Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Teacher Concerns - or - More of My Same Old Complaints

I was talking with my wife's cousin. He's a high school teacher. He teaches in a rural, predominantly white school district on the west side of Michigan. When it comes to education, we believe in many of the same silly things: learning to read and write properly - in standard English, and with all of the proper mechanics - speaking clearly, again in standard English with all of the proper mechanics - and teaching students the basics of English grammar, syntax, spelling, and usage so that they can think, and when called upon, to communicate their thoughts clearly and accurately. He gets frustrated because year after year, he has to teach remedial English skills to high school students. He has the same problems with his students that I have with my elementary school classes.

My wife is in college. She's going for her bachelor's degree. She has to write papers, which I proofread. According to her, many professors have given up on having their students write papers using the proper mechanics of the English language. If the paper is understandable, that's good enough. These post high school students never learned to write properly.

Now, since I am merely an elementary school teacher, and at the bottom of this educational ladder, I can hardly be called an expert. I've spent 21 years in the educational field, but it's all been in the classroom, not in the hallowed ivy halls learning the educational theories of Dewey, Piaget, etc. So what could I possibly know that these experts don't?

Well, one thing I think I know, or at least I have a sneaky suspicion of, is that what I do, and what my colleagues teach and don't teach down here at the bottom, affects students' abilities though the rest of their lives, including college. Just as I should not still be teaching students that proper punctuation must be placed at the end of every sentence, neither should high school teachers and college professors. I also spend a lot of time every year teaching students how to write a sentence, explaining how to recognize one, how to begin and end it, making sure it has a subject and a predicate, and expresses an idea. Most truly have no idea of any of this.

Rather than have students engage in "peer editing" when neither student editing each others' paper has any idea as to what's right or wrong with them, I try to read everything they write. And then I have to meet with as many students as possible to help them figure out the right way to express themselves in writing. This also includes insisting that they speak standard English in the classroom. I teach in an "urban" district, which means almost all of my students are black, so it's really tough in the beginning of the year. It's almost like teaching another language to them. I've had students give up when I insist that they phrase their question to me in the way I've told them to. I don't accept "Do we 'posed to . . ." or "What is you doin'?" or - well, you get the idea. For some students, it's very difficult to speak correctly. It gets easier, and by March, rather than restating the proper phrase, I can merely insist that they "speak English." But it does all work together: speaking, writing, reading, spelling.

But that's only my opinion based on years of classroom experience, and even more experience over the past 5 or 6 years tutoring students before and after school and during the summer. And it's also the opinion of parents whose children I have tutored, and who have done the work necessary to actually learn. I haven't had my theories reinforced in the great educational colleges of our nation, though. It's against their philosophy.

Part of the problem is that, as much as we talk about understanding the scope and sequence of grades K-12, each teacher in each grade, for the most part, only knows what they are required to teach with only a vague idea as to how it fits into the rest of the picture. And each new reading and writing program that comes along does nothing to change that. As I've written before, each new program is based on the previous programs that have been tossed aside. Today's reading and writing guru, Lucy Calkins, will be abandoned and forgotten in about three to five years. And somebody new will be acclaimed as the latest and greatest while teaching the same way, but with new bells and whistles. This has been the way it has been for the 21 years I've been teaching. And as long as teachers are forced to jump on these revolving bandwagons by their administrators, resource leaders, and consultants, it's not going to change.

The current fashion in reading has returned to a controlled vocabulary. The change from controlled to open and back is a longer pattern taking a generation or more to make that circle. Leveled books are the current panacea, and students are expected to write, as always, without worrying about mechanics, since as we are taught - concern for spelling and punctuation will only slow down their thoughts, and they will be bogged down, unable to even complete that first sentence. Teachers are instructed to give "mini-lessons" in the finer points of writing. Do the mini-lessons work? I don't know. You should ask the college remedial reading and writing instructors to find out.

Want to know what's really funny about this? At one of the first Calkins workshops I attended at our local intermediate school district, the consultants were discussing with us how to change the program so that it would be applicable to the remedial needs of our students. This is as chuckle-worthy as when we were being introduced and trained in the basal program we used previous to Calkins. After being shown all of the wonderful resources (thousands of dollars worth) some of our teachers angered the trainers by insisting that the remedial books were not low enough for our lowest students. And it wasn't just annoyance, these trainers were steamed.

I will be trained in the Calkins stuff, but I will continue to start students at the beginning as I always do. I will also continue to run my mouth at staff meetings and at workshops, especially when all of the teachers are well trained but still getting the same miserable results that we've always gotten. But the question still remains - how do these people keep getting by the same B.S. time after time?

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At 9:42 PM, Blogger Mrs. C said...

I think it's actually racist to accept that poor black children cannot speak proper English, or that they have their own "cultural" English. No one hires people like that for customer service, and why should the lives of your students be more limited than they have to be? They have enough knocks against them already. God bless you.

I know that when you are discussing mechanics that you are not an overboard sort of fellow. Certainly here at home I would accept, "I em gong to the stor" from a first grader WHILE I am teaching the concept of the period. Later, I may ask, "Uh-ohh, what's missing at the end?" and still later I may just pop "going" or "store" on the week's spelling list. I get this concept that we don't need to crush a child's self-esteem in correcting writing, but we also need to learn to do things the right way.

Interestingly enough, my autistic homeschoolers can diagram a sentence and discuss the difference between simple and complete predicates, but still have trouble with writing sentences that don't contain phrases like "much tacos" or a lack of punctuation and proper verb form (fighted?).

At 5:22 AM, Blogger MightyMom said...

Mrs C. I just love Autism!! I really do. The things my boys get vs what they don't get is amazing to me. My 5 year old will say "where's Daddy? Where's the cat and cat?" Instead of Where are Daddy and the cats? And I'm with you on gradually getting things correct.

and yet. Harry's right, if they can't speak well they won't write well. And I think especially in today's "r u k 4 2nite???" communication. We must be sticklers for proper English. After all, the longer a bad habit is practiced the harder it will be to eliminate it.

At 4:12 PM, Blogger Harry said...

Mrs. C,
You're right about the racism aspect. And I don't expect my students to know anything that I haven't taught them.

As far as I know, I'm either the only one of one of very few teachers who insist on proper English.


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