The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"It's good that everything's gone, except their language, which is everything."...  ...Derek Walcott in his poem "North and South".

Commentary of the Day - April 2, 2004:  Rubric's Cube.  Guest commentary by Jason Berry.

In his most recent Irascible Professor post, Poor Elijah suggests that a war rages on between the camps of those who teach through allowing students to "discover" and those who teach through "direct" instruction. His comments, erudite and acerbic, address math and its close cousins, the hard sciences.  Striking me as peculiarly absent from his discussion is the softer, though no less contentious, subject of English.  Educators in this field have begun to stray from rigorous and demanding expectations from themselves and students for the past few years, detrimentally affecting an entire generation, no less the immediate present.

Over the past two years, a common buzzword has flitted in and out of our department's office: "rubrics".  (Ed. note: for those readers who may not be familiar with the latest educational jargon, a "rubric" is a set of rules or directions for carrying out an assignment.  Frequently, the "rubric" also informs the student in detail about how each component of the assignment will be graded.)  While I am not against the idea of standards or equipping our students with a knowledgeable database for what approximates good writing and worthy reading, providing students with a rubric hardly guarantees them the ability to reason and argue for themselves.  (Never mind giving them the ability to write competently, which, by the way, requires students to understand grammar and syntax before composing.)

Rather than teach students to discover literature and its value to society, too many teachers, at least the ones I have observed, cater to a set of tasks.  Recently, while talking to a group of students about cinema and its current state of decay, I had a few underclassmen run up to me and ask me if I would moderate a "literature circle" for them.  Dumbfounded, I asked what one was.  The students pulled out a set of papers, each one delineating a task: note taker, passage finder, fact checker, and so on.  I asked them to explain the purpose of this task.  The response I received was startling: "Oh, we just have to have someone observe us talk about the novel we're reading.  Can you, um, grade us on the following?"  Reluctantly, I agreed, but with the caveat that I would not grade them individually on their own parts; rather, I would grade each student holistically.

We sat in a room for almost an hour, and at the end, I announced to their horror that they had failed.  My reason behind their failure is not so much that they performed poorly: on the contrary, left to his own, each student did admirably well; however, not one student could weave that linear thread to the other's part.  They approached literature as if it is something to be done rather than consumed.

So it is in most English classrooms around the nation.  Teachers focus on preparing their students to pass a mandated statewide test, neglecting to instill in their students a passion for reading, analyzing, and writing.  That student is rare who can do all three of these and do them well.  Rarer still, though, are those teachers who guide their students in understanding that that literature, whether poetry, drama, novel, or essay, is a fundamental element of life: through words, whether English or Romance language, life springs forth.  The teaching of literature and writing are one in the same, a blending of both "discovery" and "directness."

The film theorist, David Bordwell, argues that "meaning is made not found."  Such a statement applies to both cinema and literature equally and must be understood by students and teachers alike.  Many teachers I have run across or heard chatting in offices advocate one correct reading of a text.  I cringe at this idea, for certainly "inaccurate" readings of texts exist, but to suggest that only one "true" idea is found within a novel or poem suggests that writers embed each of their texts with clues.  Instead, teachers need to embrace plurality, asking their students what they found with the reading the night before, or even pausing for an entire period on an opening chapter, a scene, or a stanza. Allow students to come to terms with the work rather than treating the text as something to be solved.

I lament, however, that I must make the following supposition about high school English departments: The biggest problem in English departments across the nation is that too many English teachers lack the proper study of literature, grammar, and rhetoric.  For too long, the right and proper teaching of English has been filled with time consuming games that foster a dedicated practice of classroom managerial skills that neglect close readings, historicity, and rhetorical analysis.  If teachers learn to embrace the rigors of reading, then, I might argue, so, too, would students.  Indeed, critical thinking would begin again to shape the both the present and future, readying us for years of positive productivity rather than negative naysaying.

©2004 Jason Berry
Jason Berry is an English teacher from Massachusetts.  He currently is teaching literature and writing at the EF International Language School.

The IP comments: To be fair to Poor Elijah, he did focus his attention on the teaching of English in the middle schools in his excellent guest commentary of December 1, 2003 -- The Great American English Class.

Jason's point about the use of rubrics is a good one.  In the IP's experience these crutches do more harm than good.

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