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

Friday, April 10, 2009

Nipping the Problem in the Bud


A popular bromide has developed in education; it declares “raising one’s expectations for students will result in better performance.” However, a little experience in teaching will immediately trample this sanguine attitude because students will often fail before meeting those high expectations. They will rebel outwardly forcing substantial disciplinary action, they will rebel inwardly and not try the assignments and put in little effort, or they will try but fail in the objective all the same because they are years behind. Obviously, expectations eventually adjust with the level of the students, but the frustration of knowing they should be higher hits every concerned teacher. Naturally, the guilty culprits arise: parents, teachers, genetics, poverty, technology, media, NCLB, and society at large. Although all these factors deserve more far more serious attention than they receive already, they only address symptoms that manifest themselves later in life, usually adolescence. The real source of a child’s academic success, which can warrant any teacher’s ambitions of raising expectation, originates in his first years of schooling.

One of education’s gurus, Marva Collins, offers some great insight on this subject, which is actually rare among the millions of books on education. In her book, The Marva Collins Method, she describes her unusual approach to elementary school children: to actually teach and make them work. Most people ignore this aspect of the book, choosing rather to focus on the treacly stories of Marva connecting with neglected ghetto-children. For the few paying attention, they will see that Marva’s method is unusual because most elementary schools completely forego the critical instruction a child desperately needs. Most kids in elementary school hardly write, read, and many get by without learning a single rule of grammar. Rather, they play. For about six to eight years, the children grow into young adults neglect to use those absorbent brains that God gave them to learn. They enter high school, equipped with approximately the same skills they had when they entered the third grade. The only difference is that they are bigger, louder, and can procreate.

Fortunately for her little ones, Marva knew that she needed to teach phonics, grammar, and a good amount of classics. The average high school student struggles with all three. In basic, they will stumble on most words and forget to pause on periods revealing a terrifyingly shaky foundation in their literacy. Many of their minds will shut down within minutes of beginning of a classic novel, and they will put their heads down or stare at the ceiling—hence many teachers resort to using the tapes, so the students can enjoy “story time” like they did in kindergarten. In any assessment over grammar, even the most basic of grammar concepts, English teachers will usually need to prepare for the fact that over half of them will fail no matter how good the instruction.

Grammar in particular becomes prickly to teach because it is a discipline that requires some degree of memorization and a great deal of practice, very much like math. Unlike math, elementary teachers will take their chances and shove the burden of teaching grammar to the high schools. They can do this because most standardized tests will hardly test on grammar concepts before the second year of high school. Hence, many students enter come into through the door of English I, writing very much like small children. They make short sentences devoid of modifiers, phrases, additional clauses, and punctuation that strays from the period. Remedying this daunting gap in education requires Herculean efforts from a high school teacher because the students will fight it every step of the way. For the preservation of their sanity, many teachers forego any significant grammar instruction by this point, and pray that the rules will somehow come to students by them subconsciously internalizing some grammatical patterns through a book they read. Unfortunately, even if this were the case (and it isn’t), the students would actually have to read a decent amount of literature in the first place.

Most kids do not read very well, if at all. If they do, they read fairly easy texts written by Rowling or Meyers and their imitators. To say that these popular novels acclimate students to the many rules and conventions of reading classics would be like saying that a short walk through a parking lot acclimates a person to the rigors of a marathon runner. These books contain short sentences, limited vocabulary, easy morality, and a serve lack of complexity in the setting or characters. They serve ideally for escapes, but they do not challenge a reader to learn more than they know. Most elementary schools will eschew serious reading and the discipline it requires in favor of this kind of reading, or no reading at all. What this produces are children in high school that struggle with basic comprehension of adult texts and ideas; they struggle with very simple vocabulary; even discerning the moral message of a tiny fable by Aesop gives them fits.

The basic building block of reading, phonics, comes into question as districts entrust the high school teacher to acquaint callow unprepared youth to the works of Shakespeare. The na├»ve teachers will try to make the most of the Playwright’s plays by having the students play the parts and read out loud. They will learn most of the students only have a set list of words they can actually sound out and read, but they will ultimately fail with the unfamiliar words that abound in Shakespeare’s plays. The experience is thus tedious and painful for many in this exercise and betrays yet another gap in the students’ instruction. A teacher may teach many lessons half-heartedly without much of a repercussion, but they cannot do this with phonics. When they come short in that regard, they can cripple a child’s mind for a long while in the same way breaking their leg would make them lame permanently.

However, the teachers of an elementary school and their respective curriculum cannot take all the blame for such a paucity of knowledge. Most parents will gladly reinforce a lack of skills for their children. They nurture vices of attention deficiency with plenty of toys and few demands. Kids will be kids—forever. They stay lazy, distracted, and demanding throughout their academic careers. An elementary school will struggle with this, but a high school teacher will have no choice but succumb to it since the damage has become irreversible. Thus, the high school’s library is full of movie adaptations of classics, and the cabinets in most classrooms are filled construction paper and markers.

Marva Collins’s story demonstrates the difficult but ultimately necessary practice of really teaching the basics and disciplining the children at an early age. In her professional life, this eventually led to ostracism by her colleagues, so she had to start her own school. She succeeded with that school and now holds seminars. The district that pushed her out is notorious for violence, inefficiency, and poor academic performance. For the lucky few that have learned a few things in English, perhaps they can draw the moral lesson from her story and apply it their own younger students if they hope to change things for the better. High school English teachers and their students with underdeveloped intellects have suffered enough.

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