No Easy Matter
by David W. Smit
RANTING against the failure of public education, and the failure of teacher training in particular, is a great American pastime. We teachers join right in. After all, it’s not our fault that everyone else in the system is incompetent. Ranting is easy and a lot of fun – if you enjoy shooting tame ducks in your backyard pool. And let’s face it: most of us do. The trouble is that it doesn’t take any skill. Duck hunting would require a great deal more patience and knowledge and finesse if the ducks could be taught to fly and avoid the backyard pool. But teaching ducks anything is a difficult business: ducks are notoriously intractable.
It is certainly not as easy as Colonel Haydon implies in the article reprinted by Jake Warner in the April Boxwooder: it’s not so easy that all we have to demand is that teachers know their subject matter. For one thing, teaching demands a lot more than knowledge of subject matter, and for another, it is not at all clear to what degree a teacher ought to know his subject to be professionally competent.
We all have our stories about teachers we’ve known who have been well-informed, well-intentioned, pleasant people and perfectly abysmal teachers. Whatever it is they knew, they certainly couldn’t get that knowledge across to their students: it was too abstract, it was too boring, it didn’t make sense; the class was so rigid that all creative thinking was stifled; the class was so loose that no one could listen to anyone else over the din or see them through the hail of paper wads. Teaching is not just knowledge; it has something to do with the management of groups and presentation of material in vivid ways and sensitivity to the various ways in which people learn.
Teaching has something to do with rapport and good judgment and even, by God, intuition. If you can design a curriculum to teach prospective teachers these values, go ahead. You won’t be alone. Thousands, maybe millions, of these curricula have been designed already, and many have been put into effect. They have resulted in the system of teacher training, or the lack of a system, which we have now.
Just what teachers should know in their respective fields is no easy matter either. Public school teachers are not researchers or specialists. Should the high school physics teacher be aware of the latest findings about particles and black holes when the courses he teaches never touch on the theory of relativity? Should the third grade teacher know his Shakespeare and linguistics when his job involves the alphabet and the basic sounds of the language? Well, of course, you answer: teachers ought to be well-educated generally. They ought to know about Shakespeare and atoms and the Roman Empire. Of course. But so should everyone else.
We’re talking about professional qualifications now. In four to six years of higher education a prospective teacher can’t learn everything in his field. What are the basics? I thought I knew the answer to that question once, but I’m not so sure anymore. My job is teaching English in the seventh grade. I have a respectable B.A. in English and history, with a little philosophy on the side, and an M.A. in theatre. Just how all this knowledge prepared me to teach the seventh grade, I don’t know. I certainly don’t use more than a smidgen of it – at least not consciously.
What I think I do use are bits and pieces of various theories and ways of looking at things acquired over quite a few years. These theories and ways of looking at things did not originally have to do with teaching at all. I simply stole them because they seemed useful. For example, I teach the novel using a system devised by Kenneth Burke, a highbrow literary critic, whose original intention was to distinguish between a novel of lasting value and a novel worth a few evenings. I teach subordinate clauses using terminology from a book whose title I’ve long forgotten.
Whether these peculiar ways of looking at things are valuable enough to be taught to all English teachers is an open question. Somehow I doubt it. The issue remains: what are the basics? I once sneered at a colleague of mine who teaches eighth-grade English because she said that she resented having to take a course in seventeenth-century British literature. Upon reflection, I’m sorry I did that. I don’t believe now that a course in seventeenth-century British literature would necessarily have done her any good as a teacher. It might have improved her store of arcane knowledge about the English language, but unless she could transform that information into something usable in the classroom it would have been a waste of time professionally. Of course, the fact that she didn’t want to study the seventeenth century may say something about her over-all taste and abilities in her field. But we all have these preferences. I hate eighteenth-century poetry. The issue remains: what are the basics?
And lest the task of designing a teacher-training program still be too easy for you, there is the added proviso that the competence of teachers be “objectively” verifiable – whatever that means. I presume “objectively” is to eliminate cronyism and bias and the kind of standards that prevailed at my last school in which it was commonly believed that your rating as a professional teacher was directly related to the neatness of your chalkboards and the evenness of your window shades. And I presume Col. Haydon would agree that no administrator or school board should hire him as a teacher simply because he has an M.A. in history and says he can teach. Why should they take his word for it?
Universities rely on grade-point averages and the recommendation of the supervising teacher to be objective. (The recommendation is made “objective” by the fact that the supervising teacher has to check off one of five boxes in a long line of “sub-skills.”) Most school boards and administrators, aided and abetted by teacher unions and associations, rely on spot checks by the resident administrator, and if a teacher is not found objectionable, he is put into a salary scale which rewards teachers only for years of experience and advanced degrees. Salary increases, promotions, or any other kind of reward is therefore effectively removed from being related to a teacher’s performance in the classroom. A perfectly awful system, of course – until you try to devise a better one. The latest fad, accountability, toys with the idea of judging a teacher by the scores of his students on standardized tests but hasn’t been able to get around the fact that students differ widely in ability before they get to a certain teacher and may be impervious to instruction no matter how good a teacher is.
In short, America awaits a viable curriculum for training teachers and a certifiable means of judging their performance. It has been waiting for a long time. We may be in a position of having to accept the present system for the same reason Winston Churchill accepted democracy: it is messy and inefficient and in many respects downright evil… but it is still better than the alternatives.
In my better moments, however, I have a plan – at least for the education of English teachers for a middle school. I have even been known to lobby for the plan: when the local Education people descend on my school every year to request supervisors for student teachers. I have a long list of demands. Have the student teachers gotten at least a B in a course in grammar and adolescent literature? Can they execute a Directed Reading Activity (what we in the education business call a particular format for a lesson)?
No? Well, too bad. Come back when they can. I, of course, can afford to have standards. I have a job. I can afford to blithely overlook the fact that I’ve never had a course in adolescent literature in my life and wouldn’t be caught dead taking one: the reading of too many stories and novels written expressly for teenagers can turn the adult brain to the consistency of cooled Cream of Wheat. I can afford to blithely overlook the fact that when I was accepted to my first teaching job, I didn’t know what a Directed Reading Activity was and to this day I don’t know all the refinements. I can afford to blithely overlook the fact that I took my first grammar course two years ago – after I had been teaching for five years. I can, in short, afford to overlook the fact that by my own high standards, I shouldn’t be teaching at all. I haven’t been adequately prepared.
The Anonymous Critic
by Jacob L. Warner
FOR ONE who reads a good bit, I am remarkably blind to bad writing. Just as, in my pre-printing days, I read thousands of books without really noticing the different type faces, I often read books without paying any mind to the quality of the writing. Especially if I am reading trash, I do not pick at the writing but either read it through or, quite often, simply lose interest and quit.
But someone in this area is an active critic of bad writing. All I know about him is that he reads a lot of trash from the Greenbelt library. He makes his opinions known by writing his comments in the margins and by underlining words or phrases that he finds unusually bad. At first, this horrified me; I grew up thinking that defacing a book was a major crime, but really the books to which he does that were mutilated by their authors to start with and are getting no more than they deserve. His comments and underlinings are not particularly witty, but once my attention is so forcefully called to the bad writing, I find it almost impossible to read the book.
There is a typical book of this type. It will have only 300 pages but will be on bulky paper so it is two inches thick. It is also oversized in height and breadth, has a strong title, is by the author you never heard of, and is priced at $14.95. Violence and sex are the major subjects, and by the end of the first chapter you know a movie will be made from the book and probably a TV series as well. I can only conclude that the strong plots and delectable subject matter make them publishable in spite of the atrocious writing.
Noted recently in this category were The Physicians by Henry Denker and On A Darkling Plain by Daniel Dodson. The example I happen to have now from the library is not oversized, and I believe the author has badly written other books, but it belongs in the group. It is Earthsound by Arthur Herzog. AC (Anonymous Critic) starts his attack mildly, and even unfairly, by underlining in green ink a preposition in: “The stone house stood on six acres of land.” Then, a few pages later, comes: “He said with a round smile.”
By page 34, AC really gets going on: “Charmichael said with a bright smile under his mustache, and: “Jeff said, wrinkling his eyes,” and: “Kay said, volubly.” On page 36, AC marked: “… she blushed beneath her freckles,” and: “Carmichael’s mustache turned toward his host.” AC asks in the margin, “All by itself?”
AC often marks the words that bad writers use to vary the “he saids.” On one page he underlined a series of “he explained,” “she chuckled,” “she cried,” “Pollychirped,” “she joked,” “she snapped,” and he had marked the many adverbs that were also intended to vary the dialog. Some of these were: warmly, quickly, kiddingly, wanly, gleefully, bossily.
I was struck by a phrase that AC did not mark: “like a Roman numeral X.” How does that differ from a plain X?
Vic Moitoret, my very unanonymous critic, took me to task for saying something about a circle becoming “wider and deeper” and said I would probably consider his objection a nitpicking one. But I didn’t feel that way at all. Bad grammar, poor spelling, and typos are objectionable chiefly because they tend to obscure the idea the writer is trying to convey, but such phrases as “deepening circles” reveal a much more serious fuzziness of the underlying idea itself.
One can sense the pleasure AC takes in marking up his victims’ books and one can sense Vic’s reluctance to criticize for one’s own good. It is like the reluctance of an eagle to dive on a juicy rabbit. Anyway Vic helps keep me semi-alert in my writing and Anonymous Critic keeps me from reading a lot of trash that I really don’t need.
Handset in Deepdene; display type is Deepdene Bold, initial is Cloister. Edited and published by Jake Warner who printed 540 copies on a 10×15 C&P at the Boxwood Press, Greenbelt, Maryland 20770.