Wednesday, February 27

What's Wrong with High School English Classes and How to Fix Them

High school English classes suck. High school students, having spent countless hours wading through the drivel and dreck of their English classes enter into college with fewer and fewer skills. Compared with students even ten years ago, those who take my classes today are poorer readers and writers. For them, correct spelling is a lost art. Basic sentence and paragraph structures no longer exist.

There are myriad reasons why high schools fail in teaching students: federal "oversight" and centralized curriculum, the No Child Left Behind Act (otherwise known as No Child Allowed to Excel), idiotic teacher "accountability" standards, standardized testing, testing standards, replacing teaching with testing, poor texts, poor tests, teachers' unions, general apathy. The list goes on. These all combine into a ghastly leviathan, which swallows the students' will to learn, trapping it in a cavernous gullet, where neither light nor breath of cool air can reach it.

There is, however, one overriding problem which traps and digests high school English students. The main problem is a curriculum designed by idiot professors of education. These have spent countless hours inventing "new" methods of torturing students, convinced in their collective minds that the next new theory will show an increase in SAT and ACT scores. They also demand more and more money, leeching it from teachers, to pay for new administrators, "experts" who design curricula, authors who write textbooks, and middle managers to implement "standards."

The problem would be easy to diagnose and treat, if it weren't for the axiomatic idea that power, once given away, is not given back, except by force. Those placed over our schools and educational system, once they were handed a little authority, turned around and unwisely used it to control and recreate schools in their own elitist image.

The solution, it seems to me, is fairly simple: return to "traditional" methods of teaching English. These methods included reading good books, writing essays, and memorizing grammar and mechanics.

If I were to fix English classes, I'd start by scrapping all the classes as they are currently taught. Let's face it, what high school youth is going to learn to write if he or she cannot read (or worse, hates to read). How can students seriously come to grips with the elitist literature of Faulkner, or Fitzgerald, or Steinbeck, or Joyce? Instead of torturing teens with endless ideas about "notetaking" (as is taught in their current curriculum), about phonetic spelling, about five paragraph essays, about inaccessible writers, why not get them interested in English by interesting them in good stories?

Here's my plan. Instead of the current curriculum, start students at the earliest ages with several years of reading. Instead of reading by historical trend, or by some arbitrary designation of "high art," reading would cover genres. The classes would choose from lists of readable books in several categories: biography, classics, mystery, science fiction, fantasy, action, spy, romance, poetry, historical fiction, humor, horror, and so on. (The book lists would be kept age-appropriate of course.) Teachers would be required to read books aloud in class, and the teens could decide which genres interested them the most and read those on their own. This in turn would spark an interest in reading that modern teens lack.

Of course, such classes don't readily show student progress, improvement, or accountability, all of which seem to be so important to government teaching standards. These classes would be even more disturbing to elitist English teachers, since the books wouldn't include the appallingly pretentious works that have been the standard in English classes since the dawn of the English Ph.D. What is my response to this? Teens won't appreciate so-called high art, if they cannot read. Instead of raising a generation of illiterates, at least we'd have a generation of readers. On the way, they'd learn grammar, spelling, vocabulary, and be introduced to ideas. On the way, they might even learn how to think!

For those students who do become interested in English and American literature, I'd offer an elective entitled "Literature for Pretension." Here is where English teachers could inflict Faulkner, Steinbeck, Melville, or Salinger on their students. (I'd ensure that some readable authors were included in the mix, such as Ray Bradbury or Harper Lee.) Mind you, even in this class, the focus would be on the text, not on the silly liberal metatext that today's postmodernist deconstructionists love to drill into unsuspecting student brains.

What about "critical" reading? In my book, reading is reading. Let's get the children and teens reading first. If they can survive high school without becoming illiterate, then we can worry if they can read technical texts. In this case, interest will drive ability. For example, I learned to read philosophy, history, sociology, economics, and history of religions, not because my high school teachers taught me how to analyze texts, but because my high school teachers didn't succeed in killing off my desire to read.

What about writing? My experience with all ages of students, from grade school through college, clearly indicates that the best writers are those students who also read. I would require a semester of grammar, which included mechanics, spelling, and vocabulary. This class would find practical application, since the youth would be reading along with the grammar. I'd also require one semester of general writing. Part of the semester would be spent writing a standard thesis essay, then editing it. Part of the semester would be spent writing stories and editing them. The editing process is as important as the writing process, and will teach better writing than a myriad theories on the subject.

There you have it - my plan to revolutionize teaching English in the high schools. Of course it will never pass muster with the intellectual elite, with teachers' unions, with government bureaucrats, or with the current collection of leftist ideologues. We've handed the power over to them to "fix" the broken system that their ideology created. Yet, "power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will" (Frederick Douglass). When individuals and parents start demanding back the power to teach the children, perhaps the power elite will be forced to concede it.

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