overcrowded cells muffling their cries. Alex seeks freedom from the colorless block even if that means sacrificing his free will in an operation that make him feel extreme queasiness at any wayward thought arising in his criminal mind. Ignoring admonitions from a sympathetic preacher, Alex foolishly accepts the operation that soon pushes him to eventual self-destruction. It never occurred to Alex to liberate himself from the authorities or his own wanton passions by taking a step towards personal responsibility. Rather, he sought to forfeit any personal responsibility and sedulously acted to preserve and careless life without a conscience as long as possible before it got boring.

Coincidentally, one will find quite a few similarities to the nightmare the between the aforesaid novel and an average public school. Like the prison, many American public schools also assign numbers to their students and cram them into overcrowded rooms. Like Alex, students will seek liberty at any price often sacrificing any viable future they could have had. They throw away personal responsibility and indulge every throbbing impulse of adolescence to the detriment of themselves and all those around them. The anonymity and oppressiveness of their surroundings completely obscures academic achievement, and it absolutely abhors independent and accountable thought.

The hierarchy starts from an unseen big brother, otherwise known as the superintendent. Below him begins a tall stack of district administrators, then school administrators, then department heads, then finally, the teachers. Each level also designates consultants assigned to facilitate the effectiveness of each level. Like the students, each cog in this marvelous machine has an employee number in which to identify oneself. This hierarchy strives to sterilize any community with its sheer vastness and its oppressive mandates to maintain the status quo.

Students and teachers in this system either fall into line with this environment or they are chastised and removed. Both parties make the best of a glum situation to which society has sentenced them. Students escape by doing the least work possible, forcing teachers to entertain them with summer camp activities. Teachers escape by satisfying the students and shedding any desire they formerly had to educate. Administrators will do their jobs by actually keeping the kids in school and taming their spirits for something useful like operating cash registers or picking up garbage. The few students with responsible parents might find a place to learn in the Honors classes where they will learn at grade level if they're lucky. If not, students will sink into a tolerable depression and embrace being dehumanized.

The beauty of this system is that it accommodates everyone. Districts have artfully managed to pack schools to the brim with students with minimal concessions. With so much funding, they have created a world that admits no freedom, no development, no logic, no beauty, and is so downright dystopian that even Orwell would cringe. Real humans are transformed into dogs that perform mindless tricks (i.e. standardized tests), waiting for their next treat and their new chew toy.

Unfortunately, the world does not care to have more mindless sheep to do stupid jobs and lead pointless lives. They can get those sheep in other countries for much less money. The world does need conscientious leaders who can lead the populace out of the doldrums of ignorance and into material and cultural prosperity. As it stands, most Americans are left to themselves to get an education on their own by teaching themselves or by paying absurd amounts of money for remedial classes in college. In present times, a decent education that a person should receive in their teens instead happens in their late twenties. By that time, they will be fixed cogs like their teachers in a vast machine that obfuscates their very humanity. Their youthful energy usually expires, leaving them powerless break the gloomy cycle.

To top off this lurid reality, public schools will continue as they are. Administrators will weed out the insiders who cry out for reform. Outsiders will be brushed off as uninformed about education and disgustingly elitist. Being a monopoly, public school districts will carry on since the competition can only address a small portion of the market. They will throw a bone to concerned parents, and they will give a nice little speech for the community. This is all a fa├žade to please everyone accept the faculty and kids.

Perhaps a century ago, American kids could be likened to Huckleberry Finn or a Tom Sawyer eager to satisfy their abundant curiosities. Now, American kids carry a much greater affinity to a Winston Smith in 1984 or an Alex from A Clockwork Orange. They can choose between complete submission and utter depravity. Unfortunately, the United States has enough of these types and needs to change the institution that propagates it. A good start for this change might be giving students their names again.

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