Saturday, April 22, 2006

Teachers and Reading

A lot has been said and written over the years about schools and teachers. It's one of those things that everyone has an opinion on. I've got a couple of kids in public school and I'm a public school teacher. Does that give my opinion greater weight than the average parent? Um . . . yep. Having been in this game for the past seventeen years, working with dozens of teachers, principals, consultants, and hundreds of students, I think I've built up a body of knowledge that I wouldn't have otherwise obtained. I've also read some of the books about education. There are a few good ones and tons of crappy ones.

Because of my years of experience I can safely tell you that the reason American public schools are not performing at the level they should be performing is due to two factors working in tandem against your child getting the best possible education. First, as I brought up here, here, and here, the average elementary school curriculum has been dumbed down to a truly insulting level. Second of all, teacher training is abysmal.

Those two factors go hand-in-hand. We fourth and fifth grade teachers in my district recently had a new reading text dumped on us. Thanks to a Reading First grant (part of No Child Left Behind legislation) grades k-3 had been using this basal text for the past three years. We in the upper grades had been ignored. That's the way I like it. While other teachers were complaining that they didn't know what kind of stories to use, I was able to read Greek myths, selections from Bennett's Book of Virtues, fairy tales from Jr. Great Books (given to me by our reading specialist becuase she knew I would use them), Donald Duck, and some of Shakespeare's plays. I don't want to claim that I'm any better than my collegues who couldn't put together a reading list for their students, but it does make me wonder how they can inspire their students to read when they have so little knowledge of what has been written. In other words, do these teachers read?

Now that we have a basal text, these teachers are comfortable once again. They know what to teach. They've been given a plan. And the plan, if followed, is pretty much idiot-proof. All of the thinking has already been done for the teacher, and is presented in full color in the Teacher's Guide. Teachers are even guided through the stories, step by step, so that they will know how to guide the students through them.

The stories themselves are trivial. They have controlled vocabularies. They have no depth. The main lessons are based on multi-cultural drivel, "can't we all just get along" platitudes, "you can do it" self-esteem builders, and romanticized "save the Earth" nonfiction. The stories keep the readers firmly planted within themselves. There is nothing to take them outside of themselves, nothing to titilate them with questions and stories that have been told for hundreds or thousands of years. There is nothing for them to reach for, to challenge them intellectually. The richness of vocabulary that should be a staple of childhood reading has been replaced by safe, nonoffensive, dumbed down, political correctness. Even the Donald Duck story I'd been reading with my class challenged them to think more than anything we've found in this book.

To teach the new modern basal readers, teachers aren't expected to have any body of knowledge. Everything they need is given to them by the publisher.

Worst of all, a lot of these stories are boring. When I was taking stories out of Jr. Great Books, I had no Teacher's Guide so I had to think of my own discussion questions, and read the stories to create a vocabulary list. It kept me on my toes and stories like Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, The Ugly Duckling (by H. C. Anderson, not an emasculated version), Beauty and the Beast, other stories by Langston Hughes, Kurt Vonnegut, Howard Pyle and others opened up worlds that my students are just not being exposed to any more.

On the other hand, the way things change, in a year or two, when nobody is looking, I just might be able to go back to teaching the way that works. Our principal is a reasonable guy, and as long as you are doing what you are supposed to do, he leaves you alone. We shall see.

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At 9:28 PM, Blogger ex-Hollywood Liberal said...

I wanted to know if you wish to cross-post. This is an essay on LAUSD:


Clark Baker


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