Teacher Reprimanded for Assigning Book

Genomsnitt, MN—A high school English teacher faces public scolding and possible dismissal for assigning a book to her students, Superintendent Harry Billiard announced on Friday. “Let this be a warning to all,” he said. “To assign a book is impositional. The kids aren’t there yet. Plus, how do you know they’ll like the book?” Billiard explained that the specific book (To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf) wasn’t the issue; the problem lay in assigning any book at all.

According to anonymous sources, the teacher had assumed presumptuously that a literature course should feature works of literature. Moreover, she had fickly concluded that, since the current Common Core standards emphasize the importance of reading complex texts, she should actually include them in her curriculum.

“Students should read them, yes, but that doesn’t mean teachers should assign them,” explained Billiard. “Students should be empowered to make their own choices. Then, if they don’t, the teacher will be held accountable for the situation.” Students are expected to read at least twenty complex texts, of their own free will, over the course of the year. If they fail to do so, it means the teacher has neglected to incorporate best practices—in particular, the software.

“What software?” asked the teacher, who requested anonymity for the time being, knowing that her picture would be plastered over the papers within the next 24 hours. “I didn’t know there was software for my course on modernism, and I’m not sure I’d want any.”

“There isn’t software for modernism yet, that’s right,” Billiard responded. “But there’s software for the skills that students would be using when reading something modernist like, um, who’s a good modernist writer? I’m drawing a blank right now.”

If the teacher had been doing her job, she would have had the students practice their skills during class time with the aid of the software, which would provide a variety of short texts geared to their interests. After they passed a multiple-choice test at a given level, the software would recommend further reading on the basis of their preferences and performance. “That way, you’re letting them get creative,” said Billiard. “They have some ownership of the books they read. It isn’t just some teacher telling them ‘you’ve got to read this,’ when it’s got nothing to do with where they are.”

“I’m kind of glad we did start to read To the Lighthouse,” countered Jeremy Pembek, a senior. “When the father says ‘it won’t be fine,’ it’s like everything crashes down on me, because I know that voice. I wanted to read more in class, so we could discuss it.”

“You can’t take Jeremy seriously, or at least you can’t let him distract you from best practices,” commented Hilda Moran, a literacy coach who had started to observe the literature classes at the school. “He’s obviously from an educated family, so he’ll read books like this on his own. It’s the other kids we’ve got to worry about. That’s why we’ll be installing the software next week.”

“I’m glad we’re ditching that book,” concurred Betty Neznam, Jeremy’s classmate. “I totally could not relate to it. I didn’t even get past the first sentence. ‘Up with the lark?’ Who talks like that? Why are they making us read this stuff? I mean, I’ve got more important things to do. I’m down with skills, though. I know I need skills.”

If the renegade teacher complies with the mandates, uses the software in every lesson, and abandons all discussion of literature, there will be no further disciplinary actions taken against her, Billiard said. “We’re about goodwill here. We recognize that teachers can change. But she’s got to start doing what works.”

Testing official Vance Verveen noted that, according to readability formulas, To the Lighthouse scored well above the post-college-graduate level. “We’re all for challenge,” he said, “but this was beyond the pale. You can see for yourself,” he added, displaying an interface on a screen and pasting in the novel’s second paragraph. “You see that the Flesch-Kincaid grade level—which is research-based, mind you—comes to 26.7. Twenty-six point seven! And we’ve got kids three years behind grade level. Granted, it’s an honors class, and those kids are more advanced, but still, they’ve got to be made to feel successful. That’s what our tests are for. I wouldn’t feel successful if someone made me read that.”

To feel successful, according to Verveen, students should take daily multiple-choice tests at their current level, which gradually increases as they practice the requisite skills. “You’ve got to let them know that they’re good at what they know how to do,” he said. “That’s the ultimate message. Then you coax them into doing just a little more, and a little more. Little steps toward big gains,” he said, patting his pocket. “Little steps.”

What Makes Man Human, and Where Was the Teacher?

It is difficult to interpret one’s childhood events correctly. There’s the danger of distorted memory, superimposed details and meanings, admixtures of other people’s interpretations, and so on. So I haven’t commented, so far, on the “What Makes Man Human?” uproar I started in fourth grade, even though I have thought about it often. (Actually, I wrote about it once—and then deleted what I wrote.)

My school had adopted the MACOS (Man: A Course of Study) curriculum. We learned about the Netsilik Inuits and their way of life. We studied various animals: salmon, baboons, and so on. Parts of this were quite interesting. But then the teacher posted a piece of chart paper on the wall with the question “What Makes Man Human?” Students were to list their answers below the question. As I remember it, this list generated some excitement.

I found the exercise silly, so I added No. 20 to the list: “Nothing—human is just another word for a person.”

My classmates reacted with outrage; several took it upon themselves to chide me and erase my entry. Just where the teacher was at this time, I don’t know. I wrote about the incident; it’s the only writing from that time that I still have.

Afterward, I was encouraged by adults to pursue this matter further: to demonstrate that humans were not as distant from animals as we commonly assume. I took on this challenge for a little while, but that was not my original point. At the most obvious level, I was pointing out the redundancy of the question. If “man” and “human” are synonymous or close to synonymous, then it makes no sense to ask what makes man human.

At another level, I think I wanted to shake things up. I realized that the answers would be predictable, so I wanted to throw in a justified surprise. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate this at the time, but I remember the desire to break through the humdrum predictability of it all.

I understand, looking back, why my classmates were so upset. They had taken this assignment seriously and were offended that I had not. Beyond that, they may have taken my response as an insult to humanity itself. They may have thought I was saying that there was no such thing as a human being. They had every reason, in that case, to be ruffled.

But the irony is that they responded by erasing my words. One human attribute is the ability to challenge common assumptions and to break from the norm. (Animals have this ability too—take, for instance, the lone penguin in Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World—but it’s more pronounced in humans, or so it seems.) My classmates decided that my response was not acceptable and therefore had to be obliterated. If they thought I had demeaned humanity, well, they demeaned it doubly.

I recognize that I was being provocative on purpose. I recognize, also, that my classmates had good intentions; they took the assignment seriously and were trying to do it well. The problem lay in the posing of an important-sounding question that was supposed to evoke humdrum responses. When, under the pretext of “critical thinking,” you squelch that very thing, you create a mental trap. The only way to think critically, under such conditions, is to criticize the very undertaking—and the student who does so will not be thanked by peers.

Where was the teacher? That is my lingering question. The school had a cozy and lax atmosphere; we wandered around and did what we wanted, more or less, as long as we completed certain activities. I was somewhat miserable, not because I needed to be told what to do, but because I missed the exchange with a wise adult. Peers were not good judges of each other or of subject matter. Their judgments were often based on what made them comfortable or uncomfortable as a group.

I see similar problems in schools today. Students need an adult’s guidance; they need to be lifted above their immediate judgments and preferences. Teachers offer perspective, among other things; they help students see the value of things that fall outside the norm. If anything makes man human, keen questioning does, and this takes vision, practice, and gumption.

The Precipice of Teaching

On a good day, when I go before one of my classes and give a presentation, students pelt me with pertinent questions. At least one of them stumps me. In some cases, I am missing a piece of information; in others, I knew the answer (or various answers) once but have forgotten. In others still, I haven’t considered the matter before—or find that the question topples everything I was saying, or at least a good chunk of it. Finding myself stumped is one of the best parts of teaching; for the students, much depends on how I handle it. Being able to say “I don’t know”—but also being able to hold my own—tells the students that adulthood is not just a realm of rules and answers, nor is education.

I could give examples galore, but I generally refrain from describing my classroom experience on this blog. I want to keep confidentiality, for one thing; for another, I don’t see this blog as a diary. I would not keep a public diary; it would be superficial. But closing off that option opens up others. I will look today at the precipice of teaching and how many of the educational fads aim to sand it out of existence.

You go before your students with the knowledge and understanding you have at a given time—what you have learned until now, what you have thought about, and what you can pull together for the moment and in the moment. You offer something to them and then start up discussion. They learn from you what it means to pull thoughts and knowledge together into something coherent. They look for missing pieces, contradictions, pitfalls in what you have said—and that’s exactly what they should be doing.

But teachers are under great pressure to abstain from direct teaching altogether—or to teach generic skills, which rarely provoke such questions; or to “individualize” instruction so that each student is working at his or her own pace; or to teach from a script, so as to preclude uncertainty or error. I will take a look at three of these tendencies. I have discussed them at length in other blogs and articles but not specifically in relation to the “precipice.”

According to proponents of “student-centered education,” a teacher should not do much talking. Instead, she should get the students talking as soon as possible—in groups, in pairs, in whole-class discussion—and refrain from passing judgment on what they say. She should not present herself as an authority figure, as someone who knows a subject; instead, she should indicate through every gesture that she and the students are learning together. Or else, if she does give a presentation, it should be very brief and should touch on the points that the students absolutely need to know before they begin their own work. Lecturing verges on crime, since it encourages passivity.

Now, that is nonsense on many levels—but I will address the question of lecturing. I wouldn’t dream of lecturing to high school students for the entire period, day after day. They need dialogue. But a twenty-minute presentation, at the start of a unit or topic, strikes me as entirely appropriate. If the students learn how to listen to me, and how to assemble and question what I am saying, then they will also be better prepared to listen to the books they are reading and to themselves. If they never have to listen to a teacher very long, then they never find the edges of what she is saying. Both they and the teacher drown in a bog of patness, where nothing gets challenged and nothing seems controversial. Even if the students debate questions, they respond to snippets, not ideas; they wield sticks, not dodecahedra.

Next, we have instruction that focuses on skills. Instead of leading a discussion of the nature of folly in Erasmus’s Praise of Folly, a teacher might announce that the point of the lesson is to relate details to the whole—and might then read a passage, identify a detail, and show how it relates to the text’s overall meaning. Students would then practice doing this on their own, either with the same text or with a variety of texts. This approach has numerous problems and limitations; first of all, you miss out on a great deal if you do not discuss the actual substance of the work. You flatten it if you treat it as a means to a skill. (Of course one should encourage students relate details to the whole–but it’s another matter to subordinate the text to this.) When it comes to precipice, there just isn’t any. Unless a student challenges your own “modeling” of the skill, there isn’t much at stake in what you are teaching. It can’t go very wrong, precisely because it can’t go very right.

I’ll skip over individualized learning, since the problems there are similar to those discussed above, and proceed to the last one, scripted instruction, which doesn’t get much publicity lately but has some diehard devotees.

Proponents of scripted curricula argue that these programs have proven results—so if you use a different curriculum and can’t show equal or better results, you are shortchanging your kids. I have entered many regrettable arguments over this (regrettable because they go nowhere) but will point out, first of all, that results have meaning only in relation to a goal. If you want students to learn what Plato and Aristotle had to say, that’s different from wanting them to show progress on standardized tests of reading comprehension. The two goals may not always be at odds, but at times they might well be. “Results” in the abstract mean nothing. You must explain what you are trying to do. Part of what I want to do is introduce my students to intellectual life. Can I do this through a script? Possibly, if the script is of high intellectual quality. I could take, for instance, a lecture by a scholar, work and think through it, adapt for my class, and present it with full credit to its author. But even there, I would stay open to the risks of posing and answering questions. If the script forbade such departures, or if it reflected poor thinking about the subject, I would not teach from it, period. I would rather leave teaching than subject myself or my students to such a thing. The safety here is of a deadly sort.

Some may say that a script minimizes the damage that comes from faulty instruction–and that it’s better to say things right than to use your own mind and get it all wrong. Well, if things are that bad, if my own knowledge is so poor that my lessons would mislead students, then I would want to gain competence or go do something else. To me, there is no point in pursuing a profession in which I cannot use my mind to the fullest. Give me a routine day job, with limited hours, so that I can then do what I want in my own time. If I am to work as a teacher, putting most of my life into it, then I should be able to create my own lessons. There should be room for that much joy.

Students look to a teacher not only for what they have to learn right now, but for what lies ahead, in the subject and in their lives. Consciously or not, they take cues from a teacher’s manner. If a teacher can go to those places of uncertainty, grapple with difficult questions, admit to error, or give a fuller and richer explanation than the initial one, then they start to sense that life does not get all packaged up as soon as they reach a certain age. They grasp that you don’t just learn a subject and set it aside. It keeps following you around and pestering you; it makes you turn around and say, “what, what, what?” and then it holds up something you’ve never seen before, something that makes you drop your hands and stand still for a little while.

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