Thursday, March 18, 2010

Teaching Writing and Blowing the Whistle

Lately I've been thinking quite a bit about teaching and why I'm doing what I do. Writing is a big part of what I do with my life. I would even like to make a (gasp!) living doing it. But it wasn't always like that for me. There was a time in school where I didn't really enjoy writing all that much.

When I was in the 7th grade my PE teacher, who I will simply call Coach (his mirrored sunglasses and obscenely bulging neck veins are crystal clear, his name a mystery) introduced us to our school’s “weight training facility”. Volleyball, football, and baseball had been the physical education staples up until this time. In junior high, however, we were crammed into a grimy portable classroom with a circuit of shiny machines that would help us “train”. Class would consist of us moving from one machine to the next, pumping away until we heard a shrill blast from Coach’s whistle.

Coach inspired us with fear
(again, the veins and the sunglasses) but after awhile we learned how to slack off just enough that he wouldn’t fail us. Undoubtedly many of us exercised muscles that we never would have otherwise (I never understood the appeal of that weird leg-spreader machine) but there was an unreality to the experience that made it seem silly.

Previously, exercise had been a pleasant and unconscious byproduct of play, but PE class turned it into what seemed like a sophisticated punishment—something to be tolerated or avoided. Looking back on the reading and writing I did in school, I see a strong parallel.

Of course I was “prepared” by my school experience in the strictest sense of the word. Our trips to the weight training facility “prepared” me to interact physically with weight machines, but didn’t prepare me to address my most immediate athletic concern—improving my atrocious jump shot. Instead of motivating me to squeeze as many repetitions as I could out of the 90 seconds we had at each station, Coach’s glowering, punitive presence actually made me want to do less.

Similarly, school taught me how to write a standard five paragraph essay using a bare minimum amount of thought and time to achieve a satisfactory grade. Essays seemed less about discovery than recitation, and that wasn't of much interest to me. Grades were held over our heads to motivate us towards success, but too many times this was articulated as “not failing”. There was little inquiry about our own academic goals, beyond college, and we were rarely asked to synthesize what we learned in readings or in class to other areas of our education or lives. The experience was not much different than a visit to the "weight training facility" where you worked a single muscle with no thought towards coordinating those tissues towards flexible movement.

I realize that education is primarily a personal endeavor. Every student has to demand to be educated in order for anything to happen. And I’m not saying I learned nothing in school; I just wish they had expected and required more of me as a writer and a reader. With the focus on easily digestible bits of information, I think I got lost in the tedium of repetitive motion exercises. I wanted to write things that would change and engage the world, but I don’t feel like I was challenged to do that. So I was “prepared,” but just not in the way I needed.

I think about this a lot now that I am the keeper of Coach’s proverbial “whistle.” My high school students work on five-paragraph essays: five reps of hooks, two sets of contextualizing statements, three concrete detail crunches, and 60 seconds on the commentary sentence step machine. The mastery of these elements is important because they set the foundation for good writing and thinking. But the reality is that I’m also having them work on them because that’s what’s going to be on the test that’s going to be used to gauge how “educated” they are.

Tests have their place, but the danger is that this type of learning becomes rote if it consumes the entire learning experience of the student. It's also dangerous because it's easy to assess whether or not a kid knows how to write a standard thesis statement. It's much more difficult to assess whether a student can think for themselves and create something new. In a test-heavy environment, sometimes the learning that can be easily assessed is the learning that gets emphasized the most. (Coach could read the newspaper as long as he heard the squeaks of the metal equipment.) The English teachers I remember most fondly are those who were not concerned with just the recitation of knowledge, but how this knowledge might profoundly effect what I wanted to do with my life.

Kids need to master content and skills in order to be good writers, but if we never make a connection between a student’s interests and how what we’re learning can aid their pursuit of that interest, we can blow as hard as we want on our whistles; no one will be listening.


Jenny said...

Being a writer was, for almost as long as I can remember, a part of my identity. I loved books when I was really little, and I wrote my own (of course, emulating some of my favorites). Then, starting in junior high, I quit reading--for pleasure, for homework--for five or six years. That's pretty much the rest of my K-12 education. What I had done on my own because I loved it had been made into, as you write, a sophisticated punishment. I really dread that happening to my own kids. I came out of it all okay, I think, but how sad that is.

Elvira Geiser said...

I totally agree with you that kids are different from one another, and have their own way of thinking. So, teaching them how to write their thesis statement can really be a challenge for teacher. So, I think it would be a good idea to have thesis help from teachers that fully understand what thesis is all about. Anyway, I do hope you would fulfill what you’re dreaming of.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Martinez.