Archive for May, 2010

Baloney Bingo

Saturday, May 22nd, 2010

What are we to think of a proposal that a school’s mission should be to produce “motiv­ated global contributors”? The proposer said in support of the phrase that “I like the word ‘global.’” Now, I like the word “nectarine” but would not want it in a school’s mission.  Nor, even if I particularly liked the word “global,” would I want it in the phrase “motivated global contributors.”

The reason for suspecting this phrase has to do with the ideal of aptness in language—not an easy ideal to work with. That is why most civilized countries insist on years of instruction in language, why people who are keen on words push beyond their lessons to explore what words can do, and why Shelley would not defend poetry by saying that it helps one pass multiple choice tests. It is why learning a language is more about understanding than about knowledge, though it is very much about knowledge.

Given the need for years of instruction mixed with and followed by more years of exploration and acquaintance, it is shocking how little the teaching profession thinks of good language, to judge by what it permits and even encourages in profes­sional speech and writing.

Consider again the proposed mission statement: we don’t know what a “global contributor” is. The phrase carries a vague suggestion, maybe of making a great impact in the world, or maybe of thinking of the consequences of what one does for the world as a whole, or maybe of philanthropy on a worldwide scale, or maybe of returning to the Earth what one takes from it, whatever that may be.

Another problem is the insistence on motivation, as if having motives would be supererogatory normally, but not at our school. And never mind what the motives may be, so long as we have them.

It is hard, when confronted with an expression like this one, to avoid conclud­ing that the proposer doesn’t particularly care what it means so long as it “sounds good.” A “good sound” doesn’t even have to be euphonious; it merely needs to be vaguely suggestive of a moral or social good—the more vaguely, the better.

The field of education is full of this kind of talk and writing, of which the mission statement is not a particularly egregious example. It does not have to be so. Read excellent writers on teaching—Plato, Rabelais, William James, Mortimer Adler—and you move into another climate of discourse, one free of the usual dreary showers.

I think there are two explanations for the predominance of bad language in education. One is that we are nearly the world’s oldest profession, many of whose excellent practitioners have been leaving their thoughts behind for thousands of years. Someone who whose ambition embraces more than teaching—who may be a Global Education Contributor—may feel daunted by or resentful of this repository of well-written wisdom and advice. Such a person will try for new language if he or she can’t come up with new thoughts; and if the previous language was apt, the new language is liable to a falling-off.

The other is educationists’ predilection for baloney, a kind of talk that Professor Barzun calls “flatulent Newspeak.” This taste has many explanations, none of them to the credit of the profession. Professor Frankfurt wrote a famous philosophy paper about one variety of baloney, “bullshit,” which arises from a lack of concern with accuracy and the truth as compared with, say, the wish to sound good or to say what people want to hear.

No signs exist anywhere of a general move away from baloney.  What are ordinary teachers to do when presented, as they inevitably will be, with language that offends their intellect and their aesthetic and moral sense? I am grateful to a colleague for a suggestion: the game of Baloney Bingo.

To play, produce a series of bingo cards, but instead of having the numbers 1 – 75, these cards should have a word or phrase taken from current baloney in the field. Each letter (B-I-N-G-O) has fifteen possible words or phrases. Here are fifteen suggestions:













personal opinion




Put five of these phrases under the letter “B” instead of the five usual numbers. Do so with all five letters except the free space. Distribute cards to your colleagues, who then take them to faculty meetings, teachers’ conferences, and professional development courses. Each time you hear one of the words or phrases, mark it. The first person to get BINGO wins.

It probably won’t do to interrupt meetings and conferences with cries of BINGO, so you should just note the time when you hear a phrase. After the meeting, compare cards so that the teacher with the earliest time of completion wins. Beware of offering prizes for bingo games at conferences, lest they produce a perverse side-effect: Imagine a really dreadful BINGO-maker giving a talk that would normally be shunned. Suddenly this BMer will become the most popular speaker at the conference. One way to judge a conference is to see how quickly it produces BINGOs.

Baloney Bingo may not solve the problem of awful language, but it will allow you to have fun with it, and teachers must often take their rewards where they can find them.

Montillation in Progress

Sunday, May 16th, 2010

            A bright student of mine recently asked me what a “judicious tone” in writing was. I explained, and he brightened up, telling me that he had “guessed right” on a standardized test he had just taken. That test had a multiple choice question asking about the tone of a passage he had read, and he chose the right one not because he knew judicious writing when he saw it but because he could eliminate other possi­bilities from the five given him and guess fortunately among the remainder.

            This is distressing on two counts. One is that any guess on a five-choice question has one chance in five of being “right,” even on an answer requiring discrimination and judgment. Let students hazard guesses at the tone of a piece in an essay and see how lucky they get if they do not know about tone to begin with. 20% is too high a chance for random guesswork to be credited.

            The other is that students learn by taking such tests to associate good luck with “being right.” The problem with thinking this way is that if you get the “right answer” by guessing, you are not right, you are lucky; and there is a big difference between them. A multiple-choice test can’t distinguish between someone who is actually able to discuss the tone of a piece and someone who is a fortunate pointer. To the argument that four or five questions about tone would separate the knowledgeable test-taker from the lucky one, the answer is that this weeding-out is highly probable but in no way guaranteed and that in order to do the weeding the test has to sacrifice coherence. It would do so by taking four or five accidentally concatenated passages and questioning the test-taker about each one’s tone. By contrast, an essay on one passage or work could require a discussion of tone without sacrificing the coherence and depth that a thoughtfully composed essay question allows—requires—students to confer on their understanding.  This, not luck, is what students should associate with the tests they take.

            This student of mine and his classmates read a short piece last semester on “The Montillation of Traxoline” and took the short-answer quiz that followed. Traxoline doesn’t exist, making it rarer even than a judicious tone, and there is no process of montillation for traxoline or anything else. Nonetheless, my students were able to get 100% on the quiz. They did so by using their understanding of language and tests to mimic understanding of a subject.

            For all I know, someone will think these good examples of something called “test-taking skills,” but there is a difference between being able to take a test with confidence and aplomb and being able to wrench rightness out of it with luck and mimicry instead of knowledge, skill (no plural), and understanding. If that is what we want, then we are no different from Harry Potter’s nemesis Professor Umbridge, who says that getting students to pass tests is what schools are for.

Reading, Rassling, and Ruminating

Wednesday, May 12th, 2010

Why might teachers have silent reading during class time? One simple reason is the guarantee reading in a group provides that students will encounter the reading matter as a group, with all the benefits that a group of inquiring students can provide each other: a colloquium-in-progress. A second is the guarantee against contamination by “study guides” while the students wrestle with their reading unaided.

(TV rassling sometimes takes place in teams. When the protagonist-rassler tires, he signals his brutish teammate to come in and thrash the adversary. The thrashing has often been planned ahead of time. A student using “study guides” instead of his own thinking is like a team rassler who calls in a brute to give the material the needed going-over, usually in a highly predictable and conventional way. And, yes, such a student does regard his material as The Adversary.)

Yet another is that in a classroom reading can occur with an enforced quiet that students, left on their own, often don’t bring to their tasks. I am thinking of the use of electronic entertainment during reading, or an open cell phone, or other distractions from steady work. We can assure ourselves that students have an ambience of study that allows them to follow the thread of a complex sentence or view the unfolding of a subtle or difficult idea without pulling away from it and then having to re-enter. Finally, it can be an entryway into another assignment that dovetails with it—usually discussion or writing.

High school students can also benefit from being read to. An experienced and practiced reader can help students make sense of what they read and can shape their encounter with it. Reading aloud also helps them explore the possibilities of language by realizing how the material can be shaped by music and sympathy, which is what reading aloud provides. Many students, particularly those who learn best through the ear, will find that literature, particularly poetry, when read aloud leaps off the page at them.

Reading aloud may even shake their general perceptions. One of my students listened with amazement and some disapproval as I read his class Lord Macaulay’s dramatic account of the execution of the Duke of Monmouth from his History of England. When I was finished, I could tell that it had shaken something up. He protested that that couldn’t be good history because it was interesting and because it adopted a point of view. For two days he tried to fit Macaulay into his view of history as a series of undistinguished rubble-heaps compiled by the writers of the textbooks he had been reading. He finally announced to me and the class that he’d decided what he had thought about history was wrong and that an historian should be obliged to engage his readers. (Or hers: he also heard Wedgwood on Richelieu.)

For reading a teacher should choose something that plays to his strengths as a reader. I have had good results with Tacitus (the fire of Rome and the “notorious Christians”), Flannery O’Connor (“The Enduring Chill”), Yeats (“Lapis Lazuli” and “Circus Animals’ Desertion”) and Hopkins (“Binsey Poplars”), but any good teacher will be able to choose some personal best readings. One class was struck dumb and breathless by the ending of “The Enduring Chill,” and dumb breathlessness was not that class’s usual response to anything. Teachers may also judge one class receptive to one reading and another to another: I read O’Connor to this one class but not to the others I had at that time.

To return to silent reading: it can serve yet another purpose for an experienced teacher. I usually assign silent reading at the beginning of the year to all my classes as a way of judging how fast and well they read. I use subsequent reading-sessions when I think something subtly wrong might be afflicting a student and needs smoking out. One of my 9th-graders kept having some serious and inexplicable difficulty getting what he read.  Over a period of time, as I watched him read in class, I was able to see that his eyes did not fall on the page right. (I’d watch him read from my desk, where I could monitor his downturned eyes). I finally wrote a note home suggesting that he be examined by an ophthalmologist. It turned out that he had an unusual kind of strabismus that was corrigible by eye-exercises. The happy result was that a couple of years later he was reading successfully along with his classmates.

It’s a pity that the average beginning teacher does not last five years in the profession, though some schools welcome short-tenured teachers as a way of reducing costs. The problem is that short tenure of teaching also reduces quality. Many of the insights I gained into reading, both silently and aloud, including most that lay behind the successes I report here, came to me after I had been teaching five years.

Yum! Into the Learning-blender

Friday, May 7th, 2010

On a lark I Googled the word “McLearning” and was rewarded with a visit to the web page of an education processing company. The opening statement on the page notes the likelihood of a “further shift towards a multiple learning channel paradigm” while offering to “leverage the most effective content delivery format,” allowing its customers “flexibility in determining the best learning modalities for training on-demand and blended learning.”

Blended learning… Hardly are those words out, as Yeats says, when I think of another blended product and the company that sells it. Beef Products Inc. makes something called “processed beef,” a kind of ammoniated bovine slurry. Its factories form the “product” into standardized patties, which it then freezes and sells to schools to feed to their students in hamburgers.

Not too long before this e-visit I saw an English teachers’ web page with a blurb for a book called Literacies, the Arts and Multimodality. The use of literacies, skills, competencies and other such plurals is always suspect (“When skills came in, skill went out.”–Jacques Barzun); so is the use of multimodality, a term borrowed seemingly though inexplicably from statistics. It is hard to be sure what the word means outside statistics, but one giveaway of purpose if not of meaning was an explanation elsewhere of the concept’s value in “distance and internet-mediated learning.”

I have thought for some time that education “theory” is moving towards an acceptance of and preference for methods of teaching that will be equally “good” when used by a live teacher and by a screen. This movement coincides with the movement towards the kind of learning that can be “delivered” “multimodally” and evaluated by standardized tests. I am afraid that the result will be a kind of junk learning that we should be resisting not welcoming.

Many explanations suggest themselves for this trend. One is that people are not put off by processed learning any more than they are by processed beef. Another is that in times of scarcity, haste, or mistaken priorities, people will look for feeding and education on the industrialized cheap even if regular diets of McLearning and processed beef are bad for them. A third is that the push towards an “accountability” based on “objective” testing is taking finesse and subtlety out of teaching and learning, whose victims come to find a better diet unpalatable and reject it when it is presented to them.

What a Book is For

Saturday, May 1st, 2010

A recent article in The New York Times reported the city schools’  ending book purchases at book fairs of small “trade-book” vendors in favor of mail order from large suppliers operating in remote locations. While it is always sad to see a local fabric of professional relationships ripped up by the demand for cheapness, that was not what made me take a second look at this article.

It incidentally reported on what trade books the schools bought and explained what trade books are for. The article said that these books, including novels and works of non-fiction, “are intended to fill out lesson plans” and “supplement textbooks.” I guess that in this view books of poetry are also intended to fill out lesson plans, though the article doesn’t mention them. It did mention that the city schools spend a third of their book budget on trade books. This is sad news to someone like me, who have taught English without a textbook for many years, as is the view that “trade books,” i.e., books, might be considered “supplements” in an English class.

Are the books most ordered by the New York schools novels? Are they works of non-fiction like, say, Richard Hofstadter’s America at 1750? Are they poetry anthologies like The Rattle Bag, edited by a Nobel-Prize-winning poet and a Poet Laureate of England? No, they are guides to prepare students to take standardized tests. This dispiriting statistic is a confirmation, if one were needed, of the test mania now submerging American public schools, those dikeless Low Countries of learning. If I were to recommend a “trade book,” i.e., a book, to read in order to understand where test mania comes from, I would choose Charles Mackay’s Memoirs of Extroardinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, whose chapter on “Tulipomania” I have shared with students for many years.

To return to “trade books,” i.e., books: which textbook would they supplement? So many English textbooks are so bad: The sidebar distractions—the smeary dreary badly colored pictures—the little boxes of crap—the inane assignments: where does one begin the catalogue? You might say, “Rather than begin a catalogue, begin with the literature.”

Let’s take poetry as an example and counterexample. I mentioned The Rattle Bag, which many of my classes of 9th-graders have used for many years. This book is so immediately appealing to them that I find the best way to introduce them to it is to give them half an hour or so just to browse and read. By the end of that time most have found a favorite, shared it with the kids around them, and begun looking for more. By the end of the poetry unit their favorites and mine have become a part of their study and experience. And their favorites can be surprising: not just Nash or Frankie and Johnny, but also Blake and even Thomas Hardy.

I attribute the success of this anthology to the likes and dislikes of the anthologists, who clearly chose poems that tickled them or took the tops of their heads off. Can a textbook be so good? It is difficult. In 1967 Lionel Trilling published a textbook called The Exper­ience of Literature. The success of this book was a sad one. It contained fifty-two prefaces to works in the collection, each of them a masterpiece of criticism written by a master of prose who could have the top of his head taken off by a good poem. Teachers complained that the prefaces left them little to say, so they were removed (the prefaces, not the complaining teachers). Students were still left with Shakespeare and Sophocles, but deprived of a keen critical intelligence by their side. The prefaces now appear separately as a “trade book,” i.e., a book. I use one of them, passing it out to the class, when teaching Hopkins’s “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo” to 12th-graders. The textbook with prefaces is out of print.

Wallace Stevens complains of the white nightgowns in his poem “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock” that “none of them are strange.” What would he think of the poetry collected in many current textbooks? It is unexceptionable, and it can fill out a lesson plan, but it’s like a 180-day diet of mashed-potato sandwiches. When a highly capable student of mine, a Berber from Algeria, decided to examine Philip Larkin’s “High Windows” in the collection of the same name to see how it gets from its startling opening to its stunning conclusion, he was not in the mood for mashed potatoes, and he should not have had to eat them. He engaged forcefully with the poem and came to an exceptionally good understanding of it, and his classmates congratulated him.

Everything he (and thereby his classmates) came to understand that week about English was the result of his engagement with a poem that he could not shake off. By contrast, most students have no trouble shaking off the material in a bad textbook, and I am sure they will shake off much of what they “learn” in a course of preparation for a standardized English test. We would do far better to imagine lesson plans supplementing good books than the other way around, and to teach those books, not the tests that follow them.