Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Teaching Good and Teaching Well

I was both a fan and a detractor of English class, maybe because until high school, junior year, I had some pretty lousy English teachers (the one exception, eighth grade, had a baby and was out half the year; her replacement was less than stellar). College was, for the most part, much better. Want to know why my feelings are generally negative? It's pretty much summed up in this comic.

Zach Weiner is one of the funniest, smartest comic writers I’ve come across, and once again he hit the nail on the head. I like novels. I like discussing novels. Heck, I even like writing about novels. But damn it, I don’t want to create a newspaper on the events in Verona during Romeo and Juliet. That is stupid. It’s not analysis of the novel, it’s not opinion and it’s not teaching me how to write. It’s busy work, a stupid task that has no educational value (my teaching friends, feel free to correct me, but I can only give a student’s opinion).

My favorites were teachers who taught, actually taught. They made us read The Great Gatsby or Great Expectations or Othello, but had us do something interesting with it—for Gatsby, we broke into groups and reenacted the chapters; for Expectations, we wrote our own ending; Othello was a study on violence. I also loved just sitting around and talking about the book, hearing what others thought about it. One thing about college: there were very few English exams. There were many papers, but no essay questions or where did the title for Of Mice and Men come from? I liked that, partially because I just love writing in general, but also because it wasn’t about the memorization of facts, it was about discussing them.

It makes me smile that there are teachers out there who work so hard to find ways to engage their students. For example, Julie Johnson wrote about how she uses what is popular with her students to teach them! She even had the audacity to apply for (and win, by the way) a grant to use a Nintendo Wii to teach in her classroom. Shocking. Also, brilliant. I wish I was in grades two to five and in her classroom.

Honestly, I wasn’t the best student at that age. Up until high school, an A was a rare occurrence. I never did my homework. I didn’t see the point of studying for tests. I didn’t listen in class (I didn’t afterward so much either, but I did try a little harder : ). And do you know what my favorite classes were? The ones were we got to talk about things I actually knew. In twelfth grade, my teacher had us write a paper on similarities between Hamlet and…Seinfeld. Loved it.

Teaching is a tricky business, of that I have no doubt. I can’t imagine how hard it is to ignite passion in those who don’t give a damn about reading, grammar, math and science. But I like Julie’s style and I think she has some great ideas. They certainly remind me of happy memories. I know there is a time and a place for empirical study, the Socratic method, and even wordy lectures. But primary school isn’t one of them.


  1. We've all had English teachers who sucked every bit of joy and soul out of reading that they could.

    For me, it was a crone named Mrs. Diamond.

  2. I hear ya-- I'm always ranting about cruddy English teaching. :( One reason I've never wanted to become a teacher.

    Was it your experience that the English teachers and students who loved reading never really got along? That was part of my trouble, unfortunately.

  3. William: yeah, I had a few of those. One was a long term sub who was so hated, she up and quit one morning. She was actually the woman who asked us what the title of Of Mice and Men came from. And we had to answer from the frigging Gaelic saying.

    Su: I don't know. I can't say yes because three of the greatest teachers I ever had were English teachers. And so were three of the worst. I'm not sure if it's specialty specific. I think they were just lousy teachers and if I wasn't already a reader, they would never have inspired me to be one (quite the opposite in fact).

  4. I had a very gloomy english teacher in hs. Everything was really depresing that we read. She picked some really violent and icky storie by Poe, which I hated. The only bright spot was Tale of Two Cities which remains one of my favorite books.


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