A real rant

This is a genuine rant. Sometimes we use the word to label a slightly dyspeptic discourse on something that merely irritates us. No, this is a rant that will offend quite a few and is about something that enrages me.

What prompted this is another conversation with a friend where I “let it all hang out” and both of us were shaking our heads over the stupidity and cowardice that passes for teaching. Finally, I said that I needed to get this into my blog so people can respond to it; that’s what the blog is for and I feel a bit dishonest in not coming out and saying that I despise some of the attitudes I see among teachers.

Just now our family was talking about our grandson’s teacher. We are not happy with her. I had an opportunity to interact with her and teach a little lesson to her class. I did not like the way she handled the class nor the comments she made to me about the kids. This conversation about teaching and our grandson was started by our daughter who described the two teachers in high school who helped her learn. She has learning disabilities but the district would not get her the help she needed despite two parents working as teachers in the district.

So she slogged through. She described the agony of going to the board when she had no idea what to do, of working in groups where she was the only one who didn’t “get it”, and of being told to just read the book if she didn’t understand. I watched her go through this as she was in the same school I was and had been in junior high at the same school her mother was. In another blog entry I describe her irrational reaction to men who have a certain appearance.

Who were the teachers who helped her? They were the ones who recognized she had difficulties learning and had no need to humiliate her in public. They also had her come in, sometimes on their own time, to give her tutoring. I knew her other teachers and recognized from their comments in the lounge what their attitudes were toward kids who have difficulty learning. One teacher, a very nice man, simply gave his students lists of fl words to learn. My daughter was terrified; she had no idea how to memorize a list of words actually, she couldn’t do that, no matter what those stupid “they’ll rise to your expectation” people say. So I put all these stupidly organized textbook words into a story for her. Quite a trick when the textbook writers are so dumb they give long end-of-chapter vocab lists of random words. Are we trying to teach a fl or select out people with exceptional ability to memorize abstractions and nonsense words?

Keep in mind, random and nonsense words are the heart of a good deal of research and IQ testing: supposedly it controls for content knowledge but it also puts off people whose common sense tells them memorizing lists of unconnected things is an unnatural act they want no part of.
These teachers were no strangers to me; not only did I know them at work, I had had teachers just like them the biology teacher who slept through class while we did our own sex experiments in the back of the room; the P.E. teacher who had me stand naked in front of him (clothed) and his h.s. boys (clothed) while he humiliated me for being a baby b/c I played guns with the neighbor boy; the chemistry teacher whose personality made wallpaper seem lively; the math teacher who broke chalk across the blackboard slashing out formulas and algorithms; the fl teacher who had us translate day after sweltering day; an English teacher who couldn’t tell a kid who loved grammar what the hell an adverb was; and on and on.
There were also the French teacher who took me to night classes where I met people speaking many different languages; the geometry teacher who withheld his advances in order to encourage me and help me get organized (yes, I owe it all to him); the algebra teacher who taught me so well I made As…. until I transferred to that b in San Antonio who told me I’d fail and fulfilled her own prophecy; the history teachers who made the past a living presence in our lives; and on and on. Mr. Waite made us like Shakespeare; Mrs. Akimoto opened up the world of classical music for me. And then there was Ms Lisenby who lectured the northern boy every day in Latin class on the evils of the N-s and taught the hell out of Latin. Bless her heart, she was so concerned I might not understand just how bad those Negroes were not a word she would ever use.

Boy, my wife could add to this list: teachers and schools in the 50s were no joke. Neither is this diatribe in the form of a blog entry. I just don’t feel like pulling punches anymore. My daughter asked me why more teachers don’t understand what kids need. I said quite simply that it is rare. Ever since I started teaching over 20 years ago, I have been told by colleagues. professors, students, parents, and innocent bystanders that I am a really good teacher. I try to fend that off by citing my extensive experience as a counselor and psychotherapist before I became a teacher, but the truth is, a lot of what I do is just common sense. You don’t expose a kid to ridicule and then expect him ever to trust you again. Use your g-d head.

So what are my beefs against teaching as I see it now? For those who haven’t read some of my personal blog entries, let me say that I worked in one h.s. for 20 years, a public h.s. with Title I feeder schools. Now I am working at a private Catholic prep school. So my teaching experience hasn’t been too varied but my own schooling was very varied: 11 schools in 5 states.

What I see starts at the top: those responsible for public ed refusing to take it seriously, reducing it to test scores as if we were dueling car dealerships, and simply being to block-headed to realize that education is the foundation of the society. Stop and think……. I mean, really, is this so hard? Can you imagine a father-farmer not teaching his boys to farm; a farmer-mother not teaching her girls to cook and sew? What would happen to the family when the first generation died off? A father teaching his boy to hunt, a mother teaching her girls to gather wild things to eat, these are the elements of what makes us human beings: the ability to pass on knowledge. We are not like the animals who have to do most of it by instinct; true, some animals teach their young to hunt, but even the teaching is instinctual. ……
wait a minute…. Instinctual? Then why do so many of our teachers seem to reject our children as students? Were hunter boys and gatherer girls ever rejected b/c they didn’t learn as fast as the other kids? Why do teachers feel it is OK to reject certain students who don’t measure up?

One book I read, recommended by Krashen, is Frank Smith’s Joining the Literacy Club. In it, he lines out how people learn language, learn to read. He rejects on good basis the studies which have people reading nonsense and holding their heads in a vice and so on. He posits a normal family in which children read b/c they are expected to by everyone around them, just as they are expected to become fluent in the local language. No one judges them, tests them, condemns them for not keeping up, etc. Only the parents who have swallowed the assembly line doctrine of child rearing have to be cautioned by their pediatrician that not everyone learns the same things at the same rate in the same way. That is the assembly line viewpof life, the factory model of education, and I cannot condemn them enough. I would include the educators who hold these ideas and promote them through textbooks, in-service training, and classes in schools of ed.

A most pernicious view of human learning has been behaviorism. I was stung by it in anthropology, my undergrad major, and later in counseling, my grad school major. In linguistics, it informed a good deal of our understanding of how people learn language until unseated by Chomsky. But educators still use it. Why? Because it promises control, control by the authorities. Its system of rewards and punishments has been tried for years, just like the grammar-based instructions of cognitive code and grammar/translation, to no avail. Kids seem to learn or not learn based entirely on factors other than rewards and punishments. A behavioral schedule is just one more thing, like CAL, to get between the teacher and the student.

Which brings me to the impersonal teaching machine. The teaching machine provides a rigid grading system, a level of expectations which is never guided by what students come into the class with, a “delivery system” devoid of human warmth and contact, things which terrify the almost Asberger-like automatons who like to design “service delivery vehicles” instead of just helping people or “skills development programs” instead of teaching. And if they can computerize it all, so much the better! Why look at your students when you can turn your back on them, gaze at your computer monitor, and type in the destinies of your students based on their performance on pre-designed and prepackaged tests? If we can introduce this to teaching, maybe it will carry over into parenting and the computer can shake the cradle when it “senses” baby needs burping, leaving mom and dad free of the mess and discomfort of spit-up.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for efficiency and progress; but from what I’ve seen over the past 60+ years, a good deal of reform efforts have been in the direction not only of command and control, identical outcomes, predictable results, and economy of scale, but toward a hands-off approach to people. Let me put you on hold for the next 12 years while you input your data and we calculate it for a grade.

OK, I’ve got lots more to say but let me go exercise after putting this on the blog. Please comment.

Oct. 13 addition

Imagine someone seeing that Spanish does not capitalize the names of the months, days of the week, etc. They then refuse to capitalize proper nouns like people’s names, names of countries, etc. in a fit of pique, exclaiming, “Well, I guess they just don’t capitalize anything!”

That’s the childish response I see among a lot of people, incl, teachers. when they encounter a different way of doing things, of thinking, of perceiving, and so forth. If you don’t do it the way I do it, then you are not doing it.

Perhaps this lies behind the “kids these days” phenomenon: if students are not doing things the way we did them in school, then they are doing nothing. The classic is the kids who don’t read but have mastered numerous technological devices and cruise and scan the internet. I am a bit of a Luddite when it comes to computers and A/V technology; I prefer a book, some paper, and maybe a blackboard or hand-held white boards, plus something to show movies on.

In many ways, I see teachers doing things that make them feel comfortable, whether it’s making students do things the way they did them in school or arranging things for maximum control. I swear, a lot of the controversy over communicative versus grammar-based approaches to teaching fl comes from this need for control, which often goes under the name “structure”.

I’ve written elsewhere about this confusion between control and structure. It is particularly pernicious when teaching is subordinated to a teacher’s control needs. Often, best practices get swamped in a welter of rules and procedures that touch only lightly on good learning principles. But the other harm such confusion brings in its train is a disparagement of methods of instruction which do not call for rigid procedures and standards. It’s as if desks not in a row equals chaos; I’ve heard that time and time again. A kid will walk in when I have the desks in rows for some reason and they’ll exclaim, “Oh, you finally got organized.” What stupidity!

Students often freeze. Then they get defiant, even angry. What makes them so? When the teacher puts them in a position of making an error. In fl classes, this is anytime the student has to use L2. The easiest way to keep class conflicts down is to give the students seat work to do, work sheets, even essays are better than having to use L2.

What happened? Don’t we hear about fl classes where the students enthusiastically respond in L2 and get a kick out of using L2 phrases with each other? Ah, but those are classes where the teacher has somehow disconnected the grades from the performance.

What?? you say, disconnect grades from performance? How does that work? Aren’t grades given exactly FOR performance? They shouldn’t be, at least not overtly. Let me give my view of how the fl classroom works.

Almost all students who reach a level of academic growth where they are recommended to take a fl care about their grades. Their experience has been that grades get lowered when errors occur; that’s obvious from the red check marks that cover returned papers (switching to green without altering the grading system doesn’t count); the number of check marks correspond quite clearly to the grade.

Oral errors are signalled by the teacher’s “uh uh” admonishment, halting the flow of comments – usually a pretty painful, halting flow – and initiating in the student a memory check for verb or case endings or other forms plus a scan of internalized vocablulary lists in a frantic search for the error. This process leads frequently to the student/speaker totally forgetting the topic of his utterance. Thus, class “conversations” become exercises in humiliation for some and utter boredom for the rest (watch the DLI Spanish instructor’s face in the video A Child’s Guide to Language – it’s priceless).

So when a teacher smilingly invites the class to speak L2, they are wary. They are sure that if they make a mistake, their grade will suffer. I notice a hilarious bipolarity among people when I tell them I never cared much about grades but then go on to tell me how amazed they are that I speak a couple of languages. Perhaps the reason I actually learned something in the classroom is b/c I ignored the teacher’s admonishments (“But Monsieur Barrett, we have covered the pluperfect and reviewed it.”) and just kept trying to say things.

Where do teachers get this obsession with correcting people? I believe it not only was the way they were taught but is embedded in our culture. I often refer to the Fred MacMurray image, calling up the professorial figure created by the actor MacMurray in Disney films along with the college campus backdrop: all students are young kids, professors wear tweedy jackets with elbow patches and smoke pipes or are incredible Jerry Lewis-like nerds in lab coats.

This image combined with the many Our Miss Brooks images – and she’s not a good example but it’s the female teacher name that sprung to mind – of the old maidish school marm pointing a boney finger at a young man for using bad grammar. I firmly believe that many Americans carry these stereotypes of teachers around in their heads and many teachers try to live up to them.

This business about correcting errors creates a wall between teacher and student; the student cannot trust his teacher with his personal creativity and thinking b/c he will criticize and correct, not join in the spirit of invention.

In the fl classroom, this becomes deadly, inhibiting all inventiveness and thus preventing the growth of an internal model of L2 via an interlanguage. How can it be otherwide when interlanguage goes by another name with teachers – mistakes. And mistakes are to be used in grading.

Remember, for fl teachers, a lot of this is grounded in the theory that a form once learned can never be removed, it becomes, so to speak, fossilized. Therefore, all utterances must be correct and therefore all mistakes must be immediately corrected before they can take root.

All this has been covered in basic textbooks on fl teaching by Chastain, Nunan, Omaggio-Hadley, Shrum & Glisan, Curtain, and on and on. It is the tragedy of fl teaching in the U.S. I am afraid there is plenty to go around as biology, social studies, English, P.E., math teachers and others follow the same pattern of stern warnings and corrections.

This is one reason a lot of teachers have gone to devices like portfolios, rubrics, projects, and so forth for the purpose of evaluation. It allows the teacher to be a support in the classroom. Nothing so enrages some traditional types as to say the teacher is there to facilitate learning. It angers them because they see in it an end to the transmission model of instruction and therefore a loss of control over the cultural content of education. A standard view of society must be imposed on students so that they will carry forth the societal and economic patterns deemed proper by the powers-that-be.

OK, now I’m getting political and I’ll quite. But I’ll be back on this entry.

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