Monday, December 21, 2009

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.


Anonymous said...

Beautifully said, though heartbreaking to read. Someone at huffpo linked to your blog, and I am making my way in reverse chronological order. I'm a lawyer, 5 years out, burnt out, and thinking about getting my alternative certification as a teacher.

Jay Braiman said...

Thanks for the comment. I actually went the other way; just recently became a lawyer after 13 years teaching.

Please feel free to comment further as you read through the blog.