Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Story, Character, and Prose

I am not a professional English or Literature teacher. I am licensed as an elementary school teacher for kindergarten through grade 8. Currently I am not even doing that; I substitute. This means that everyday finds me in a different teaching situation. Yesterday I "taught" AP English.

I use the quotations because one would be hard pressed to demonstrate how what I did yesterday constituted teaching. I administered a vocab quiz and explained the day's assignments. Then I sat at the teacher's desk while the students got to work. Since it was an AP class, no one really even needed any one on one help. This meant that I got to spend large parts of the day just observing and thinking about what I was observing. (Of course, anyone worth their salt as a teacher should be doing as much thinking about teaching as they can.)

I spent a lot of time thinking about the assignment. The students were to use two stories, "A Worn Path" and "Where Does Voice Come From?" Both of these are by Eudora Welty, I believe. I could be wrong about that. They were to analyze how the point of view in these stories affected theme and characterization.

This assignment spurred a lot of thought of my own about how literature is taught, how it was taught to me, and how I believe it should be taught. As I said before, I am not an English or Literature teacher. I did not major in either of these two things in college. I am, however, a reader. I read voraciously. I love books more than almost anything in the world. (Not more than you, Abby.) One of the reasons I did not major in Literature was because of how I feel about what teachers of Literature do to literature. To put it bluntly, I believe that these people kill stories, and they kill stories for incredibly trite reasons.

For instance, let's say that your teacher wants you to know a thing or two about symbolism. They might choose to have you read Lord of the Flies. Then they might have you spend hours and hours of class time dissecting practically every line in order to find the symbols buried within. (I say might, but really this is almost a given.) By the time you are done, you know how to find a symbol like nobody's business (One of their favorites is the Christ figure.) but you are almost certain to dislike the book. Which is a tragedy, because Lord of the Flies is an amazing book. (This is why I recommend that students always read a book independently before they read it in a class. They will be allowed to simply enjoy the book for their own reasons; later, when the teacher tries to destroy it for them he will be unable to because the student will have already developed a love for it.)

The Scarlet Letter is the perfect example of a book that was ruined for most of my high school cohorts. I was fortunate enough not to have to read it for a class and I love it.

All of this brings me to the title of my note, "Story, Character, and Prose". These are the three elements of writing that I believe to be most important. An understanding of them can enhance enjoyment of a book or short story. Moreover, one can understand these elements without dissecting the book to the point that generates hatred of it. If one can write a compelling story filled with compelling characters, one will have done something quite wonderful. Many people are capable of this, though, which is why the third element is, I believe, more important. Case in point: The Twilight Series has a somewhat compelling story and characters, but the prose in it is dreck, which makes it difficult to enjoy. Prose can be bad, it can be competent, and it can be beautiful. Of course, there are levels in between.

Many classics are written with only competent prose. War and Peace is an example of this. It is, therefore, absolutely possible to write an amazing and timeless book without any exceptional talent for prose. A River Runs Through It is a book that is written with beautiful prose. This elevates the book to a level that is seldom attained by a writer.

The thing is, though, that too much time spent analyzing any of these things is akin to seeing a beautiful sunset and talking too much about how the light refracts, or the particles in the air, or anything of this nature. Discussions of this type have their place, mostly in science classes and labs, but to bring them up during the sunset is almost criminal. Just sit there and enjoy it, man. With books, the same is true. English teachers should save their discussions of things like symbolism, metaphor, hyperbole, and point of view for the times when they are hanging out with people whom they know get into this stuff. They certainly shouldn't talk about it in their English classes, if for no other reason than that it does not do what is intended. Instead of increasing the students' appreciation for the work, they lessen it.

Keep it simple, folks. Talk about the book in a casual manner that focuses on the story, the characters, and the beauty or lack thereof of the prose.

We've Got to Stop This!

More and more in the past couple of years I have come to the belief that the college path is not for everyone. In point of fact, it is not for most people. Yet our politicians, with Barack Obama at the helm, are encouraging more and more of America's school children to attend, to the point now where it is being suggested that EVERYONE go to college. This is a notion that is so ludicrous it is almost unbelievable that it is being propagated.

Regardless of the fact that there are myriad career paths that do not require a college education (ie plumber, auto mechanic, electrician, professional driver, hermit), the fact is that even with those career paths that do require a college education, the vast majority of them don't, not really. For instance, teaching. Since the dawn of time we have had people who were willing and able to teach. They passed on specific knowledge as well as general wisdom. Most of them did this for free. Most of them were very good at it, because if they weren't, their students would just move along to the next person, who was. Today we have a highly schooled professional teaching force, yet most of them possess little to no wisdom and very little actual knowledge. They use prepackaged lesson plans and textbooks that weigh forty or fifty pounds to collect their fat government paychecks and pensions. Basically, I'm saying that the current status quo, that of the teaching profession requiring a college education, is inferior to previous systems in which teachers were driven by a need to pass on knowledge that they had acquired through non-college means.

Another example is the business world. In the past, people would apprentice themselves to established and successful merchants, and once they had proven their abilities, they would be allowed to go out into the world to start businesses of their own. The same model still works today, but far too many people instead feel that they must plop 40-100K down on a business school education, only to find themselves entering the business world in the same positions that they would be without it.

With the cost of the college education ever rising, it makes me livid that America's youth are being told that this is the only and best path to a secure future for them and their families. The worst part of the whole scam is that for the majority of majors, nothing is learned that couldn't be self taught for free using the public library and by meeting with groups of like interested people in local coffee shops. We should not be encouraging such a ridiculous waste of money, especially not in these bleak financial times.

Someday I would like to see true leadership, leadership that challenges the dominant ideology instead of reinforcing it. It is so safe to encourage everyone to go to college; it would take real guts to suggest alternate career paths as a viable alternative. I'm talking about apprenticeships, trade schools, or simply small business loans to intelligent, yet young entrepreneurs. At the very least there should be a concerted effort made to reduce the cost of college significantly, thus allowing people to attend if they wish without breaking their backs with debt.

Perhaps, one day, this too will come to pass.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Who Holds the Test Writers Accountable?

It occurred to me the other day that while almost everyone in the political world and parenting world seems to be of the opinion that we should hold teachers accountable for the work that they do in the classroom, and quite a few people believe that this should be done through a series of standardized tests, no one seems to even be asking how we can hold the test writers accountable. When was the last time that they were asked to prove the validity of their tests? While we can't trust educated and talented people who have dedicated their lives to the art of teaching, we are supposed to trust blindly the corporate fat cats and their cronies who design and implement standardized tests.

This flies in the face of all logic. On the one hand, we have the classroom teacher. This is a person that we most likely know personally, (Here I'm assuming that the person wanting accountability is a parent.) We have talked with this person, we have entrusted our darling children to this person for 6 hours of every day, and we have monitored how our child has grown and matured in the time that she has been in this teacher's classroom. On the other hand, we have a nameless corporate entity. They have shown up for one week in April or May, made our child sit down in front of a test booklet or computer testing module, and subjected them to a series of disconnected questions. We do not know the names of the people who have written these questions and we will almost certainly never meet them. Yet if the teacher says one thing about our child and the test writers say another, it is the test writers whom we trust.

Even assuming that the test asks questions that can actually measure the educational achievements of our child, how can one week, or sometimes even only one day of our child's life be considered an adequate sample of their educational level. Oh, sure, when the kid fails he is given two more chances, but even then we can't really be sure, because there are far too many uncontrollable variables in these non-sterile testing environments. Further, no one with any real training in test taking psychology is doing any observing of our child while he is given this test that decides whether he is at the proper educational level.

I'm not saying that the tests in and of themselves are bad. I'm saying that we don't know that because nobody is even trying to check them out. Still, even assuming that they turned out to be good, they could only ever realistically be considered a small piece of the total amount of information we have on our child.

In Oregon, teachers are asked to have a Master's degree in education within seven years of the date that they begin teaching. This degree is very expensive and often very meaningful in the lives of those who earn them. The state does this because it says that it believes that a teacher must be properly trained before he can successfully pass on wisdom and knowledge to the next generation. Does it then seem odd to anyone else that the state has almost no confidence in this highly trained teacher's ability to do his job? There isn't even any kind of system in place to record and analyze the teacher's opinion about their students. They write report cards that get filed away somewhere, but no one other than the child's parents and maybe the principal will ever look at these. But schools spend countless man hours of both teacher and administrator time going over the scores from standardized testing.

I think that blows.