Mad Dogs and English

maxresdefaultI’ve loved to read from the time that I was quite young. I suspect that the warm feelings that I get from escaping into a well written tale began with the times when my father entertained me with his collection of fairytales and poetry. He’s been gone since I was only eight years old, but I have a vivid image of him devouring all forms of print with a joy that literally lit up his countenance. I suppose that in a Pavlovian sense I associate the act of reading with the love that my father gave so generously to me. For that reason delving into books is an immensely pleasurable experience. Sadly there are many for whom reading is an onerous task associated with negative encounters with teachers who were less about actually leading them to an appreciation of great works of literary art, and more about pounding them with cold rubrics and grading systems.

Besides learning from my dad at an early age that reading is one of our most glorious gifts I was lucky enough to have a high school English teacher who made every aspect of exploring the English language a beloved experience. I so looked forward to his class every single day that I was inspired to major in English in college. My professors there often asked me where I had received my educational background because I always seemed to be a bit more advanced in my command of the English language than my peers. Mostly it was because my teacher had inspired all of us to love the poetry, literature, grammar and usage of our language so that we became prolific writers and lifelong readers. It was his enthusiasm that lured us, not sets of rules. Like my father he understood that first one must appreciate the words, then the interpretations and ability to string them together comes almost naturally.

Recently I heard of a young man who has been working quite hard to please his freshman high school advanced placement English teacher. He faithfully read the book that she had assigned for summer reading and carefully followed her instructions for writing a report. He is a rather self motivated soul, and so he had completed the assignment far in advance of the opening of school so that he would be ready to present it to the teacher on the first day of class. The floods came to Houston delaying the beginning of the school year, but when the doors finally opened he was ready. The teacher decided to give everyone some extra time and refused to take his early submission. When she finally collected all of the work he was more than happy to hand his over to her. Nine weeks later she had still not graded the papers. When she finally did she essentially gave everyone the same mark and never returned the work so that they might determine the areas where they might improve.

A similar thing happened with a poster project that she gave them after reading their first novel of the year. The teacher provided the students with a rubric and emphasized that it was not an art project. The students only task was to select one of three themes and then find quotes from the book that represented one of that idea. The rubric instructed them to choose ten references, no more and no less. Neatness was a consideration, but not elaborate artistry. They eager student selected a black poster board and attempted to find a variety of color references from throughout the story. He meticulously typed them in the required font and carefully affixed them onto paper of the colors that they represented. Then placed them on the black background. He noticed that they represented the colors of the spectrum, so he used some colorful crystals to create his title in those hues. He carefully checked each aspect of the rubric and felt that he had a great submission. When he got to class he was proud of his efforts until the teacher began gushing over posters that included detailed drawings and other artistic creativity. In the end the students who had turned their projects into works of art worthy of a gallery earned the high grades and those who had followed the instructions on the rubric only received average marks with no comments as to why this was so.

With only another rubric to follow and no direct guidance for mastery, the young man recently wrote a research paper, his first ever for this same teacher. He worked quite hard but was somewhat unsure as to what his teacher might be hoping to see. Still he was confident that he had done a more than adequate job, so he was utterly dismayed when he saw online that he had made a sixty seven on the paper. He literally broke into tears as he relayed his frustration to his mom who shared his story with me hoping to garner from advice regarding how to proceed from this point forward. 

I could not help thinking of my old English teacher who had a very different and humane style of teaching. When I wrote my first research paper for him it was a mess, but he did not fail me. Instead he used the moment as a great learning experience by patiently demonstrating to me where I had gone wrong and how I might improve my writing in the future. After that I became well known for having superior skills in writing research papers. Again and again all the way through graduate school I used the techniques that he showed me. He might have humiliated me and left me wondering if I was somehow deficient, but he chose to help me master the technique of composing a worthy paper. The end result was that I not only improved, but I also came to love writing. To this very day he remains my all time favorite teacher.

In my final years in education I mentored teachers and helped them to improve their skills. The best among them always understood that their job was not to catch students failing, but rather to help them to become proficient. I remember attending the class of an English teacher who had his students enthusiastically quoting Beowulf as though is was a modern day rap. When some of his kids totally missed the mark on their senior research papers he asked me to work with him in an effort to help them to edit and rewrite their compsisitons so that they would earn satisfactory marks. Like my old teacher he encouraged his students every step of the way and in the end they were all much stronger writers capable of deep literary analysis.

I saw a novelist on PBS last week who reminded me with his brilliant words of just how we learn to be courageous when it comes to mastering the intricacies of language. He likened the fear of reading and writing to a child who is terrified of dogs. He pointed out that we would not force such a youngster to interact with a snarling pitbull in order to learn how to be more comfortable with canines. Instead we would let him/her cuddle sweet puppies and then slowly but surely provide interactions with bigger animals. He suggested that the way to teach the beauty of the English language to children is to begin with little chunks in the form of poems about topics that they might love, not worrying so much about how well they will interpret the words. An ability to think critically about what we read and write will evolve as we tackle more and more difficult tracts because we so love the very idea of reading and then writing about what we have learned from the words.

It saddens me to think that a young man who approached his English class with so much care and enthusiasm before school had even begun is now feeling incompetent and negative about the processes of understanding and using his language. It might have been a grand adventure like mine was, but the teacher in her unfeeling ways has made it an onerous task through which he must endure. I can only hope that this will not color his lifelong feelings about something that should instead be beautiful.