Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Step One: Read the Paper

Should teachers follow scripts? Over at Joanne Jacobs' joint, she cites the Fordham Foundation folks, who think it's a good idea. The foundation blogger suggests doctors can use scripted formulas, so it ought to be good enough for us.

Will scripts make teachers just get in and out and get the job done? Or are teachers supposed to be "creative?" There are some interesting comments, and I was struck by that of teacher-union critic/ weirdo spy-character/ Intercepts writer Mike Antonucci:

Truly creative people in any profession are those who have mastered the fundamentals and so know what they are “departing” from.

Maybe architecture or engineering is a better analogy than medicine. Architects can be astoundingly creative, but the structure still has to stand.

I agree completely with that, and it reminded me of a quote from jazz great Charlie Parker:

You've got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.

While our goals may be different from Charlie's, he and Mike make the point that mastery of one's field is, or at least should be, a given. Great musicians are not necessarily great teachers, as teachers must not only know the subject, but be able to share their understanding with others. And great teachers don't require the depths of creativity of geniuses like Parker. Still, no one wants to hear musicians who can't play, and no one wants teachers who don't understand their own subjects.

Then we get to the point of "creativity," which Right-Wing Prof more or less wiped the floor with yesterday. As an ESL teacher, I'm often assigned to teach grammar to beginners. My classes heavily emphasize basic written and oral communication skills. It's relatively rare that kids resist acquiring such necessary skills, but you do see kids like that now and then. I'm often amazed to find the reading/ writing teacher (my co-teacher) giving 90s to kids who can't express themselves verbally, and who've failed every test I've given (with grades in the teens or lower).

When I approach the co-teacher, the responses I get are things like, "Oh, she drew such a beautiful picture," or "He was a big help with the bulletin board."

Now here's where I may (or may not) diverge from the prof--I don't consider the pictures and bulletin boards to constitute "creativity," but something altogether different. While it may be nice to have a bunch of teenagers draw pictures, and it may impress administrators to see them hanging on the wall, I don't see how such practices help them to learn English. On the back of my trailer are a bunch of pictures representing To Kill a Mockingbird, accompanied by descriptions that are quite obviously plagiarized. They look good, but reflect neither comprehension of the novel nor evidence that any kid involved actually read it. Don't even think about critical thought or love of literature.

Now if our goals are strictly to raise test scores, real creativity is probably of little importance. When I teach my poor ESL kids how to pass the English Regents exam, I just make things as simple as possible and then drill them to death. I haven't been able to imagine, or "create," if you will, a better way.

But if I'm teaching literature, there's more to it, and I don't really trust scripts I haven't written myself. I'm trying to share my love of literature, not that of some anonymous hack writer from Baron's prep books. Here's what I wrote in Joanne Jacobs' comment section:

I’ve followed pre-written lessons to teach math, and I did better with them, as I’m totally unqualified to teach math. But I’ve also seen pre-written lessons for novels that were total crap, and I’m fairly convinced the teacher I found using them hadn’t actually bothered to read the books he was teaching.

Scripts can vary in quality just as much as teachers. If administrators get good teachers, and stop making people like me teach math, we may not need scripts at all.

Hence, my lack of enthusiasm about scripts. If you're trying to inspire kids to love reading, there's an element of seduction, of pulling them away from the television, the PSP, the Wii, the cellphone, the Ipod, and countless other diversions. I think you have to be tricky, unscrupulous, and yes, creative, to accomplish a goal like that.

Second graders can read scripts. Teachers ought to be held to a higher standard than that. There are, in fact, some people who think teachers ought to be untrained replaceable cogs. I'm not one of them.

I want people who know their subjects to teach. I also want people who are smart, people with quick minds and good judgment teaching my kid and yours. Let the organ grinder's monkey follow a script.

Good teachers can do better.

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