How We Got Here…

On several occasions, I’ve bemoaned the futility of trying to teach writing to kids who have made it through twelve years of school without absorbing even the basics of grammar. I distinctly remember getting this stuff in the public schools myself — third through eighth grades were essentially devoted to grammar, spelling, punctuation and such — we didn’t start close readings of literature until my freshman year of high school, and I was on the AP track. On the other hand, the Spawn seems to have had much less practice with that sort of stuff in Mondoville. (Fortunately, she’s smart enough and reads extensively enough on her own to pick it up through osmosis, but I wonder about her classmates, some of whom I’ll likely end up teaching.)

A pointed discussion of this state of affairs (and some pretty good guesses at what caused it) can be found at Salon, where Kim Brooks wonders what’s actually going on in high school classrooms (although not without a totally gratuitous swipe at church youth groups — way to deploy pathos, Kim!). It’s worth a read.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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13 Responses to How We Got Here…

  1. Withywindle says:

    Fred Siegel in The Prince of the City blames affirmative action for much of the initial collapse of educational standards. But however it started, illiteracy is now gloriously Pan-ethnic.

  2. Alpheus says:

    As I read that article, I was seized (not for the first time) by the thought that a lot of our talk about what and how to teach kids is probably beside the point. It’s not really a question of whether we teach literature or teach writing; it’s a question of how we restore discipline and the work ethic to the classroom.

    If high school-age Americans in accelerated English courses don’t “get” Romeo and Juliet or Huckleberry Finn, if grammar can’t be taught because “it’s like asking kids to eat their vegetables,” if correcting composition papers is so tedious and hard it drives conscientious teachers to tears, then the only real explanation is that education has become so much about keeping students happy and (minimally) motivated that it’s no longer possible to ask them to do the work to learn what they need to learn. We shouldn’t be facing a trade-off between reading books and writing competent essays. That trade-off has not existed throughout most of the history of Western education, and if it exists today, it indicates a serious failure somewhere. Probably teaching has gotten a little worse, but more likely the problem stems from an unwillingness to push students to do their best.

  3. Kate P says:

    Oh, wow. Interesting and very relevant discussion for me right now. Just when I thought my sixth-grade research classes were getting the hang of citations and bibliographies, 99% of them handed in their most recent assignment without either.

    Some, I noticed, didn’t want to spend any more time outside of class on it–they were told to finish it at home after two class periods to get it done–mostly because they have no time for homework if there are sports after school.

    I ought to fail them for plagiarizing, especially considering that at least one of them was able to do the assignment correctly, but instead I’ll be spending the weekend doing that guttural sob as described in the Salon article, while I grade papers.

    It should also be noticed that pretty much the entire grade is made up of non-readers. It’s really hard for me to understand. I’ve been reading since age 3, had good grammar school and high school English teachers, and was one of the few freshmen who tested out of “Grammar Workshop” when I started college. It does make a difference, but I am struggling to get these kids to read more and write better.

  4. Kate P says:

    I meant “noted,” not “noticed.” (I’m a bad proofreader when it gets late.)

  5. Pingback: Ain’t that a nail hit on the head | Blog of the Nightfly

  6. Pingback: Ain’t that a nail hit on the head | Blog of the Nightfly

  7. J. Otto Pohl says:

    I keep reading these complaints about American students, but I really can not relate. My students here in Ghana are generally very good. Their writing is good, but not fantastic for the most part. I have only given in class essay exams so I suppose I do not have a true measure of their abilities. However, they do pay attention in class and it appears that they do read the assignments. I gave a lot of reading this semester, three times as much as I gave in Kyrgyzstan, and I have not had nearly as much complaining. More to the point most of my students in Ghana understand how to construct a basic argument. I have gone over this a little in class, but I have had far less trouble here than I did in Bishkek making the point about the need for a thesis, evidence and conclusion clear. With very few exceptions my students in Ghana do not seem to have a problem with putting together evidence from the reading to support their argument in a coherent manner. I am not sure what the reasons for this are. Maybe African students are smarter than Americans and Asians? I know this goes against most previous intelligence theories, but honestly the samples were different. Maybe it is because there is no affirmative action here, almost all the students are going to be Black no matter how difficult they make admission? Maybe it was because I told them that the class was going to be hard up front and that they would have to do a lot of reading and pay attention if they wanted a good grade? Or maybe it is because Ghana has an old British style of education rather than s new American type system?

    • profmondo says:

      If I had to wager, I’d bet on your final point. We have a fair number of international students here at Mondoville — most of whom are athletes, and many of whom come from Commonwealth educational systems (Bahamas, Canada, Australia, New Zealand). Almost invariably, those kids are significantly stronger writers than my home-grown kids. I suspect the traditional Brit-style system may provide the dual function of thinning the herd (see your original affirmative action comment) and emphasizing writing skills to the “survivors.”

    • Alpheus says:

      J. Otto (is this how you prefer to be addressed?), my bet is that your Ghanaian students grew up in an educational system that makes real demands on them, such that they internalize the need for patience and diligence. It may also have “thinned the herd,” of course; and, as I’ve said before, there are certain very bad writing habits, like a preference for big words and pompous phrasing, that the American system seems to inculcate. My experience is the same as Prof. Mondo’s: English-speaking foreign students write much better than Americans.

      I think the difference between the work habits of American and foreign students may offer a partial answer to your recent puzzlement about why some of us find college teaching so difficult. A lot of the difficulty — for me, anyway — consists in trying to tease something that could be called college-level work out of students who really would prefer not to work very hard. Unfortunately, this even includes pretending that obviously lazy or substandard work represents a good-faith effort.

      • J. Otto Pohl says:

        You can address me as Otto. I use my first initial because there is a famous journalist with the same name (Otto Pohl) and year of birth. Even using the initial an amazingly large number of people still confuse me with him. This irritates me to no end. I hope that explains the use of the first initial.

        Regarding the quality of students in the US versus other countries I find it difficult to make comparisons. But, it seems counter-intuitive that US students would on general be worse than those in Ghana. The US is frequently touted as having the best higher education system in the world. You would think that would be reflected in a better overall student body. If one is to believe the international rankings for universities then almost every single US student should be better than every single student at the University of Ghana. Yet this appears not to be the case. In fact it appears to be the case that many Ghanaian students are better at doing academic work than many American students. This is what confuses me. After all American universities can hire anybody they want. The developing world has more limited choices regarding faculty.

      • profmondo says:

        So, Otto, are you related to Frederick Pohl?

        Meanwhile, back to your point about your students — Alpheus has covered some of this ground, but in blunt terms, we’re back to the old computer expression, “Garbage In, Garbage Out”, or more kindly, the old saw about leading horses to water. It doesn’t matter how wonderful the water trough is, or how skilled the drawer of water. Your horses are thirsty — too many of ours aren’t.

  8. J. Otto Pohl says:

    Okay, so exactly how does the old British system of having no written papers and only one essay test each class every semester makes for better writers? I did my Ph.D. and MA in the UK at SOAS (University of London) and undergraduates there as well as here in Ghana write a lot less than I did doing my BA at Grinnell. So I am not sure how the comparative lack of practice makes students in the old British system better. The issue of selection bias being more merit based at the University of Ghana does make some sense. But, I think there must be something else going on.

    My instinct tells me that the core issue is cultural. I think Ghanaian society places a much higher value on history as a subject than does American or Central Asian society. Here everybody that remembers colonial rule, the grandparents of my students, stresses the fundamental importance of historical knowledge. In many ways it was viewed as the most important weapon against the British occupiers. It was also viewed as one of the most important tools in building a state after independence. That is a pretty heavy legacy and it still seems to provide positive motivation today.

    • Alaska Jack says:

      I think you can stop sum it all up right here: “My instinct tells me that the core issue is cultural.

      Loathe though I am to disparage my own nation, I think we’ve collectively reached the point where we simply no longer care about such things. For decades people came here to work, and improve their lot in life, which many did (including my own ancestors); the war years brought massive political, social, economic, and technological change, and created a society that effectively believed its own PR–that it was the greatest, and that we would always be the greatest. So we became content to rest on our laurels. Or, as I put it to a faulty member at the university for which I used to work, as a nation we grew without growing up.

      This, then, is how we (mostly) raise our offspring–and it shows. So much like a once well-tended garden that’s been neglected and allowed to run to seed, the American culture has followed.

      That’s rather cynical (or merely realist, in my opinion), I know, but it’s how it appears to me. Then again, I see many of my friends’ children (and through the lens of this blog the Spawn) and think that there is a new elite and educated level of society developing out there–it’s just smaller, but no less capable and prepared. We simply have much more social noise to filter out to find the real cream of the crop, as it were, because the sample size of both parents who truly parent and thus children who are truly involved is much smaller than it used to be.

      I just wish I knew how to turn this behemoth of a ship around–as I put it in a previous comment, if I knew that answer I’d be a monetarily wealthy man.

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