On Not Teaching Writing

Just a little whining about Obama’s State of the Union, most of which I liked, except the Sputnik style push for more science and math. That one’s old.  It isn’t change, and it’s part of Arne Duncan’s corporatist agenda to hack apart the teachers’ unions.

No doubt.

Nevertheless, what kind of defense can the humanities mount when the ed schools themselves are doing such a great job of undermining its subjects.

I apologize for dragging you into the old cranky time tunnel of nostalgia with me, but when I was in high school, we wrote. And when I say write, I mean we picked up pens and made marks on the blank page, sometimes staring at it for a few frustrated minutes, before pressing on, but we wrote, sometimes churning out one, two –gasp!–  even three pages in the space of a fifty minute class period.

Today’s ed schools, however, train English teachers to do everything they can to stand between the kid and the page.  It’s called “scaffolding” a term taken from Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, which initially meant something more complicated, but has now been ham-fistedly tacked on whatever silly scrapbook, Disney video, or papier-mache monstrosity the writing teacher must first inflict on his or her students before allowing them to pick up their pens.

First, there must be ceremonial readings of the text, eased through with motivational gimmickry, after which there will be an all too brief prewriting session, one or two graphic organizers, then peer reviews in which peers who cannot write their way out of a cereal box critique one another’s essays, all of this until the students have gained enough distance from both text and prompt that they can’t remember what it was they were to write in the first place.

I should note that I’m sinking to a gimmick myself by typing out this entry on Dr. Wicked’s Write or Die site. I have twenty minutes to do five hundred words, because Dr. Wicked will not give me a graphic organizer, he will not dazzle me with visual aids, or that ludicrous mish mash of stupidity referred to as “scaffolding.” If I do not write, Dr. Wicked will simply start erasing everything I’ve done up to this point, and that will feel bad. Very bad. But you see, we cannot have that, because in this mighty land of hollow self-esteem, we cannot allow our students to feel pressure, receive censure, or encounter a consequence at any moment.

Also, for as useful as they’ve been over the past few thousand years, actual reading and writing have none of the flash of a good Powerpoint presentation, none of the razzle dazzle of faux research, and none of the spurious, reductive labels educational researchers like to slap on kids’ thoughts.

I could complain about the push for math and science, but I won’t. As a graduate of one of the nation’s top ed programs — a fact of which I am not proud– I’d rather call on reformers to divert their attention from so-called “bad” teachers and look, really look at what’s being peddled to aspiring teachers in today’s ed schools. If they do, they might finally find the easy answers they’ve been looking for all along.

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