Confessions of a Reluctant Teacher

August 28, 2009

How I Learned to Write, Part 1

(This article is part of a series about writing, inspired by a column written by Stanley Fish on NYT.com.)

I have long felt that the only purpose of writing is discovery.  Writing helps me to look at my topic in a new light, to clarify my thinking on the topic, and to explain my ideas to others.  I, of course, have not read the same essays Mr. Fish cites as inspiration for his column: the papers for a “graduate literature” course that had no “clean English sentences.”  But from my personal experience as a college student and a writing tutor for high-school and middle-school students, the real reason students can’t write is because the process of School has disconnected them with the most compelling reason to write: discovery.

John Holt, in How Children Fail, claimed that in Schools, children are distracted from learning their subject matter by the politics of the classroom: namely, their status in relation to the other students, and the teacher’s behavior.  He argues that students mainly learn how to please the teacher.  As I mentioned in a previous article, many teachers spend a lot of class time trying to get students to jump through an exact sequence of hoops so that they can “interactively” learn what the curriculum dictates.  This does not encourage original thought.  Instead, it encourages students to guess what the teacher wants to hear.  By the time these kids get to college, where professors ask them to “choose your own topic” and “develop an original thesis,” they FIRST: wonder what the catch is, and SECOND: become really, truly confused.  They have never had to do this before.  So they fall back on a tried-and-true method (guessing what the professor wants to hear), and they produce this vaguely literary-sounding mumbo-jumbo without actually using proper English or critical thinking skills, because they have no idea what they’re talking about.  They don’t know what original thoughts or ideas they have on their subject, so they have no real motivation to explain these ideas to another.  At least, that was the case with me.

Although I considered myself to be a pretty good writer in high school, I stumbled through my first two writing courses in university.  I used proper English, for the most part, but my professor kept saying that my thesis wasn’t really a thesis, and that I didn’t even manage to support it very well.  I reviewed each revised draft with her, trying to pinpoint exactly what I was doing wrong, but I didn’t get the grade I wanted in that class because there was a fundamental disconnect in our communication: I kept trying to figure out what she wanted, when all she wanted was to know what I thought about the subject.  At the time, I didn’t even know how to think about the topic, let alone what I thought about it.

For my second “writing-intensive” course, I wound up in a class about Kafka.  At first, I thought Kafka was intriguing.  Then I thought he was challenging.  Then I started to panic as I realized the man was completely inscrutable.  I mean, I could kind of understand how the guy turning into the bug was a metaphor for isolation in the Industrial Age, but we weren’t allowed to write about that one.  We had to choose another of his short stories for our essay.  So I did what any desperate-to-keep-her-slipping-academic-status student would do: I decided to cheat.

Find out how well that worked for me next week, in How I Learned to Write, Part 2!

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August 25, 2009

How NOT to Teach Writing

I did not understand Stanley Fish’s assertion on NYT.com today that “unless writing courses focus exclusively on writing they are a sham.” If students taking so-called “writing-intensive” courses are not learning how to write, obviously something needs to be corrected. But I’m not convinced that a course focusing “exclusively on writing” is the best way to fix that. Mr. Fish thinks that courses in composition should teach “grammar and rhetoric and nothing else.” First of all, it is a waste of time to drill nearly-adult students in grammar. Most native speakers of English instinctively know the grammatical rules governing the language. If they fail to translate correct spoken English into correct written English, I think that goes beyond simple ignorance of grammar and into the territory of fear of failure and murky thinking.

If I were in Mr. Fish’s position, faced with all these incomprehensible essays, I would ask, “Why haven’t these students proofread their papers?” No native English speaker that proofread their paper would overlook a sentence that didn’t make any sense.  As a former writing major, I know there were plenty of occasions when I didn’t proofread a paper because I knew I had done a bad job. Sometimes I had too many projects due and not enough time, and sometimes I just couldn’t understand the question. For whatever reason, the essay would become just another task to slog through, another milepost on the academic marathon. Basically, I resented every minute I spent working on those assignments. If I had taken the time to read back through them, my pride would have forced me to try to improve them. And I would have ended up feeling frustrated and humiliated if I couldn’t. The curriculum designers first need to address surrounding circumstances like these when trying to solve the mystery of “why Johnny can’t write.” Poor grammar skills are merely a symptom, not the disease.

Secondly, I don’t think you can teach writing in a vacuum. You cannot coerce people into becoming good writers just because it’s a valuable life skill everyone needs to have. That would be like forcing a senior citizen to become proficient and skilled on a computer. Writing is, like a computer, a tool. The computer can be used to store music and photographs and to keep in touch with loved ones. These useful capacities motivate the technologically illiterate to learn how to use a computer. Similarly, writing can be used to persuade others, to introduce a new idea, to entertain, or to try to express the very essence of your soul, if you’re going to be poetic about it. I don’t think most students realize this. They tend to think of writing as something somebody else is trying to get them to do, rather than something they want to do for themselves. So of course they do a half-assed job.

Our culture actually has played a large part in the demise of the craft of writing. As John Taylor Gatto wrote in Dumbing Us Down, “We are a land of talkers; we pay talkers the most and admire talkers the most and so our children talk (Reluctant Teacher’s note: or tweet) constantly, following the public models of television and schoolteachers. It is very difficult to teach the “basics” anymore because they really aren’t basic to the society we’ve made.” I don’t think Mr. Fish’s proposed solution, moving the art of writing even further away from things students are actually interested in, will help them to master, retain, or even learn this craft.

I seem to have a lot to say on the subject, so I will take the rest of this week, and probably some of the next, to explore the art of writing. I’d like to share the story about how I finally began to learn to write. I might also talk about some of my experiences as a writing tutor. Please leave a comment if you have a story about being a writer, learning to write, or teaching others to write. I’d love to hear from you! (Yes, YOU!)

August 5, 2009

Never ask students a question you already know the answer to

Filed under: Behind the Desk — christinag503 @ 11:15 pm
Tags: , , ,

Unless you want to make them feel like children, bore them to tears, create desperation and confusion in the classroom, and cause them to resent you. Let me illustrate.

I remember when our dean of students at my small, private prep school “guest taught” my 10th-grade English class. We were studying Phillis Wheatley, a young slave who became the first published African American poet. He asked us some question about the man who decided to publish Wheatley’s work. I think it was, “What was the most significant thing about him?” or some other incredibly open-ended question. So we started tossing ideas out there….he worked for a newspaper. “No.” He was from Virginia. “No!” I can’t remember now all of our answers, but I do know this charade went on for about ten full minutes, with us growing increasingly confused and desperate as he got angrier and angrier. He started giving us “hints.” “It has to do with what he looked like.” We were pretty confused. How were we supposed to know what he looked like? They didn’t have cameras then. Did he have a beard? “NO!” Than he said, “It begins with a W.” Somebody guessed that he was a writer, and he hotly reminded us that it had to do with the man’s physical appearance, not his work. I think by this point we were all sick of guessing out loud and then being screamed at, so we just sat and stared at him. After a little while, he realized we weren’t going to talk anymore, and he bellowed, “HE! WAS! WHITE!” I don’t know whether he got carried away and lost his temper, or if he thought he was being a good teacher by demonstrating enthusiasm for his subject, but all it impressed upon me was that this man had just wasted twenty percent of our allotted class time to yell at us about something that wasn’t really even that important. (Of course, all these years later, I still remember what the dean said. I don’t remember the man’s name, what the dean’s point ultimately was, or even what question had been asked, but I remember that Phillis Wheatley’s publisher was white.)

I really, really loathe the “fishing for answers” that some teachers indulge in. Sometimes known as the “asking leading questions” technique, I have become convinced that it is nothing but an exercise in wasting time and condescension, frustrating both teacher and student. In most curricula, however, it’s the major teaching strategy. “Asking leading questions” is supposed to engage the students, and encourage them to think about the material presented. I suppose it is preferable to only lectures, all the time. But as a teacher and a student, I feel strongly that ‘leading questions’ do not engage the mind in a critical thinking capacity. There are two different ways leading questions can be used, according to the material being presented, and they are not helpful in either case.

For questions that deal with facts and problem solving (like asking what the next step is in a math problem): If the student has been paying attention to the material, he’ll grasp the concept without leading questions. Asking such questions will waste time and make the student angry at teachers who seem to think he’s dumb. If the student hasn’t been paying attention to the material, they won’t be able to answer the leading questions. Asking them will waste time and make the student feel ashamed and humiliated, which is really unnecessary in a low-stakes game like School.

For questions that are of a more subjective nature (like asking what effect a certain battle had on a war, or something about the symbolism in a novel): asking leading questions is like implanting your thoughts (which are not really even yours, but belong to the group who designed the curriculum) into the student’s head. She is not allowed to grapple with the primary text and draw her own conclusions. Therefore, she is deprived of the chance to think for herself and instead learns to unquestioningly accept how authority figures instruct her to interpret data. We can see the repercussions of this effect when Americans blindly believe the rantings of political pundits, or they succumb to a high-pressure sales pitch and sign up for a mortgage they can’t afford.

Leading questions presume there’s only one way to get to the right answer. “Think how I think,” you’re saying. “Otherwise it’s wrong!” A few times I was embarrassed at the board when doing math sections with my SAT prep class. I’d ask the students, “What next?” or “What approach should we use here?” and one of the students who was rather stronger in math than I was would give me an answer other than the “right” one I was expecting. I’d say, “No, I don’t think that would work.” And she’d patiently walk me through it to show me that there was, in fact, more than one way to solve this problem. Pretty humbling. When we dictate how students should think about a problem, we encourage standardization of thought, which in turn produces a homogeneous, manageable population with the exact same inevitable blind spots.

In addition, it is condescending to ask someone a question you already know the answer to. You’re not asking the question for your own edification, or because you’re interested in the student’s unique perspective. You’re asking in order to test her. You’re asking her to prove her intelligence to you, over and over. It implies a lack of trust in her capabilities. And when a teacher implies that a student’s intelligence is not reliable, that student loses trust in herself as well.

Leading questions do not foster real learning. They merely turn an eager student into Clever Hans–you know, the horse that could supposedly do math, but who had actually learned to respond to visual cues provided by his trainer and the audience. John Holt made the case in his excellent book, How Children Fail, that most students, instead of learning the subject matter, learn how to please the teacher. While this can be a useful skill, I don’t think a generation of sycophants will serve society well in the future. Raising children to be responsible citizens and independent adults requires that we allow their thinking processes to develop in their own time. If we constantly “lead” our students, they can only learn how be followers.

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