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

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.


Anonymous said...

Nice blog, I'm really enjoying your posts. Please keep up the good work.

David Vincent


Scott Walker said...

Thanks. It's nice to receive a compliment and be encouraged.

Anonymous said...

Interesting thoughts. I've been teaching English for 6 years in private schools and I battle the same dilemma/temptation. Students these days are so hooked on entertainment culture that they demand stimulation, which usually means dumbing down the content. I've also been encouraged, however, to see students excited by great literature (when they understand it) simply because it's a great story. I think there's hope if, as you say, we persevere in doing it right.

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