Sunday, October 25, 2009

Opposing Forces -- commentary

Teachers who truly want to teach, especially core academic subjects, must overcome often two opposing forces, one from educational elitists who affect educational policy and the other from students who resist the work necessary for genuine learning.

Professor George Cunningham says in his article "Teaching Teachers How Not to Teach:" "… the great problem is that most of the American public holds to one view of the role of schools, while most of the education elite ... hold a very different view. The public overwhelming believes that the function of schools should be mainly academic ... If you accept that view, then schools succeed only if their students graduate with a high degree of literacy, with proficiency in mathematics, with a good working knowledge of science, history, our social institutions, and so forth.”

"On the other hand, the dominant view among those who run and teach in our education schools is that the key role of schooling is to achieve various social objectives. In their opinion, it's more important for teachers to properly adjust students' outlook on life and society than to instruct them in 'mere' knowledge and facts."

These elitists see the public schools as places of cultural adjustment, places for shifting from the failed cultures of the home to one envisioned by them. As a result, schools now provide food services to ensure acceptable nutrition, health screenings of all types, values clarification, driver's education, instruction in how to raise a family, sex education, career guidance, sensitivity training, self esteem development, anger management, and on, and on. The public schools have become the providers of many social services.

An ex-teacher called into a talk show recently and expressed how this elitist thinking effected his life as a New York City public school English teacher. He said he was reprimanded for correcting students’ grammar on the grounds that doing so leads to lower self esteem.

The elitists who influence educational policy have an agenda different than that of the general public. How else do you explain the following comment in an article discussing experiments being done with smaller schools using military style discipline. Though the academic grades were showing marked improvement, a professor was quoted as saying, "It is setting education back thirty years."

So, how are you going to evaluate the success of teachers? Say I'm an English teacher and my students are well adjusted, can work co-operatively, and have great self esteem but can't write a decent paragraph. Am I a failure or a success? What if my students are maladjusted but write great prose? Am I a success or a failure?

Not only is the teacher who truly wants to teach core academics up against the opposing influence of the elitists, he faces students who come with a very different outlook. In a different article, another professor points out that there is a drastic difference between the way the teacher and the average student look at education. The teacher actually wants to teach students something and help them achieve mastery of the subject. The student, on the other hand, sees education as a game. Their main interest is one of scoring a grade. I was in Duluth, Minnesota, visiting old friends from Alaska. A college professor friend of theirs joined us. In the conversation, he related how a student who had not made it to a single class the entire semester, showed up in his office a couple of weeks before the end of the semester and explained to him how she just had to have an A in the class because she needed a four point average to get into the graduate school she wanted to attend.

Okay, so this example is a bit extreme, it does illustrate the point. Another extreme example happened a few years back when a group of Asian students went on strike for the right to cheat. While our students haven’t yet gone on strike for that right, all too many of them feel cheating is justified if it helps you score the desired grades. There is a commercial out by the Mormon Church where a girl’s mother catches her copying another student’s paper. The girl explains that it is sharing, not cheating. Though most students don’t cheat, at least not regularly, most of them see the end goal as scoring grades, not learning.

So, if a student has learned how to score an A in my class, but has only mastered the facts long enough to pass the test, can I really feel good about my work as a teacher?

When I look at these kinds of problems in education, I can’t imagine anything politicians might do that will help, mostly because so few of them really understand the problems. The solutions are found in the attitudes and expectations of those involved in the process, not in politics.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Generational Despair -- commentary

It seems that every generation despairs for the one that will follow. Yet, the one that follows always seems to move the ball forward. Up to now, I have resisted the temptation to despair, but for the generation now growing into young adulthood, I wonder.

I began to have my doubts when going back into the classroom after several years of retirement. I was hit with a barrage of run on sentences and comma splices in student writing. There has always been some of this, but nothing like what I am now seeing. While at a recent workshop, this subject came up and I asked, “Where is this was coming from?” The immediate and emphatic answer was “text messaging.” No surprise here. The increased frequency of text messaging among teen agers is staggering, and it corrupts the language because they use a sort of written pidgin English.

I doubt that a culture can withstand the total denigration of its written and spoken language. Remember Goerge Orwell’s novel “1984?” The corruption of the language was key in subjugating the masses. The fight to maintain an acceptable language standard can become too great for the language arts teacher to win, and we are approaching a tipping point.

A thing that makes teaching our language so difficult is that all students come to school with a language structure already in place. They don’t come to school with a math, social studies, or science structure already in place, just language. The English teacher is in the business of breaking bad habits which are already in place and replacing them with standard language patterns, the patterns used in business and academia.

Over the past half a century or so, the general usage of language in America has been in a decline, and we live in a time when technology is speeding most things up exponentially, including the depreciation of language. I predict the decline will leave us with a generation unable to communicate in any intelligible, accurate way. It will be a post literate society with the return of an elite class of scribes who will provide the written communication for business and government.

By far the majority of kids today text message, using self created forms of shorthand that do not lend themselves to exactness such as ”LOL” which could mean lots of love, lots of luck, or lots of laughs. The quantity of texting is incomprehensible to people of my generation. One father told me that his daughter, sitting in the front passenger’s seat, was busily texting the girl sitting in the back seat. I had a student tell me recently that her phone plan only allowed 400 text messages a month, but she kept going over that. I was substituting in a class a couple of years ago when a girl let out a groan of frustration. She had been checking her text messaging bill and it had exceeded $485, and she knew she was in trouble when she got home. These examples are not extreme, but rather close to the norm. When kids spend this much time with a debased language structure, there is little a language arts teacher can do to keep the ball moving down field.

There are those who argue that technology will solve this problem with such things as spell check and grammar check. The problem with spell check and grammar check is that they only flag what might be a problem. It is still up the writer to make the judgment as to whether a problem really exists. This requires an adequate working knowledge of the language and the desire to write correctly, two things that are missing.

The problem is further exacerbated by the purposeful actions of advertisers and political spin: things like lite for light, kidz for kids, and politicians calling expenditures investments. One of my pet peeves every school year is the red ribbon, drug free campaign. During that week, all the students and faculty who are drug free are suppose to wear a red ribbon which has “I’m Drug Free” emblazoned on it. It seems innocent enough, except the language is inexact. The principal at one such school told me close to 50 per cent of her students were on some type of prescribed drug. Are they drug free? I know the message is suppose to communicate that the student is free of drug abuse or free from the illegitimate use of drugs, but that is not what the ribbon says. If language is important, then school is the one place where it ought to be used correctly.

What is a parent to do if they want their kids to be among the literate elite when they grow up? An obvious response is to quit funding your kid’s phone. It costs money to text message and rarely is anything being communicated that is worth the cost. Maybe by the time the kids can afford the toy on their own, their language structure will be secure. Your kids are lucky to live in a time when it is not hard to be above average, so help them capitalize on this opportunity by saying no to their every wish.