Wednesday, December 19, 2007

an open letter to the english teachers of america

First, I will share with you what bothered me in the first place: I'm teaching "The Red Wheelbarrow," by William Carlos Williams, in English 11: Literature. During my prep period yesterday, I was doing a Google search to see if there were any intelligent essays about the poem on the web. (If you're wondering, lots of essays, very few of them intelligent.) But I came across one in particular that made me want to punch out my computer screen. It's by a woman named Lezlie Laws Couch, and she begins by telling the story of how she met up with some ex-students who were complaining about poetry because they didn't like "counting beats," and who asked questions like, "Who could ever figure out what those poets were trying to say?" She goes on to say that she later looked back at the materials she had used for the class those students had taken with her and was "horrified" by what she found. After finding worksheets about meter, literary devices, etc., she claims that her "stomach was in knots."

Second, I will share with you the problem that Miss Couch illustrates: As I read publications like NEA Today and the WEAC newsletter, I find with increasing frequency articles that seem to have the same core thesis. Basically, students (and sometimes teachers) don't enjoy the nuts and bolts of reading and writing, so we should find ways to teach the latter while circumventing the former. No one wants to talk about which syllables are stressed or unstressed--we'd much rather discuss theme and imagery. No one wants to diagram sentences--we'll just teach all that mechanical stuff through their writing. Hogwash.

Third, I will share my opinion on this matter, which I hinted at with the final sentence (a fragment, for those of you who had Miss Couch for English) of the previous paragraph: You're an English teacher, for crying out loud. I have often observed that I would be a horrible football coach. I have a rudimentary knowledge of the game, and I've done enough coaching in my life that I could probably keep the players somewhat organized and focused. However, I'd call too many flea flickers. Seriously, I love those gadget plays. We'd be 4th and goal from the opponent's 1-yard line, and I'd call a triple-reverse halfback option pass. We wouldn't even have a punter because all we'd ever do is fake punts. Sometimes on third down. The Couch Approach to Language Arts is tantamount to the Baker Approach to Football. Sure there are fun things about English that the kids need to be exposed to--that, for the most part, is what got us into this field. But I think an English teacher ought to sort of love punctuation and rhyme and meter and everything else too. Almost to the degree that people think you're strange. Off the top of my head, I can think of six grammar/writing books I've purchased in the last four or five years and read for pleasure. This is not to say that I am the standard by which English teachers should be measured. (It's also not to say that I'm not--I'll leave that up to you.) It is to say that I'm tired of people thinking that we (teachers) need to cater to them (students) in our classrooms!

So to the English teachers of America, keep on diagramming those sentences! Don't let your students talk you out of a lecture on the finer points of the semicolon! And for Pete's sake, don't stop banging out that iambic tetrameter on your desk while those ungrateful miscreants half-heartedly recite "Because I could not stop for Death"! You're fighting the good fight!

Later gators.

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