APADIA 2: In Which I Fume at the NYT and Bad English Teachers
(Aside: I really like the acronym that “A Post a Day in August” makes. I may stick with that through the month.)
So I read an article today in the New York Times that made me BANANAS. (And it wasn’t political. Which is novel.) It’s called either “Why Kids Can’t Write” or “A Wakeup Call on Writing Instruction (Now, What’s an Adverb?)“, depending on where you see it.
(Another aside: I assume the NYT is trying to A/B test their headlines, but isn’t very good at it, which is why I can see both versions. Bless their hearts. But good on them for trying. The latter title is definitely their traditional style one, whereas the the former is much more modern. I’d love to see their analytics reports and see how the results come out, especially based on where the reader is coming from.)
The article was on the art and science of teaching English, and, specifically, whether teachers should focus more on “student-focused” writing that helps students express themselves, or on the nuts and bolts of grammar.
And this is where I started to twitch.
One teacher pointed out that what a student needed more than grammar education was “a sense of ‘ownership’ over her writing,” and said that, as an instructor, “she limits the time she spends covering dull topics like subject-verb agreement.”
” ‘You hope that by exposing them to great writing, they’ll start to hear what’s going on.’ ”
This is horseshit.
“A musical notion of writing — the hope that the ear can be trained to “hear” errors and imitate quality prose — has developed as a popular alternative among English teachers.”
This is TOTAL horseshit.
This is so wrong. It’s lazy and it’s crippling.
You have to teach the rules to teach the subject. Not just English. Anything.
No, it’s not as much fun to learn. And yes, of course, you need to see the fun in it to develop a love for it. But suggesting that you have to turn English class into a motivational exercise that leaves out any of the substance is absolute TRASH that does a huge disservice to already underserved kids.
You don’t teach math by exposing a kid to equations and HOPING that they somehow intuit how they work.
You don’t coach by just letting your kids watch the game, and then merrily send them out on the field to have a go.
You don’t teach music, despite the analogy above, by just listening to music and then setting forth with instruments.
Yes, you CAN learn that way, if you’re lucky, and gifted, and motivated. But that’s not a strategy. It’s an exception.
If you try to do something without understanding how it works, you’re very likely going to get frustrated. To become adept at anything, you have to know the rules.
I was lucky – reading and writing have always come naturally to me. And I was motivated – I love the escapism of stories, and just the feel and touch of words, which have always had a sort of mental tactile-ness to me. (I may have a touch of synesthesia.) But I was also taught properly. My first English teacher – Mrs. Goin, fourth grade – was marvelous, as were my fifth and sixth grade teachers, Miss Kennedy and Mrs. Dillon. For the first three years I was in school, I had teachers who knew that they needed both to make kids understand the rules, AND have fun with them.
I don’t mean for this to be a diatribe against any teachers. I just get SO spun up when I see English being taken for granted. Like it doesn’t deserve instruction every bit as complex as STEM subjects. Like it isn’t full of complexities and gradations and specificities.
To be fair, the article does eventually conclude that a mixed approach is probably best: that you should do a lot to teach kids how to love language, but that you do also have to teach kids the rules. But the fact that anybody thinks otherwise makes me livid. In any subject, if teachers don’t teach the fundamentals because they’re afraid of being boring, they’re keeping their kids from the subject for the sake of their own egos, and that’s just a sin.