Monday, December 21, 2009

A Paragraph About Nothing

I feel compelled today to cross-post this exercise from my website. The purpose of the exercise is to read the paragraph, a Discussion paragraph about one book from a "critical lens" essay, and determine what score it should receive based on the Regents rubrics:

The novel Prognosis Negative by Art Vandelay expresses protest against many different things. The story covers a great deal of time and takes the reader through many different places and events, as the author uses several different techniques to really make the reader think. By using a certain type of narrative structure, Vandelay is able to grab the reader’s attention and make the piece much more effective and meaningful, showing how everything happened. The story moves from the beginning to the end as the protagonist struggles to resolve the central conflict, while a number of unusual and unexpected things occur along the way. Characterization is used throughout the novel, as each of the characters is described in a different way, making them seem more real and allowing the reader to better relate to them. Each character has a unique personality, with several important characteristics described in the text. This allows the reader to understand who these people are, why they do what they do, and how they end up where they are in the end. The characters represent how the author feels about the issues he is protesting, and in the end, the reader understands exactly what Vandelay is trying to say. Prognosis Negative is an example of how authors use their works to express their opposition to various things.

I created this back in 2002 when I was teaching on Long Island. It's a pretty fair representation of how the students at that school tended to write literary essays, with the language streamlined. I created this for two reasons. One was because I noticed an overwhelming vagueness in the students' writing about the literature they had read and about the literary elements of those texts. The other was because when my supervisor saw a paragraph like this, she would heap praise on it and tell me I was wrong to not score it a 5 or a 6.

I think a lot of teachers, when they read this, would agree with her; that this is lucid, errorless, sophisticated writing, the writer clearly knows what he's talking about, and it proves its thesis by discussing literary elements. But read it again and pay close attention to what the writer is saying, not how he's saying it. If you're paying attention, you'll realize almost immediately that what the writer is saying is ...


Forget for a moment that there is, of course, no such book; it's a combination of two not-so-obscure Seinfeld references (show about nothing, paragraph about nothing). The paragraph is a combination of boilerplate clich├ęs ("really make the reader think", "make the piece much more effective and meaningful," "allowing the reader to better relate to [the characters]", etc.), comparative words like "better," "various" and "different" used as descriptors by themselves, interrogative conjunctions like "who," "what," and "how" setting off clauses without providing any specific answers or examples, and to the extent that literary elements are mentioned, their terms are used only to define themselves. No character is named, no event from the story is presented or described, nothing whatsoever is presented that would be unique to Prognosis Negative among all literary works.

Even if the book did exist, this would obviously not be an adequate analysis thereof. Why, then, would a teacher give this a 5 or 6 (mastery-level) score on the Regents? It's easy to suggest that a teacher might be fooled by the writer's language skill into thinking that such a fluent writer must certainly know what he's talking about. It is more likely, however, that the teacher simply presumes that the writer knows what he's talking about because they've just finished studying the text. In other words, the teacher gives the student the benefit of the doubt.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I never do that. A student has to prove to me that he read and understood the text, and knows it well enough to discuss it intelligently. A paragraph like this doesn't do that, not by a long shot. A lot of the problems I had on Long Island stemmed from the fact that from the students' perspective, this paragraph had always been good enough for their teachers; when it wasn't good enough for me, they felt I was being unreasonable. It didn't help that the Department chairwoman agreed with them.

I never stooped to the level of showing her this, telling her a student wrote it, and asking her to score it. I'm sure it wouldn't have done any good. I sometimes wonder how many English teachers would actually spot it, assuming they didn't get the Seinfeld reference.

Deep, Abiding Frustration

I'm almost through grading the third of five classes' worth of "critical lens" essays that the students wrote last week after 7 days of class instruction on the task, which included 2 days of sentence construction and correction activities. During the last essay project in November, we spent a whole week on sentence construction. Yet as I slowly and painstakingly work my way through these essays, I realize that what's making it so slow and painstaking is a troubling fact.

I don't think there's been a single sentence in a single essay that I haven't had to correct or mark up in one way or another, for one reason or another. I'm sure if I go back and read them again I'll find one here or there, but it seems that essay after essay, I find myself marking up and correcting every single sentence. Whether it's spelling, grammar, punctuation, capitalization, word usage, verb conjugation, vagueness, awkwardness, imprecision, subjectivity, inaccuracy, or some combination of any or all of these, every sentence in every essay seems to have something wrong with it. There are even transcription errors (i.e., copying the critical lens or the book's title incorrectly), and violations of specific rules and forms that were deliberately, expressly and directly emphasized in class.

This is why it takes so freaking long to get through a set of essays, why I stopped requiring multiple drafts years ago, why I can only assign four essays per semester, why I can't do much more than provide general comments and rubric evaluation for notebooks and homework, and why I only score the students' final exam essays and don't mark them. These students' inability to form a coherent thought in words, either on paper, out loud or even in their own minds, is staggering.

Of course, one of the reasons for this is that no one seems to care anymore whether children can write with any precision or basic grammatical correctness. My supervisor on Long Island used to tell me that "if it's close, if you can pretty much understand what they mean, then it's fine." No, I had to reply, it's not fine. Language needs to be precise. What you write should say exactly, precisely what you mean, leaving no room for ambiguity or misinterpretation. Yet many of these children have been taught that it's OK to approximate meaning when they write, and that's not even considering the fact that they've also been taught that no matter what they write or how they write, the end product is just wonderful and deserving of an A+++++, because they "did their best" and it would be unreasonable and wrong to expect mere children to write actual proper English sentences.

I'm afraid I can't fathom what it must be like to be 16 and have so little awareness and understanding of the world around me because I can neither read, write, listen, speak nor understand any language, at least not with any competence or precision. Language is the key to understanding absolutely everything, including oneself and one's own thoughts and perceptions. George Orwell understood this when he wrote 1984, and described the Party's means of keeping the population virtually unconscious by reducing the language to merely a very few basic expressions. It's frightening to think that so much of the population 10, 20 years from now will be as unconscious as Orwell's proles.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Single Digits

I have nine teaching days left.

At some point I'm going to take the essays on this blog and attempt to compile them into a book, which I'm sure no one will want to publish. I have to figure out what my overall thesis and large-scale organization will be, but I imagine I'll concentrate on the following items:

- The fundamental mistake that educators and parents make from which nearly all of our problems ultimately stem: The idea that every child is an "A" student by default. Everyone's a winner, everyone gets a trophy, and no one is ever "better than" anyone else at anything. If you're a student, anything and everything you do is just fabulous. From this notion springs most of the counter-intuitive and counter-educational policies I've seen in schools that actually prevent kids from learning: entitlement grading, subjective standards, differentiated instruction, to name a few. Not to mention the irrational ideas this puts in kids' heads, e.g., that daily work is optional, due dates are just a suggestion, and they should pass any class in which they cannot do the work.

- The desire to forgive kids for actions, decisions and behaviors that are at best irrational and inappropriate, and at worst deplorable and sociopathic, because they're "just kids," thereby enabling even more, and even worse, such behaviors.

- The idea that we "can't expect kids to" do this or that, or to know this or that.

- The refusal to teach kids manners, empathy or even basic decency.

- Teaching kids that their feelings matter, but their choices don't.

- Preventing kids from becoming better readers by focusing on what they read, instead of how they read.

I'm sure I'll think of more. Most of the material, I'm sure, will come from my experiences on Long Island and at the phony, corrupt so-called "School of the Arts" in Queens between 2001 and 2003. These ideas all basically revolve around the same theme: That we've spent so much time wrangling over the roles of teachers and parents, we've completely lost sight of what the student's obligations are with respect to his own learning. To phrase it as "blame the students" is to over-simplify and miss the point; this is not about blame. This is about action. What does the student need to do in order to make sure that he learns? I think we need to ask, and answer, this question. We need to realize that the student has a role to play in making learning happen.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

It's gold, Jerry. Gold.

Today in class we were discussing the passage in Shoeless Joe when Ray Kinsella and J.D. Salinger arrive at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Ray introduces Salinger to the cashier:

"This is J.D. Salinger," I say, pointing to Jerry as if he were a trophy I was delivering.

"Yeah?" says the clerk, her face coming alive. "Really?" She looks at both of us for the first time, smiling.

"It's a pleasure to meet you." She extends her hand to Jerry. "You used to work for Kennedy, right?"

"Indeed I did," says Jerry, his eyes plashing across mine, mischief rearranging the kindly lines of his face. To keep from laughing, he turns away.

"Did I say something wrong? says the cashier.

"He was very fond of Jack," I reply.

Of course, none of the students got the joke, so I had to explain that the cashier had confused Jerry (as he prefers to be called, at least in the novel) for Pierre Salinger, JFK's press secretary. I explained that this was a literary technique called allusion, a reference made, usually indirectly, to a fact outside the text which the reader is simply expected to know. I gave another example, which I usually use; a line from the film A Few Good Men:

"Three cases in two years?! Who's she handling, the Rosenbergs?!"

I pointed out that if you don't know who the Rosenbergs are, you won't get the joke.

Inevitably, someone asked, "Who are the Rosenbergs?" I replied, "Look it up; Julius and Ethel Rosenberg." The next question ... wait for it ...

"Weren't they on I Love Lucy?"