Read and Ponder

From Krashen’s newsletter:
This post was written by Joanne Yatvin, a longtime public school
educator, author
and past president of the National Council of Teachers of English. She
is now teaching part-time at Portland State University.

By Joanne Yatvin

I never miss reading the newspaper comics. Not for entertainment, but
because I think their creators are some of the most intelligent and
well-informed people on the public scene. As a group, they have
mastered the subtleties of language, politics, philosophy, and human

Right about now I am struck by how many comics are dealing with the
beginning of the school year and how uniform their messages are:
Children aren’t happy about going back to school.

This is not good-natured humor. It reflects pretty accurately the
feelings I hear expressed by my grandchildren and the other children I

Although the excitement of new clothes and school supplies seems to
soften the blow, the thought of being confined all day to over-crowded
classrooms and hard seats and allowed to speak only after raising
one’s hand is not a pretty prospect. Unfortunately, this picture
gets uglier every year as demands for more and harder work increase,
and the old respites of recess, art, music, and physical education
disappear. By law, adults get breaks during their workday, but not

As a teacher educator and educational researcher, I have been visiting
classrooms for years, and, for the most part, I don’t like what I
see. Many of the once excellent teachers I know have been reduced to
automatons reciting scripted lessons, focusing on mechanical skills,
and rehearsing students for standardized tests. The school curriculum
has become something teachers “deliver” like a pizza and students
“swallow” whole, whether or not they like mushrooms.

Kindergartens that used to be places for children to learn social
behavior, songs, dances, and poetry; how to build cities with blocks,
play store, and express feelings with crayons and paint, are now
cheerless cells for memorizing letter sounds and numbers. In one
kindergarten I visited last year, children recited all the words in
their little books without ever recognizing that they were part of a

In a first-grade classroom, I watched children march in circles at
mid-morning, waving their arms because there was no longer a recess to
refresh their bodies and spirits. Still, there was time enough for
them to shout out the sounds of letters in chorus everyday and to
memorize the words “onomatopoeia” and “metaphor.”

In the upper elementary grades I saw both English and math taught by
formulas. Students were given a list of the parts of a standard essay,
told to use them in order and to begin with a question or a surprising
statement. They were also taught the formula for dividing by fractions
(as if anyone ever does such a thing) and the Pythagorean theorem
(useful whenever you want to know the length of the hypotenuse of a
right triangle).

Many school districts have also adopted summer homework policies,
usually requiring students to read a prescribed list of books. This
past summer my grandnephew, who is entering 9th grade, had to write a
legal brief defending or condemning Martin Luther, although he had not
been taught anything about that writing form or that famous man in 8th

With the new Common Core Standards <>
, created by experts who will never be tested on them, school life
will grow even more onerous.

Algebra has been moved down to the 8th grade, and geometry, always a
tenth grade elective, is now required of all ninth graders.
Wordsworth’s “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads,” which I read as a
graduate student, is on the 9th grade recommended reading list.
Although, the knowledge, skills, and books in the standards are, on
the whole, academically valid, they are scheduled to be taught to
students two to four years too young to understand or appreciate them.

All this has happened because the politicians who now control
America’s schools have adopted the worst aspects of European and
Asian education, which were designed to maintain social class
boundaries in those societies.

Out of a misguided belief that students’ test scores represent a
country’s economic health and, perhaps, out of wounded pride; our
leaders appear determined to convert our once great public schools
into robot factories and to extinguish the brilliance and imagination
that have fueled our country’s greatness for more than 200 years.


This sums up my feelings about most of schooling. Even back in my day, in the 40s and 50s, you could find teachers, counselors, and others who drained the joy out of learning. Yatkin makes mention of the social boundaries function of education in some parts of the world; that’s what we had here. Not many people went very far in school. Once the need for “educated” people rose, those old models served.
With good reason, educators worried that practical training, vocational education, was just a way of relegating some youngsters to a dead-end life. College was the goal. I still see signs of this in the Black community where thousands sign up for expensive college classes that often do not deliver either on instructional expertise or on job readiness. No matter – the “university” already has its money, no doubt borrowed, never to be repaid. One prognosticator of our current recession says our next financial crisis is this exploded student debt, unpayable b/c of low graduation rates or low wages with their “college degree”.
What I esp like about Yatkin’s comments is the reference to what America’s education system has always produced: innovators. Can other, vaunted educational systems claim as much? From what I understand, in many countries education is a tradition to be passed on. One must know the received view on this or that. The received view may change, but the education allows one to be au courant. Lovely.
But it is a tradition, not a factory of energy, newness, vigor. That last word rhymes with rigor, and rigor is often invoked as what our educational system lacks. I can see rigor as an essential part of an education, but what passes for rigor is more like rigor mortis. Stiff, rigid, unthinking assignments, addressed by Yatkin in pointing out the inappropriate literature and math assignments.
The gulf between those who think learning is a natural process in which people experience excitement and joy and those who see learning as fierce, determined effort to master an enemy is no less great for the fact that most people fall somewhere on a spectrum of beliefs. Those who believe learning must be force-fed, that no child wants to learn, have a great deal of energy and tradition on their side.

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